Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Joe Gonzales speaks after being sworn in.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has signed a policy relaxing criminal charges on some marijuana misdemeanor cases. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Constable Michelle Barrientes Vela (Pct. 2) fired indignant comments at the Bexar County commissioners at their Tuesday meeting after a story about her possible removal was published in a local newspaper.

“I have done nothing wrong,” she told the commissioners while flanked by more than a dozen of her deputies.

Vela appeared at commissioners court after learning that Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had asked District Attorney Joe Gonzales to brief commissioners on the removal process for an elected official.

However, Gonzales said he decided not to appear in front of commissioners Tuesday due to a conflict of interest because the district attorney’s office is representing Vela in an unrelated civil lawsuit.

“We are in a bit of an awkward situation,” Gonzales told the Rivard Report. “We are her lawyers. It would create a conflict of interest to be representing the county and at the same time be proceeding to do something like this. That’s not to say at some point we won’t be ready to go forward on a presentation for removal, but this is not the appropriate time. We are asking to allow us to wait until it is appropriate.”

Gonzales said two of Vela’s employees filed a complaint against her with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year. The EEOC did not return immediate requests for comment.

Vela drew the attention of county commissioners after a local resident, Jesus Reyes, complained that the constable forced him to pay her deputies on Easter for providing security. Reyes said Vela showed up in uniform at Rodriguez Park on the West Side, where he had reserved a pavilion and required payment of $50 an hour, though the county had already arranged for peace officers to watch all county parks that day, according to a report in the San Antonio Express-News.

Vela said Tuesday that she had attempted to rent the same pavilion that Reyes had reserved, and was told by parks management that she would not be able to use it. She said she instead paid $47 to use a kitchen in the area. She said that she saw guests at Reyes’ event drinking alcohol and told them they needed to pay for security, and that Reyes gave her $50 an hour, which she said is the typical rate for a holiday per officer. He gave her $50 an hour for two officers total.

“No one ever squeezed money out of anyone,” she said.

Another resident had a similar interaction with Vela on Easter, according to a report from Thomas Guevara, chief of staff to the county manager. The resident’s family had paid $300 for security to the Constable Precinct 2 office for an event scheduled from 2-8 p.m. When family members showed up at Rodriguez Park at 8 a.m. to set up, Vela told them they could not be there until security arrived.

“The constituent left the park feeling disappointed in how her family was treated by the constable, stated that Constable Vela was ‘confrontational,’ and had received conflicting information about Precinct 2 Constable Office on when they could set up,” the report stated.

As for Vela’s potential removal from office, Gonzales said any resident of Bexar County who has lived in the county for more than six months can submit a petition asking that she be removed.

“If a citizen files a petition for her removal, it’s basically a lawsuit,” he said. “It gets put on the court docket, and it begins the court process. We wouldn’t have any direct involvement in that.”

But while the district attorney’s office continues to represent Vela in the EEOC lawsuit, he will not brief the commissioners on how the removal process works, Gonzales said.

Meanwhile, the Easter incidents prompted commissioners to examine how security is provided at county parks and other rules regulating their use. They voted Tuesday to establish a new parks policy, and staff was directed to review all regulations of county parks. 

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said he looked at the “hodge-podge” of security and rental policies in county parks and found that policies had not been reviewed since 1995.

“If you were renting a pavilion in a precinct in one park, you had to go through a certain office to get security,” he said. “In another precinct, you might go through the constable. I said it might make sense to have uniformity.”

Staff will also work on a streamlined policy to determine what events require security and when to hire officers to provide that security, as well as putting payment and reservations into one department, Rodriguez said.

“I think we at least gave staff some direction today to provide for a consistent policy so it’s transparent, and constituents can understand how to make payments or process payments regardless if they’re renting a facility in precinct 1, 2, or 4,” he said.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.