WESLACO — Tensions flared this week when city commissioners voted Tuesday to overhaul the Weslaco Economic Development Corp. board, ousting four members and replacing them with themselves.
The commission first had to revise the board’s articles of formation, which previously banned elected officials from serving on it. Upon Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar’s suggestion, the body replaced that restriction with an opposite one, stating that four of the seven seats shall be commissioners.
Previously, each member of the commission had the power to appoint one member from his district.
The body voted to replace five sitting board members with commissioners Jerry Tafolla, Joe Martinez, Lupe Rivera and David Fox, as well as resident Andrew Gonzalez. Existing members Letty Aleman and Richard Lehman — originally Rivera and Cuellar’s picks — were reappointed at-large.
Cuellar emphasized he still believed in corporation autonomy, but said the move would improve communication with the city and make the corporation more accountable to the public — a message City Manager Leo Olivares echoed.
“Everyone on this side of the dais runs for office,” Olivares said. “That is not necessarily the case for the EDC members.”
Opposing slate member Commissioner Olga Noriega immediately cried politics, contesting the shift.
“I find it wrong that the commission wants to control the EDC also,” she said.
She sparred with Olivares over the wording of the proposed changes — calling it “lies” that they had been edited since being publicly posted Feb. 15 — but he and Mayor Miguel Wise noted that it is not uncommon for such drafts to change up until a final vote.
Most development corporation boards in Hidalgo County have at least one elected official represented on them, but it is uncommon for those commissioners to form a majority.
MOTIVATIONS FOR CHANGE
The former corporation board members called themselves surprised at the way they were removed.
“It’s kind of condescending,” said former member Mike Givilancz. “We know it’s political. There’s no other reason for it to have been done.”
He and others said they believed politics was at play with regards to the contract for creation of an event center behind the corporation offices, in the unfinished shell portion City Hall.
The corporation board awarded the project at its last meeting to DKIII Hornback Enterprises for $1.57 million, but has not yet issued a notice to proceed with construction. The firm was the lower of two which submitted bids for the build.
Givilancz and former board President David Suarez believe that contract sealed their fate. Suarez said the board had been pressured to choose a different contractor.
Olivares and Rivera denied having any issues with the firm, but acknowledged that the city would like to take a second look at that project and others in light of propositions passed in November’s election that give the board authority to use money for a wider array of projects.
“I think it’s right to say ‘Does this budget and work plan still apply?’” Olivares said. “Now we can use money for roads. We didn’t have that authority before.”
The city manager demurred when asked if a desire to revisit the event center project was part of the decision to move forward on the board changes now.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” he said. “Certainly that’s one thing that we’re looking at, but it’s not in isolation.”
But the message that the city was drawing the corporation closer was clear.
“I heard people say ‘Why are you taking over the EDC?’” he said. “What? Taking over the EDC? We created the EDC… There’s no takeover, it’s ours.”
THE NEW BOARD
The new corporation’s first meeting Wednesday did not go forward after attorney Rick Talbert questioned the legal process of the changes.
The Texas Secretary of State’s Office must review amendments to articles of formation before they are effective, Talbert said. Moreover, he noted that commissioners had not voted to remove any of the sitting board members before appointing new ones.
“The city commission has the authority to appoint vacancies,” he said. “In my opinion this is not a meeting of the EDC board of directors to the extent that we don’t have a quorum of the ones I know.”
The new members instead listened to presentations from the corporation with no discussion or action. City Attorney Ramon Vela did not return calls for comment Thursday, but Olivares dismissed the notion that the city’s process was improper and said the Secretary of State sign-off had already been received.
Development Corp. Director Hernan Gonzalez said the shift toward city control had been brewing for a while, but called the situation odd because the corporation board would have to seek permission from the commission for major projects with the same people as the majority on both.
“It’s going to be an interesting transition because they have to learn to wear a board of director’s hat that’s different from a city commissioner hat — we’re not a political organization,” he said.
Elizabeth Findell covers PSJA and the Mid-Valley. She can be reached at email@example.com, (956) 683-4428 or on Twitter, @efindell.