McALLEN — Hidalgo County Precinct 4 commissioner candidates made a final pitch to sway voters at a forum here Thursday.
The McAllen Citizens League hosted the event at the Salvation Army in McAllen, where about 40 people gathered to hear from incumbent Joseph Palacios and challenger Ellie Torres.
Attendees also listened to Javier Villalobos make his case for the McAllen District 1 commission seat. Tim Wilkins, who is in a runoff election for the position, did not attend the event.
Torres and Palacios took time away from campaigning at the polls during the early voting period to participate in the forum.
And much like at other similar events, the construction of the new courthouse continued to be a hot topic. The issue is particularly interesting because Torres’ husband, David Torres, is the mayor pro tem for Edinburg, and the council there does not appear completely convinced the city should contribute $30 million to the construction of the facility, as previously agreed upon.
“Are you happy with the trajectory?” local radio host Davis Rankin asked of the project.
“I’m very comfortable where we are with the courthouse,” Palacios replied.
The commissioner, who also serves as the vice president of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, touted his ability to secure $20 million from the organization for drainage improvements to the courthouse square
He also reminded the audience that the city of Edinburg has yet to forge a formal agreement with the county.
“We have no bonafide local agreement from them,” he said. “They’re posturing, of course.”
Torres said she remained concerned about the project.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think it should have taken five years,” she said. “We’re actually not done with the design.”
She said she received concerned calls about the county’s decision earlier this week to negotiate with the sole bidder for the construction manager at risk position, instead of rebidding.
“To me, it is still a concern, as it was for many people whose phone calls I got,” Torres said.
Palacios defended the longevity of the project and said “it takes time to narrow down the costs.”
The candidates also discussed institutionalizing the step and grade program for county employees, and addressed the constant changes to the budget that stem from not having one in place.
Torres, an Edinburg school trustee, said of having such a policy in place, “it’s right for morale,” and touted the district’s approach to wage increases.
“We have been able to give pay raises across the board. They’re very clear, and they’re very transparent,” she said. “It’s all discussed in budget, and it’s agreed upon by everybody, and then we stick to it.”
Palacios said he led the effort to implement the program at the county and indicated it would be in place in the coming weeks.
“I believe it’s the one thing that is going to cure the cancer of all the decades of adjusting the budget,” he said. “We’re going t be able to cure that.”
Rankin, who read the questions members of the league submitted prior to the event, also asked how they would better serve veterans in the county.
Palacios, who served in Desert Storm and Bosnia, touted his service in the military and the opening of the new Hidalgo County Veterans Office, which celebrated its grand opening earlier Thursday morning.
“We are going to continue to expand our services. This is a venue much bigger than we’ve had before,” he said, reiterating the services provided there are free of charge.
Torres, who also attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, also suggested increasing accessibility and services.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think we do enough for them,” she said.
Rankin’s last question touched on what he described as an underlying theme in recent elections to overthrow the Palacios family, a local political powerhouse.
“Are we swapping one group of leaders for another group of leaders?” he asked.
“I think what’s being swapped out is a representation of multiple families,” Torres replied. “There are only two family members in my family that are involved in politics, and that’s my husband and myself.”
“Um, fair question,” Palacios said, causing some laughter from the audience. “I can’t speak for my family, but I can speak for myself.”
An unapologetic Palacios said he was proud of his father and his family for coming “out of the farms … out of the fields” to become educated and help lead the community. He thanked them for “paving the way” for him and others.
He also indicated his desire to run for office was sparked when he began working for public officials.
“It hit me when I worked in government and I saw the errors of elected officials,” he said.
Palacios ended the event with a jab at Torres’ bail bond company, calling it a conflict of interest because commissioners oversee and manage the budgets for all courts.
“Those are conflicts,” he said. “I have no conflicts.”