Brownsville MPO merger debate boils to surface

Heavy traffic turned south Friday onto South Padre Island Highway off of Boca Chica Boulevard. Brownsville’s MPO, based on the new U.S. Census data qualifies it for an extra $3 million to $4 million in funding. (Brad Doherty | The Brownsville Herald)

The debate over whether the Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization should merge with other MPOs in the region has been going on for a few years now, though it flared up at the Dec. 4 Brownsville City Commission meeting when Commissioner Ben Neece was voted off the 13-member MPO Policy Committee and an attempt was made to replace Mayor Tony Martinez as chairman of the committee with another commission member.

The Brownsville MPO provides administrative support and technical services to coordinate, carry out and conduct transportation planning for Brownsville, Los Fresnos and the Town of Rancho Viejo to conform to federal highway and transit regulations.

The items to remove Policy Committee members and appoint a new chairman were placed on the Dec. 4 agenda by commissioners Rick Longoria Jr. and Joel Munguia. A public “workshop session” in advance of the regular commission meeting last week opened with a spirited argument over whether the MPO’s bylaws authorized the removal of the Policy Committee chairman.

The bylaws state: “The Chairperson of the MPO Policy committee shall be the Mayor of the City of Brownsville. In the event that the Mayor is not one of the representatives of the City of Brownsville serving on the MPO Policy Committee, then two City Commissioners shall serve on the Committee.”

MPO Director Mark Lund, who wrote the bylaws in the mid-1990s when he joined the organization, said he wrote the amendment allowing two commission members to serve in place of a mayor/chairman in response to then-mayor Henry Gonzalez’s resignation from the Policy Committee, and did not intend it to allow for removal of the mayor/chairman.

City Attorney Rene DeCoss sided with commissioners Longoria and Munguia, arguing that the bylaws do grant authority for removal since they are vague and don’t expressly forbid it. Neece, who is also an attorney, argued that the bylaws lack any such authority from a legal standpoint.

“You can’t just twist words,” he said. “It says it shall be the mayor unless he’s not. But he is.”

Neece said the passage regarding MPO chairmanship should be interpreted in the same spirit as passages pertaining to the mayors of Los Fresnos and Rancho Viejo, whose communities are also part of the Brownsville MPO. For instance, the bylaws read: “The Mayor of the City of Los Fresnos shall serve as a voting member of the MPO Policy Committee. In the event that the Mayor elects not to serve on the Policy Committee, then a designated Alderman shall represent the City of Los Fresnos.”

Martinez, also a lawyer, said he interprets the bylaws as giving him the choice whether to serve as Policy Committee chairman. At any rate, the vote to remove Martinez was tabled during the regular meeting and he remains chairman.

Munguia said he sought Martinez’s replacement based on concerns from members of the community that the mayor was impeding a potential merger of Brownsville’s MPO with those of Hidalgo County and Harlingen-San Benito.

Munguia asked Martinez what he is supposed to tell other members of the Policy Committee, such as the Port of Brownsville, who are in favor of a regional MPO merger, which proponents say will result in more federal money for transportation projects collectively than individual MPOs could secure by themselves.

Critics counter that MPO funding is complex and that without specific language there’s a danger Brownsville could take a back seat and actually lose funding. Martinez said his position all along has been that Brownsville must maintain control and have an “equal voice” in any merger, a provision he said no proposals to date have contained.

“We’re not going to sell the people of Brownsville down the river,” he said. “I say you have to negotiate it. We have leverage. We should use it.”

In response to a complaint from Longoria that the mayor has done a poor job communicating the substance of merger-related talks to the commission, Martinez said, “Maybe I haven’t elaborated as much as I should. I apologize for that.”

Commissioner Rose Gowen said if a merger means more money and an equity for all parties then she’s all for it, though just saying it will happen isn’t enough.

I do think it’s probably time to make a decision one way or another,” she said. “I do support moving forward with a decision, but the decision has to be equitable and in writing for obvious reasons.”

Meanwhile, an MPO workshop is being planned for next week in order for the purpose of educating elected officials and members of the public on various aspects of MPO funding and the implications of a merger.

“I think it’s important for the general public as well as for the elected officials, because transparency is always the best practice,” Gowen said.

At last night’s city commission meeting, on the final agenda item, commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution “in support of efforts to enter into discussions to form a Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization in the Rio Grande Valley.”