Reflecting on 3 terms: Ramon Garcia looks back on years as county judge

He was a high-profile attorney, who had previously made an unsuccessful bid to become a state senator, when some of the “key people here in (Hidalgo) County” approached him to run for county judge.

At the time, the county leadership had increased the tax rate every year for three years, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia recounted earlier this month. And while he had previously lost a bid for the state senate by 243 votes to Hector Uribe of Brownsville in 1981, he had subsequently ran a successful campaign for the county’s Democratic Party chair, a position he held for several terms.

“There was a $710,000 fund balance at the time, which wasn’t enough to pay for damages if we had had any rain,” he said about the county’s financial position in 2003, when he was first elected to serve. “So basically, we were broke.”

The fund balance, often called a “rainy day fund,” is a term used to describe the money the county sets aside to cover unexpected expenses, as is the case when a natural disaster strikes. It’s meant to be the county’s savings account when the general fund, or operating budget, is depleted.

“When I came in, that was the number one issue that I saw,” he said about the inadequate amount of savings the county had put aside for emergencies.

Garcia, who is one of the longest-serving county judges in Hidalgo County’s history, is stepping down at the end of the month after serving three four-year terms as the county’s highest elected official. Former McAllen mayor and commissioner Richard Cortez is slated to take the reins Jan. 1.

And while Garcia hasn’t always been popular for the efforts he championed — as was the case with the twice-defeated attempt to create a hospital district and the construction of the new county courthouse — he is proud of what he was able to accomplish during his tenure.

“I’m proud of the fact that the county is in the best financial position it’s been in its 164 year history,” he said. “We’ve got about $36 million (in the rainy day fund).”

RISE TO THE TOP

Garcia, an attorney by trade, was born at the old McAllen General Hospital in 1948, which was located where the McAllen City Hall now sits. The facility wasn’t the hub it is for taxpayers nowadays, but was instead one of the few hospitals in the area.

Born to a father who spent most of his life working as a service station manager and a mother who was a high school graduate at a time when Mexican Americans found it difficult to complete grade school, Garcia was determined to make something of himself.

He had grades good enough to attend Harvard, he said, but also knew the back-breaking work of farm labor during the summer breaks in South Texas.

“That’s what was out there to work during the summer,” he said. “At some point I became a crew leader and was in charge of anywhere between 75 to 100 people, and we were involved in harvesting cotton and harvesting peas and harvesting watermelons.”

But farm work, wasn’t the only occupation he dabbled in.

“In 1958 and ‘59, I had the largest Monitor paper route in all the Valley,” he said proudly.

“They took us to a circus, I guess, to show their appreciation or something.”

Garcia graduated with honors from the University of Houston Bates College of Law in 1972 and passed the State Bar that of Texas that same year. He began practicing law in 1973 with Joe B. Evins, who was an attorney at the time, but would go on to become a state district court judge.

“I was very fortunate to have met Judge Evins and started working with him and learning from him,” Garcia said.

The Alamo native made headlines as a defense attorney when he successfully defended the families of high school students who had either died or been injured in the now infamous Alton bus crash case. In 1989, a Coca-Cola company truck driver collided with a school bus, sending it down a water-filled pit and drowning 21 students.

“That was a complex case, but I had another case that got a lot of notoriety,” Garcia said about his case against Texas Commerce Bank.

“They had committed a fraud on one of their customers, my client, and we tried the case, and a jury verdict came back,” he said. “At that time, it was a very substantial verdict. It was in the 80s and it was a $59 million verdict, and we started getting involved in representing clients in commercial litigation.”

Retired judge Joe B. Evins, left, and Ramon Garcia hug after he swore in Garcia as the Hidalgo County Judge at a ceremony at Edinburg City Hall January 1, 2011 in Edinburg.
Photo by joel martinez/jmartinez@themonitor.com

FIRST TERM

Garcia defeated then Hidalgo County Judge Eloy Pulido in 2002 and took office the following year.

“The first time he was in office, he was at odds with most of the court,” said Bobby Villarreal, a former accountant who would eventually become one of Garcia’s most trusted allies.

Villarreal was working in the Hidalgo County’s auditor’s office when a position as a budget control officer opened up in 2004.

“The staff knew me, so they presented me to him, and we got along pretty well,” Villarreal said Friday. “And I’ve been with him pretty much since then, off and on, during his terms.”

Villarreal said Garcia took a chance on him.

“When he hired me, a lot of people told him not to hire me because I wasn’t political. I was a guy from out of town,” he said. “But that was the funny part. I understood politics — it’s just they didn’t realize I did. I came from a political family back home. My grandfather and brothers were in politics.”

Still, for Garcia, it wasn’t about placing a political ally in the position, Villarreal said. It was about finding the right man for the job — the most qualified candidate.

Villarreal eventually worked his way to become the county’s economic development director and later county executive director, the highest position available for county employees.

“He left office that first time after a defeat, and then he came back to office four years later,” Villarreal said, referencing Garcia’s second attempt at county judge in 2006, when he was narrowly defeated by former Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas. “Pretty much the last two terms, him and the court members have gotten along (well).”

SECOND TERM

Hidalgo Community Service Agency Executive Director Jaime Longoria shared a similar experience. Even though Longoria had worked for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office for 10 years between 2001 and 2011, he felt he was still an “unknown” when Garcia hired him as his assistant chief of staff in 2011, shortly after beginning his second term of office.

In his previous capacity, Longoria had worked with the state’s colonia ombudsman program.

“His first question to me was, ‘Who among the advocates can we talk to and bring onboard that can help us understand the issues of colonias,’” Longoria recalled Friday.

As the head of the county, much of Garcia’s work rested on improving some of the most impoverished areas of the county: the colonias. A majority of the low-income rural neighborhoods lacked the most basic of services, including public lighting, sewage and drainage.

“I was surprised and a little taken aback because I had never been asked that question before,” Longoria said.

Garcia also asked him to set up a meeting with the OWLS, a local watchdog group.

“That’s when I realized he was serious about engaging people — even those folks that didn’t necessarily agree with him — and in order to have constructive dialogue, that’s what you need,” Longoria said.

During his tenure as assistant chief of staff, Longoria said Garcia strengthened the public defender’s office, created the civil division of the district attorney’s office, passed a $184 million drainage bond, implemented Operation Clean Sweep, which eventually led to scofflaw, and successfully challenged the US. Census count of the county.

Today, the county continues its fight for representation and entitlement funds, having joined a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government for its attempt to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form.

“We needed to get involved in that litigation and we did … and we won it at the district court level, and the Supreme Court has granted writ, which means that they are going to hear the case and they’re going to decide the issue in February,” Garcia said about the ongoing legal fight. “And I feel very positive about the fact that we ought to win; that we’re going to come out with a successful opinion.”

THIRD TERM

By his third term in office, Garcia and a group of other supporters had successfully lobbied the legislature to bring a medical school to the area, pledging a $1 million annual contribution from the county to help fund the school for ten years.

“The idea that we could bring and attract a medical school to the Valley was an idea that had been kicked around and around for years, and he challenged us to do that,” Longoria said.

The county judge also met with John Sharp, the Texas A&M University System chancellor, to speak to him about establishing a satellite campus in the Valley, Villarreal said. And although he didn’t single-handedly bring the university to McAllen, he was part of the effort.

“A lot of good things happened during his tenure,” Villarreal said. “People have a lot of regard for him because of his professional successes, and I think that helped him on the countyside as well — there’s a lot of respect for him.”

Garcia also championed “a big change in the direction” of the Hidalgo County Drainage District, Longoria said. During his third term, the drainage board ousted former executive director Godfrey Garza after a lawyer determined Garza should not have been paid more than $3.7 million in commission fees from a federal project.

“I can honestly tell you that the judge was a huge driving force there. He wanted to insure that the county got its money’s worth,” Longoria said. “And not everybody was excited about that. It was not popular at the time because it was challenging the status quo.”

A legal fight between Garza and the county continues today.

But perhaps Garcia’s biggest feat is the ongoing construction of a new county courthouse, which is expected to cost taxpayers about $150 million.

“We had an inadequate facility and we needed to get involved in constructing a new facility,” Garcia said. “And (I) made sure I stayed long enough to get it done.”

The decision to build the courthouse without voter approval drew criticism for Garcia. But Longoria believes the county judge has vision.

“It’s not popular to commit to build it,” he said. “But the judge has the foresight to say, ‘It needs to be done. It’s the right thing to do.’”

Still, concerns over the price of the courthouse continue to surface, with Garcia’s successor recently saying the county is “about borrowed up,” adding he doesn’t know where the money will come from.

Garcia, however, believes the county can afford the facility without having to raise taxes. Throughout his tenure, the tax rate did not increase and commissioners were able to drop it by one cent in 2017, giving residents the first tax cut in 18 years.

EDINBURG ,Tx-County Judge Ramon Garcia and City of Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia during a meeting for the proposed new courthouse at Edinburg City Hall Tuesday March 8,2016 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez dlopez@themonitor.com

EPILOGUE

After stepping down at the end of the year, Garcia will devote his time to his law practice, which he shares with his son Orlando Garcia.

“That’s what I’m going to be doing now that I’m not going to be involved in being a county judge,” he said. “I’m going to be a fulltime lawyer.”

And after serving 12 years as county judge, he can look back at his time in office and feel proud of his efforts.

“The county government is really the government that reaches the community very directly,” he said. “We’ve been involved in so many projects along the way that I feel good about because of the fact that we’ve been able to help people in so many different ways and so many different areas.”

Hidalgo County will face a number of challenges in the future as the region continues to grow, Garcia said.

“We have a serious drainage issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “We made efforts to address it in my terms, but we still have a ways to go.”

And when asked what advice he would give to his successor, Garcia politely declined the opportunity.

“No,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have been provided the opportunity to do what I thought needed to be done, but as soon as I walk out of here, I’m will no longer be the county judge and we need to leave it up to, in this case, Mr. Richard Cortez and wish him well.

“He appears to be very well prepared to do a good job as our county judge, but I’m not going to get involved in giving him any advice unless he asks for it.”

Instead, he made it a point to thank his staff and the rest of the commission for their continued support.

“I’m very honored to have been elected by the community and trusted. So I know I will miss it, but it’s something that has to be done,” he said. “But I feel very good about what I’m doing and what I have done in my lifetime.”