McAllen commission candidates spar over issues in first public forum

Candidates for the McAllen City Commission, left to right, Joe Califa, Tania Ramiez, John Ingram, Mark Murray, and Victor Haddad address the public in a candidate forum at the McAllen Public Library on Thursday, Mar. 7, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Commissioner John Ingram and his two District 5 challengers on Thursday sparred over the city’s finances and its downtown while the two District 4 candidates sought to distinguish themselves as they run to replace a retiring commissioner during the first public forum ahead of McAllen’s May city commission election.

Ingram, who has represented the central McAllen district since 2005, defended accusations from Victor “Seby” Haddad, a banker and business owner, and Mark R. Murray, a South Texas College professor, of ignoring downtown McAllen and for opposing business growth in the city. Meanwhile, District 4 candidates Tania Y. Ramirez, a 30-year-old attorney, and Joe Anthony Califa, a 60-year-old retired city planner, did not attack each other and agreed that the southwest McAllen district needs revitalization, both noting that the closest grocery store for most District 4 residents is not in McAllen.

The races for District 4 and 5 are not the only city commission races on the May 4 ballot, but they are the only contested races. District 6 Commissioner Veronica Whitacre is up for re-election, but she did not attract an opponent, and exited the forum at the public library after telling the roughly 60-person audience about her accomplishments as commissioner.

Ingram, meanwhile, clashed with Haddad, 38, over the Bicentennial Boulevard extension and incentive packages offered to businesses interested in moving to McAllen. Haddad tried to tout his business experience as an improvement to Ingram’s “anti-business” approach.

“I’m a small businessman,” Ingram said, before turning to Haddad. “I don’t get extra help from the city, unlike some of your adventures. When I need money, I make it. Some people go to the city and get it. I’ve never done that.”

Ingram was referring to the city agreeing to give Haddad a $215,000 incentive package for a microbrewery he was building. City commissioners voted in 2017 to approve the incentive agreement with Haddad — Ingram was the lone commissioner who voted in opposition.

“I was able to sell the city on a positive business deal,” Haddad said, later adding that he believes the microbrewery would be a unique addition to the city and that the incentives would be worth it. However, Haddad conceded that the incentive package his microbrewery project received expires at the end of this month, and work on the microbrewery has mostly come to a standstill.

Murray, meanwhile, emphasized improving downtown McAllen, proposing a six-month to one-year study and to allow free downtown parking.

“Business owners tell me they lose business because you have to pay to park downtown,” Murray said.

Monica Stewart, a longtime downtown business owner and one of the three panelists asking questions during Thursday’s forum, pressed Murray on his plans for downtown, responding to the candidate’s additional concern that business owners and downtown employees deal with parking issues. Downtown employees do, indeed, park for free at a downtown parking garage, Stewart said.

“Many business owners downtown have said parking is a problem,” Murray said, adding that owners are losing customers who are trying to avoid paying parking fees.

The subject of incentives came up throughout the forum. The District 4 candidates were malleable about their incentive stances. Califa said he is open to incentives in certain situations.

“We have to go to city of Mission or Hidalgo to buy groceries,” Califa said. “I’d love to entertain an incentive for H-E-B or Walmart in the southern part of the city.”

When District 5 candidates debated incentives, Haddad attempted to use that conversation as an opportunity to criticize Ingram.

“John has been anti-business,” Haddad said. “He was against expansion. John previously didn’t want to expand Bicentennial.”

When city commissioners voted years ago to extend Bicentennial Boulevard north to Trenton Road, Ingram voted against the expansion, citing concerned homeowners along the proposed extension.

Murray later tried to ding Ingram on that same decision. The District 5 commissioner needs to listen to all of the district, Murray said, not just a few property owners.

Ingram, in his closing remarks, defended his vote once more.

“And Seby, you think I make such bad decisions,” Ingram said. “I was re-elected three times after that Bicentennial vote. And this will be the fourth.”