Two years of turnover on McAllen city commission may usher in cohesive group

McALLEN — The seat is usually reserved for the rookie. It’s next to Kevin Pagan, the city attorney who sits in the leftmost seat on the city commission dais in the chambers at City Hall.

“You know, we’ve always thought that when they have questions, it’s easy for them to lean over and ask Kevin,” Mayor Jim Darling said.

Right now, that seat belongs to District 4 Commissioner Tania Ramirez. She took the seat less than two months ago. On Monday, a new commissioner will get sworn in, the second new city commissioner in as many months, and the fifth seat to turn over in the last two years, an unprecedented number of changes among McAllen’s elected officials.

“There was a tendency for the incumbent to either win or retire,” Darling said, remarking on his more than 40 years working with the city. “That’s kind of the way it was.”

That has changed. In June, during a runoff election, Victor “Seby” Haddad, a 38-year-old banker and businessman from McAllen, unseated incumbent District 5 Commissioner John Ingram, who had represented central McAllen on the city commission since 2005 and was widely known throughout his district.

It was only the second time an incumbent commissioner in McAllen lost an election in the 21st Century. The only other time: In 2017, when District 3 Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora defeated then-Commissioner Trey Pebley.

Now, Haddad will join Zamora, Ramirez and Commissioners Omar Quintanilla and Javier Villalobos as the five new commissioners elected in the last two years. Rounding out the commission is Veronica Whitacre, who was recently sworn in for another term in office after she did not draw an opponent in May’s election.

Darling, of course, is no rookie. He first became city attorney in the late 1970s, and hasn’t left city business since, something commissioners said is invaluable upon joining the city commission.

“Now, five in the last two years can present a challenge,” Quintanilla said. “But we do have the benefit of the mayor with his many, many years experience to kind of give us the pros and cons and the history for those of us who are relatively new.”

Every commissioner pointed to the advantage of having Darling’s experience. But there’s a new challenge for Darling, he said: He doesn’t really know everyone. And over the last year, with Villalobos in his first year on the commission and Quintanilla and Zamora both in their second year, Darling has had some tough moments.

There have been some split votes, some unhappy residents and some negative attention on the city due in part to national immigration issues. Darling has taken responsibility for some of that, which has, at least for the moment, calmed a bit.

He has a new challenge of ensuring the city continues to move on a pace Darling and commissioners prefer.

“There’s no historical tensions, no burdens or weights from years of serving together,” Haddad said.

For now, he wants to get to know some of them.

“You don’t necessarily know what their philosophy is too much,” Darling said. “When you’re running for city council, obviously you say you want to go for your district, the usual ways you campaign.”

The new commissioners are also more closely aligned with the average age in the Rio Grande Valley: 29 years old. Four of the five new commissioners in the last two years are under 50 years old, with two under 40 years old.

“All of us are under 52, I believe, but our interests are aligned,” Zamora said of the new commissioners.

Whitacre, the sole veteran among the six commissioners, said she thinks the city has a good group of commissioners.

“They want to be there, because they want to help the city,” Whitacre said. “And they will have an impact, and they will have input.”

As Haddad joins the commission just after a holiday weekend, the pace of work will not be slow. Haddad enters the commission during the budget season, perhaps the busiest time of year that culminates with several public budget workshops in August, followed by a vote on the new budget before the next fiscal year begins in October.

Darling, who said he plans to have lunch individually with the new commissioners to get to know them better, thinks the budget season is an opportune time of year for new commissioners.

“That’s when I ask department heads questions,” Darling said. “And that’s something I don’t always get to do during the year. You got the budget right there in front of you, city staff all there, and you really get to kind of dig into this stuff. It’s a lot of work but it’s something we have to do.”

As Haddad is set to be sworn in Monday, that will mark the end of a busy two years of five commission seats turning over, and the introduction of a new chapter in McAllen leadership. And Zamora offered a word of caution.

“We may hit some rough spots,” he said. “We’re still rookies.”