McALLEN — Past the pan dulce and the coffee, City Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora spoke over the humming ceiling fans and began the second town hall hosted by a McAllen commissioner in as many months with a pledge and a prayer.
Before long, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hernandez presented a PowerPoint updating the dozens of people on hand about the state of his department’s projects across the city, and he fielded a quick question about a splash pad.
Then Zamora stepped in.
“This is where the rubber meets the pavement as far as being in touch with folks from government,” Zamora told the dozens of people on hand at the Lark Community Center on Thursday night, urging the audience to ask questions of the various city department directors presenting updates.
“I have a question,” a man began. At Zamora’s previous town hall meeting last year, the man said he had asked Zamora a question about the Parks and Recreation Department’s advisory board website: Why hadn’t it been updated since 2010?
Hernandez, the department’s director, apologized and explained what had gone wrong.
This is part of the territory for Hernandez and other city department directors when the city commissioners host town halls, something that has been happening with more frequency recently.
For years, city commissioners have complained about the lack of engagement from McAllen citizens, especially when it comes to voter apathy. Now, commissioners are hoping their outreach efforts through town halls and other avenues, such as the proposal that has been made by Zamora to hold occasional city commission meetings not inside city hall but at city buildings throughout McAllen.
Commissioner Javier Villalobos, elected in March 2018, has not yet held a town hall, but said he plans to at Tres Lagos, the new, large community in north McAllen. The new commissioner representing central McAllen, Victor “Seby” Haddad, said he plans to hold a town hall in January once he’s had a few months in office, and he expects more town halls to come.
“We have very active commissioners, it’s a pretty fresh board and I think their goal is to get to know the community,” Haddad said after Zamora’s town hall, which he and other commissioners attended.
Last month, recently elected City Commissioner Tania Ramirez held a lively town hall in her southwest McAllen district last month. The audience at Ramirez’s town hall had various questions as well as some combative comments. One man stood up and suggested to city employees how they should do their jobs.
Ramirez said she plans to hold town halls regularly, with the next one expected in September.
While the audience at Zamora’s town hall was a bit quieter compared to Ramirez’s, there were still some pointed questions about traffic, streets and parks. The deputy engineering director explained various projects that were born out of bond elections approved by voters. The traffic director explained “psychological warfare” while driving and professed a love for roundabouts.
The police chief fielded questions about the possibility of a mass shooting in McAllen, following the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend, and Police Chief Victor Rodriguez sought to answer honestly.
“If someone has their mind made up, there’s not much anyone can do to stop them,” Rodriguez said. But Rodriguez, who has been chief for nearly 20 years, touted McAllen’s ratio of two police officers per 1,000 residents, which is the best ratio in South Texas, Rodriguez said, and the daily modifications his department makes to “adjust to what’s happening in the world.”
Exchanges like those between residents and Rodriguez, and the other department directors, make the town halls worth it, Zamora said after the town hall. With a younger city commission, Zamora said the current group “truly has the city at heart.”
“It’s not spiel, it’s not rhetoric,” Zamora said, pointing out that Mayor Jim Darling, Haddad, Ramirez and Quintanilla all showed up Thursday night. He added: “Eye on the prize — all we care about is making McAllen a city second to none.”