McAllen officials question their Austin consultant

McALLEN — The contract renewal was thought to be routine: McGuire Woods, the consulting firm based in Austin, has lobbied for the city at the state capitol, and city commissioners this week were set to approve another contract, this time for a fixed monthly fee of $6,500, lasting until June 2020.

But after the 86th State Legislature came and went earlier this year, McAllen did not see the return it would have preferred. This summer, representatives from the firm presented a summary of the legislative session to city commissioners.

They were not impressed.

“How much did we get this last session for McAllen — the things that they lobbied for?” Commissioner Tania Ramirez asked City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez, who recommended retaining McGuire Woods.

“Honestly, all I got from them was a summary of what happened at this past legislative session,” Ramirez said at Monday’s city commission meeting at city hall. “If I wanted a summary, I would look it up myself, make a summary and bring it to all of you. Now, if we’re going to be paying these people this much money per month, they better make some results, because I heard we didn’t get anything. And all we got from them was a summary of what happened in Austin, and that’s it.”

Other commissioners butted in, echoing some of Ramirez’s concerns, ultimately voting to table the agenda item to renew the contract before returning from a private executive session to approve it. But the eventual approval did not come without concerns. Rodriguez sought to calm those concerns, telling Ramirez that if she had specific questions, he would rather answer them in the private session.

“I would say that from the experience that I have with consultants in Austin, McGuire Woods does a really good job for us. Their communication with us is superior,” Rodriguez said during the open session discussion, before the commissioners entered the private session. “I think the results that we had this year had more to do with our inability to convince our legislators that the bridge was a priority, more so than anything McGuire Woods didn’t do.”

Leading up to the legislative session that began in January and ended in May, Rodriguez said the city’s priorities for the session focused on funding for the Anzalduas International Bridge in south Mission, which is run by the city of McAllen in cooperation with federal authorities. The bridge has been open since 2009, and until 2016, it only serviced passenger vehicles.

In August 2016, the bridge began allowing empty commercial trucks to cross southbound. Next up was supposed to be northbound truck traffic. But the infrastructure was not in place and it would be expensive to do so, but the city has long discussed the future of a full-service commercial bridge. Three years after empty truck traffic began, the bridge has not moved much closer to that goal, and commissioners questioned if their representatives in Austin have served them well.

“I asked them: ‘What are you going to do differently this next legislative session?’” Commissioner Omar Quintanilla said on Monday, recalling the presentation from McGuire Woods, which commissioners characterized as a mere summary. “And they didn’t really have a plan to do anything differently. So that was something that I didn’t take too well.”

The private executive session clearly calmed concerns, with commissioners swiftly voting unanimously to renew the consulting contract once they returned to open session. Ramirez said they “better show results,” and Commissioner Javier Villalobos had earlier suggested possibly looking in a different direction.

“If we can’t convince our own legislators and they can’t either,” Villalobos said, trailing off.

Ramirez wanted to make sure she was clear about her concerns.

“I don’t know if I’m getting my point across,” Ramirez said. “But if we’re going to approve them to go back to Austin, they better make sure they’re coming back with something, and not just a summary.”