Former RGC mayor to lead La Joya housing authority

LA JOYA — The La Joya Housing Authority board appointed a new permanent executive director Wednesday, selecting former Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal for the position.

The board of commissioners voted 2 to 1 in favor of Villarreal after interviewing the four job applicants one by one during executive session.

Board Commissioner Jorge Bazan made the motion to hire Villarreal which was seconded by Board Chairman John Peña. Board Commissioner Jose Armando Salinas was the only vote against hiring Villarreal while Board Commissioner German Reyna abstained.

With just enough votes, Villarreal was approved as the new executive director to be effective immediately.

While Bazan declined to comment after the meeting, Peña said he supported hiring Villarreal because of his experience working with cities.

Villarreal is replacing the previous permanent executive director for the housing authority, Cristi LaJeunesse, who resigned on July 3.

About two weeks after, the board appointed Claudia Alcazar, also from Rio Grande City, as their interim executive director. She was also among the four applicants for the permanent position.

Peña described Alcazar as brilliant but said, overall, Villarreal’s resume “overshined.”

Villarreal, who was the mayor of Rio Grande City from 2008 to 2015, said he was prompted to apply for the position because he said housing is a basic need.

“I’ve taken on roles to provide services to communities — and building communities from the ground up — and that’s what I do best,” Villarreal said. “It’s a genuine outlook to improve people’s lives.”

As the new executive director, Villarreal will have the arduous task of trying lift the La Joya Housing Authority away from its many recent troubles.

Before LaJeunesse, who was hired in November 2018 and resigned in July after clashing with the board, the housing authority was led by Frances A. Salinas. However, she was terminated in November 2018 as the executive director after the board was notified of questionable expenses and because of an unresolved conflict of interest created because she is the daughter of La Joya Mayor Jose “Fito” Salinas.

The mayor appoints members to the housing authority board and the board, in turn, oversee the executive director. The housing authority had requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to allow Salinas to serve as the executive director despite the conflict of interest but it was denied.

Salinas had been appointed executive director in January 2017 following the termination of Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza in December 2016 after he was federally indicted. He’s currently serving a 37-month sentence in federal prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud through a bid-rigging scheme.

As for their current operations, the housing authority recently received a visit from HUD officials for which they’re still awaiting a report and the board finally approved in July a corrective plan of action — a document meant to detail the steps that the housing authority will take to address deficiencies which had long been requested by HUD.

Villarreal said he would address the housing authority’s problems one step at a time.

“It’s going to be a learning process for a lot of board members, for myself,” he said.

“It’s going to be a long road,” he added. “Being able to fix what has not been functional is going to take time and because it didn’t get in whatever shape it’s in now overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.”