Once political running mates, three members of the Donna City Council have become divided and are now running against each other, forging new alliances with new candidates as they vie for control of the voting majority.
Three years ago, Rick Morales, Gus Gonzales and Arturo “Art” Castillo ran on a slate together, with Morales running for mayor, while Gonzales and Castillo ran for Places 1 and 3, respectively. The trio won, but since then, their relationships have soured.
Now, Commissioners Gonzales and Castillo have launched their reelection campaign together with newcomer Ernesto Lugo, who seeks to replace Morales as mayor.
Meanwhile, Morales is also seeking reelection and has teamed up with longtime friends Ricardo “Richie” Moreno and David Moreno to unseat his former running mates. The two Morenos are not related.
“The reason why I decided to not run with them is one of the biggest political mistakes I’ve made in being a mayor is running with Commissioners Gonzales and Castillo,” Morales said via phone Friday.
“It turned out they really did not have the best intentions for the city. And it’s obvious, you can see with some of the things … the direction they’ve taken the city,” he added.
For the two incumbent commissioners, breaking away from their alliance with Morales came after what they view as failed campaign promises, questionable leadership, fiscal mismanagement and a lack of transparency at the hands of the mayor.
“We have a lot of differences of opinions on the way the city is being run,” said Gonzales, who serves as mayor pro-tem in Morales’ absence. “There were a lot of things that were promised by the current mayor that we were gonna do for the city, and nothing’s been getting done.”
Gonzales, who previously served on the Donna school board, currently works for Hidalgo County Precinct 1’s field operations overseeing road construction.
“We went our separate ways because we feel like our current mayor has his philosophy of doing things, of running operations of the city in general, and it doesn’t have his full attention span,” Castillo said.
“And his way of thinking is … not for the betterment of the community,” he added.
Like Gonzales, Castillo has also served a stint on the school board. He currently works as the maintenance lead supervisor for the district.
Castillo’s and Gonzales’ dissatisfaction with their former running mate began to solidify about a year ago, when they first approached Lugo to join them on the 2020 slate.
Lugo, who once served as a pilot for a major commercial airline, and now owns several local healthcare industry businesses which he said employ approximately 800 people, initially declined the invitation.
However, as his conversations with Gonzales and Castillo continued, he, too, began to have concerns over the city’s leadership — primarily, its finances.
“I was concerned about some of the issues that the councilmembers — my team members — were confronted with that day,” Lugo said in reference to a set of Sept. 30 meetings during which the Donna municipal budget was adopted.
Lugo’s concern — and that of Gonzales and Castillo — were some $277,000 approved by the council in a 3-to-2 vote that day for a host of outside consultants.
The consultants’ fees were approved over the recommendation of City Manager Carlos Yerena, who urged the council not to approve them or staff pay raises at a time when every single department within the city had been subject to substantial budget cuts.
But Morales lobed a serious allegation for why the city manager recommended moving forward without the consultants — because he feared for his job. “They threatened him that he’s was going to be fired if he didn’t go along with them,” the mayor said of Castillo and Gonzales.
Beyond that, the mayor criticized his opponents’ ability to see the big picture when it comes to contracting with consultants. Those $277,000 netted some $25 million in grants for the first phase of commercializing the Donna-Rio Bravo Bridge — a project that began last fall and which will require tens of millions of dollars more to complete.
“They would rather take the $277,000, leave it in the bank and we get a $2,300 return” in accrued interest, Morales said.
“That goes to show their lack of knowledge of basic math. Basically, they’re intellectual lightweights,” he said.
Morales’ running mates, David and Richie Moreno, agreed that consultants are necessary to help improve the economic prosperity of the city.
“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” said Richie Moreno in regard to the consultants, adding that their services help Donna find grants.
“That’s the only way we’re gonna get out of this hole, because I don’t think they have anybody on staff that can actually write grants,” Moreno added, acknowledging Donna’s lean budget.
Moreno has previously served on the Donna school board and currently works as a shop foreman for Hidalgo County’s Precinct 1.
While Morales accused his opponents of threatening the employment of city staffers, Gonzales and Castillo, in turn, allege the mayor has a particularly unique relationship with the city’s consultants.
“If you go back and look at records, I’m pretty sure that some of these consultants that we have now were consultants back then,” Castillo said, referring to previous terms that Morales has served on the council.
“Put one and one together. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said.
In response, David Moreno said of his opponents, “They have their own little consultants, but they don’t tell you that.”
New to campaigning, David Moreno has served in the Donna school district for 31 years, and currently works as director of the CTE program, he said.
While Castillo and Gonzales blame Morales for the city’s economic stagnation, the mayor insists the fault lies with his opponents, who he claims have the voting majority on the council.
While their votes sometimes differ, oftentimes, the council votes unanimously.
“It’s time that we get people in here that are in it for the right reasons,” David Moreno said. “They’ve had the majority. They haven’t done anything,” he said of Gonzales and Castillo.
“What are you going to do? Are you just going to cross your arms? What’s your plan?” he asked.
Lugo had a response to that question, saying his first priority as mayor would be to straighten out the city’s budget, which he characterized as “questionable.”
Lugo and his running mates allege the city’s nine-page budget and overall lack of transparency is by design.
“It’s done that way for a reason because that’s when you’re trying to hide something,” he said.
Lugo pointed to the council’s unusually short meetings, as well as the council’s propensity to host a significant portion of their deliberations behind closed doors in executive session.
The abridged meetings have long irked his running mates.
“Sometimes, I leave the meeting thinking that we’re a joke, because three-minute meeting?” Gonzales said.
“Where in the world can you complete a meeting in two or three minutes where we don’t have that opportunity to ask questions to him (Morales) or to discuss the issues?” Castillo said, agreeing with Gonzales.
“That, to me, is very sneaky,” he said.
The trio vow to increase transparency and make public meetings more accessible to residents.
Morales insisted any lack of transparency comes at the hands of the voting majority. He also characterized his opponents’ negative campaigning as a return to “1970s Donna.”
His two new running mates — the two Morenos — allege their opponents have taken their campaigning against the mayor too far. Certain literature has been making the rounds throughout town, blaming Morales for the COVID-19 pandemic.
One such flyer depicts an image of Morales overlaid on one of a cemetery, with photos inset showing a funeral and a patient in a hospital room. “Rick Morales’ poor leadership costs lives,” the flyer reads.
David Moreno said the flyers are “in very bad taste because all of us, a lot of us, have lost either family members or people that we know,” to COVID-19.
“They’re blaming him for being the COVID killer. That he’s the one that killed everybody. I mean, that’s not right,” David Moreno said.
Morales, who has previously spoken of feeling helpless after losing loved ones to the pandemic, said it’s a “new low.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life; I’ve never been called a killer,” Morales said.
Richie Moreno called the tactics “nasty.”
“Our hearts are in the right place. We’re not here to get served, like I said. We’re here to serve the people. And it takes a lot, believe me. Going through this election, it’s nasty,” Richie Moreno said.