WESLACO — On Saturday, residents here got their first look at the candidates vying to fill Place 4 on the Weslaco City Commission thanks to a community-organized candidate forum held at the Horizon Montessori II campus off Sugarcane Drive.
Four men are running to fill the seat vacated after former District 4 Commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla stepped down last month. In April, Tafolla pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery in relation to an ongoing federal criminal investigation into a rehabilitation project at the city’s water treatment facilities that has thus far ensnared six men in felony charges.
Of the four candidates who have chosen to run to replace Tafolla, two were present at Saturday’s forum: Humberto “Beto” Chavez and Roy Hernandez Jr. A third candidate, Adrian Farias, participated via speakerphone.
The fourth candidate, Jose Guadalupe “Lupe” Garcia, did not attend the event.
The forum was moderated by local resident Israel Coronado, who founded “Make Weslaco Drain Again,” a grassroots movement that relies on social media — primarily Facebook — to bring attention to the city’s drainage woes.
After making brief introductions, Coronado asked the candidates questions culled from residents on social media. Afterwards, residents in the audience were allowed to ask questions of their own.
In their answers, the candidates focused primarily on the city’s drainage issues in the wake of the Great Flood of June 2018, as well as a public sense of mistrust after the Weslaco water plant scandal.
Other key topics included increasing transparency, addressing fiscal responsibility, and forging better relationships between commissioners and their constituents.
“The people have lost the trust,” said Chavez in response to a question about what issues he has identified as high priority, other than drainage improvements.
“They don’t trust anyone right now, especially right here in District 4. But that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to gain the trust from the community in District 4,” he said.
In response to the same question, Hernandez said his block walking efforts led him to learn of one neighborhood that had concerns regarding speeders. As a result, Hernandez initiated a successful signature gathering campaign to request the city evaluate the need for speed humps in that neighborhood, he said.
For Farias, teamwork was high on his priority list. Throughout the course of the forum, he spoke of the need for public officials and the community to work together.
“We’re all here for one purpose and Weslaco is that purpose. We want to do better for Weslaco, we want, you know, a better future for Weslaco. And we want Weslaco to continue to grow,” Farias said.
In a multipart question, the candidates were asked how they would help the city increase revenues in an atmosphere of declining property values from flood-damaged homes, how they would address potential conflicts of interest in bidding out city contracts, and their thoughts on transparency.
With regards to revenue generation, Hernandez suggested employing a grant writer who could help the city obtain project funding. Investing in a grant writer would be worth the associated payroll cost, he said.
“In the long run, if they get us a half a million or a million dollar grant, it’s gonna pay itself, and it’s gonna help us not pay taxes, reduce our taxes,” Hernandez said, adding that he would also like to re-establish the city’s now defunct budget committee.
Chavez also spoke of pursuing grant funding, but thought perhaps such work could be done in-house, by existing city staff.
“Sometimes you don’t need to hire a grant writer, you have capable, able people there that can actually go there and do the applications,” he said, citing similar successes at the local school district.
Like Hernandez, he, too, is pushing for more transparent accounting of the city’s finances. Chavez advocated for a finance committee similar to that at the Hidalgo County Head Start program, of which he is a board member.
For Farias, the way to increase revenues is to increase commerce within the city. He advocated for working with the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco and the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce to attract more businesses to the city, as well as to nurture existing businesses.
“I think we just have to continue to work with our existing companies, help them as much as we can. You know, the EDC’s been helping them out,” Farias said. “We should try to continue coming together as a community, you know, shop in Weslaco, spend as much as you can on the community to help Weslaco.”
One local resident asked the candidates if they had any proposals for improving the city’s drainage issues.
Chavez said he would rely on city staff for guidance by reaching out to the public works department and the city engineer. “Let’s strategize, you know? Let’s work together,” he said.
“(Let’s) work on communication. That’s what we need.”
Farias suggested doing more with flood supplies, such as stockpiling sandbags. He also urged residents to do their part by keeping yards and ditches free of debris. “We want to keep Weslaco clean. …and I think we’ve got to come together in order for that to happen,” Farias said.
Hernandez looked to McAllen as a potential model for Weslaco, where Jackson City/School Park serves simultaneously as a public recreation space and as a detention pond.
“We can do a retention city park here in this area. That’s going to relieve some of the flood, and also instead of the water going into their homes, it’s going to go into the park,” Hernandez said.
Another resident asked if the candidates would be willing to share how they voted in the recent bond election, which will fund $10 million worth of drainage improvement projects.
The woman, who said her home is located in an area that typically does not flood, nevertheless was one of hundreds that was damaged by rising waters last June. Struck by the low voter turnout in the May election, she asked the candidates what, if anything, they had done to increase voter turnout.
Farias answered first, again emphasizing the need to work together as a community. He suggested holding workshops to increase community involvement.
Chavez chided residents for not voting. “You need to make your voice heard,” he said, while adding that he has encountered a lot of voter apathy during his block walks.
Chavez said he voted against the bond because he feared the financial strain an additional tax could impose on residents who are “living paycheck by paycheck.”
Hernandez said he voted for the bond. Like his colleagues, Hernandez was concerned by the low voter turnout. In a city with nearly 20,000 registered voters, only 464 cast ballots in the election.
“Why not do a little more advertisement?” Hernandez said, suggesting doing more to publicize such elections in the future.