Who controls the truth about Weslaco?
~City manager confirms staff helped compile information for “truth” publication~
WESLACO – “The truth” appeared three days before early voting began in the form of a 16-page tabloid dropped on doorsteps and left across the city.
It proclaims a “Wise Commission” led the city from a negative fund balance to having millions in the bank, increased its transparency and upped its credit rating.
It responds to city controversy over water issues by touting a need for clean water and pointing out differences between a water treatment plant currently under way in Weslaco and one built in Rio Grande City.
It names the commission members as only the five in the political majority — John Cuellar, Jerry Tafolla, Joe Martinez, Lupe Rivera and David Fox — excluding Commissioner Olga Noriega and referencing former Mayor Miguel Wise, but not listing him as a member.
Rivera and Martinez are currently running for re-election against Noriega-supported candidates.
It remains unclear who exactly paid for the publication — which is 16 pages printed in full color on high-quality paper — and how many copies were distributed, but City Manager Leo Olivares confirmed city staff had worked on it.
Olivares said he had compiled the information with some input from city department heads after Giselle Mascarenhas-Villarreal, the wife of Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal, offered to create the publication via her public relations firm Indigo Connections.
“They approached me, they said ‘Look, can we help you with your PR,’” Olivares said. “I saw a draft of the prototype, but we’re under no contractual obligation.”
Mascarenhas-Villarreal did not respond to repeated phone calls last week.
But Olivares insisted he was not involved in the seemingly-related Facebook page “The truth. about Weslaco”saying he had looked at it, but did not own it and had not posted to it.
“I’m a voyeur Facebooker,” he said. “I’m trying to run a city… It’s not me. Some of (the posts) do sound like me. Maybe someone has been taking notes.”
Whatever the source, the page has been posting detailed city information that supports the incumbent majority. It describes the City Commission as “5 determined Men,” notably excluding Noriega and Wise.
It has posted pages from the written tabloid and professed to be the same person, saying “I have delivered a 16-page magazine … We made sure to roll them up and do only one per household.”
It also refers to the website for the Weslaco Economic Development Corp. as “our website.” Olivares recently took over as the interim director of the corporation.
One post included excerpts from an Oct. 16 deposition with former Economic Development Corp. Director Hernan Gonzalez, which is public information but has not yet been certified or made available by the court. The city has provided a copy to The Monitor and Olivares said he, his assistant, City Attorney Ramon Vela, Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar and possibly other commission or staff members also had copies.
The other majority commission members also denied involvement in “the truth.”
“I wish I could take full credit for the magazine and Facebook page because it deals with facts and not rumors! But unfortunately I have to say that I have NOT had anything to do with (them),” Cuellar said via text message.
Posters on the site have speculated as to its administrator, one of them writing “Leo don’t you have a job to do instead of spending my tax dollars on Facebook.”
“LOL… Leo Olivarez is not here,” “The truth” replied, misspelling the city manager’s last name.
Who controls information and what counts as fact has been a relentless battle in Weslaco this election season.
“The truth” has provided some counterpoints to popular Facebook page “Weslaco Cheezmeh,” which has been posting anonymous gossip, both true and false, primarily targeting the incumbent administration.
Controversy erupted last month when critics of the commission — and three local Catholic churches —began distributing fliers with edited excerpts of city meeting minutes pertaining to water rates.
Commissioner Tafolla sued Commissioner Noriega and two others over the fliers, calling them defamatory and misleading, and obtained a temporary restraining order to stop them from being distributed anymore.
Initial court hearings on that order over the last two weeks saw at least 17 people called as possible witnesses, including the majority of the City Commission, the city manager, the city attorney, a few city department heads, both candidates for mayor and Hidalgo County Pct. 1 Commissioner A.C. Cuellar.
On the first day of early voting Oct. 21, most of the election’s candidates found themselves in court together, where both sides accused the other of intentionally subpoenaing supporters to prevent them from campaigning.
“I’m very concerned on both ends that people are using this to try to create an election in the courtroom,” Judge Rose Guerra Reyna said.
The next hearing on the matter has been set for Nov. 12 — after Election Day.