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.
McALLEN — Opponents of city Proposition 1 politely crashed McAllen’s Botanical Gardens open house on Saturday morning, urging visitors to reject plans for a nearby road.
Saturday marked a small but significant milestone for the long-neglected city park, which McAllen will now open every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon.
“We’ve had cleanups and we’ve had events, but we haven’t had any kind of regular opening,” said Parks and Recreation Director Sally Gavlik.
Since May 2010, when voters rejected plans to sell adjacent WestsidePark and build a citywide sports complex — transforming the Botanical Gardens into a tennis complex — City Hall and local environmental advocates have gingerly worked together. Three years later, the public park will finally open four hours every week
Saturday, though, exposed lingering mistrust about the McAllen City Commission’s intentions.
Every car entering and exiting the Botanical Gardens passed University of Texas-Pan American student Jorge Trujillo, wearing bright pink clothes, a devil mask and a handwritten sign reading “McAllen City Commission.”
Laughing manically, he handed drivers a black-and-white flier opposing city Proposition 1. The $15 million road improvement plan would extend Erie Avenue from Ware Road to Bentsen Road, between the Botanical Gardens and WestsidePark, among other projects.
“Today for Halloween I’m dressing up as the City Commission to demonstrate how there’s always special interests in our local politics,” said Trujillo, 24, a graduate student studying biology. “Looking at the track record of the city, without a doubt someone is making money off this road.”
Trujillo designed and printed a thick stack of fliers, which advocate against the road between WestsidePark and the Botanical Gardens. Inside the park, several other people handed the same flier to visitors.
“When I’m talking to people, there’s a lot of people that are already against all three propositions because they don’t want their taxes going up,” said Geoff Alger, 51, the former McAllenHeritageCenter curator. “Of all the people I’ve talked to, I haven’t met one person yet that’s for the street.”
By 10 a.m. Saturday, about 100 people had visited the Botanical Gardens. Many brought children for a nature scavenger hunt. Others returned to the Botanical Gardens to reminisce about the park, which once had sunken gardens and a thriving array of cacti.
Few had heard about the controversy.
“I voted to improve the roads,” said Roy Allen, 86, adding that he didn’t know Erie Avenue would divide Westside Park and the Botanical Gardens. He said the road doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Mayor Jim Darling and the City Commission held six informational meetings about McAllen’s three local ballot propositions, but haven’t aggressively pushed them. They’ve largely outsourced the effort to local political consultant Brian Godinez and members of a political action committee called Invest in McAllen.
Even with Saturday’s loosely organized opposition to Proposition 1, the election remains low-profile.
Perhaps the most direct questions about McAllen’s park plans came Thursday, when McAllen Citizens League President Chris Julian half-jokingly pressed several commissioners about WestsidePark during the organization’s monthly meeting.
“The sports complex on 29th and 5 Mile,” Julian said, referencing Proposition 3, which would allow McAllen to borrow $15 million for new baseball fields near North 29th Street and 5 Mile Line. “Is that a strategy to appease the community to then allow you to sell a very valuable city property that shouldn’t be a city park anymore?”
City Commissioner Scott Crane immediately said WestsidePark wasn’t on the table.
“Absolutely not,” Crane said. “You’re talking about WestsidePark? Are we secretly planning on putting that up for sale at a later date? No. Absolutely not.”
City Commissioner Trey Pebley said he’d heard nothing about selling WestsidePark and City Commission John Ingram said he considered the matter settled.
“And from my vantage point, we’ve been through that discussion as a community,” Ingram said. “I’m willing to honor the wishes of the voters.”
Julian, though, kept pushing. Having a park on valuable Interstate 2/Expressway 83 frontage simply doesn’t make sense, Julian said, when the park could generate significant sales and property tax revenue.
“And, you know, there are a lot of economic reasons to do a project like that. And there are a lot of ecological reasons not to do a project like that,” Ingram said, recalling the May 2010 election. “And I think when the voters came out and voted, they made it clear that they’re concerned about the environment and the connection between the Botanic Gardens and WestsidePark. That’s what was decided and I have a feeling that if that came to voters again, it would lose again.”
In case the environment wasn’t enough reason for saving West Side Park or the McAllen Botanical Gardens consider this:
I mean if you’re dropping so much money to visit another country the least you could do is learn to spell the name right and keep the Edinburg TEXAS tag limpio. It’s just ONE letter y’all.
If you can’t be at the public comment tomorrow night for the private prison in McAllen, you can send your comments directly to Mayor Darling and Commissioners Salinas, Crane, Ramirez, Pebley, Ingram and Vela Whitacre by pasting these email addresses. Be sure to sign with your McAllen address if you have one:
firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; Ingramlaw2000@aol.com; email@example.com via Stefanie Herweck
Key museum donors and patrons haven’t been happy about how the museum board treated Bravo. And an aggressive follow-up investigation from City Commissioner John Ingram upset the all-volunteer board.
By Thursday, just about everyone associated with the museum appeared frustrated.
After reviewing the museum board’s bylaws and other records, Ingram determined board President Juan Carlos Suarez had served longer than normally allowed. Records show the museum board approved Suarez’s extended term, but it’s unclear whether or not the decision would pass legal muster.
Concerned, Ingram demanded Suarez resign immediately.
“If the museum board does not respect its own bylaws, I cannot support funding IMAS,” Ingram told Suarez, according to a Thursday afternoon email copied to several other board members. “I am only sorry I didn’t discover this sooner. If I had, Mr. Bravo would probably still be here working for $89,000 a year and IMAS would not be asking the City Commission for an additional $50,000 to pay a new director $125,000. (Because you say that’s what you have to pay to get a good director.) Put the museum’s interests above your own and step down.”
Losing McAllen’s nearly $710,000 annual contribution, which funds operating expenses, and the City Commission’s support for capital improvement projects, including façade work along Bicentennial Boulevard, would devastate the museum. Any action would require support from a majority of the seven-member City Commission.
Suarez refused to resign Thursday, telling Ingram the board legitimately extended his term, which expires Sept. 30.
“IMAS as an institution is much bigger than us as individuals,” Suarez told Ingram, according to a Thursday afternoon email copied to several other board members. “I do understand your fiduciary duty to investigate anything ‘questionable,’ especially (with the museum) requesting a 7 percent increase in funding, but I am asking that you reserve judgment until you and the city have had a chance to fully investigate and allow me, personally, to answer your questions.”
Word about the museum drama, including the back-and-forth between Suarez and Ingram, quickly spread across McAllen last week.
“It’s been very, very disappointing to me to see things kind of unravel the way they have,” said Kirk Clark of Clark Chevrolet, a major museum donor.
While private donations, admission fees and two major annual fundraisers, Collage and Brew-seum, support museum operations, McAllen remains the single-largest contributor.
McAllen budgeted $709,712 for the museum during the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, according to city records. The McAllen Public Utility budgeted an additional $78,800. McAllen also funds major museum repairs and select projects.
For comparison, the museum budgeted $185,000 from private donations, $111,000 from grants and $70,000 from membership dues. School tours, summer programs and other “government contracts/fees” would generate another $154,500.
Overall, taxpayer money from McAllen and the Public Utility’s payment total 43 percent of the museum’s proposed $1.8 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“IMAS gets most of its money from the city and its fundraising record hasn’t been exemplary,” Bravo said.
After Bravo left, the museum also requested an additional $41,288 from McAllen, which would boost the executive director’s annual salary to about $125,000 — well above the $85,000 annual salary Bravo earned. The executive director’s compensation also included city health insurance, a $50 monthly cell phone allowance and a 401K program without any match, according to museum board minutes.
The City Commission contributes significantly more money to the museum than any other organization funded through McAllen’s culture and recreation budget.
“I think it’s a question of need,” Ingram said. “They have expenses that they have to meet and apparently the board isn’t able to raise as much as they need, and the city is having to cover the difference.”
Donations from board members and their employers totaled nearly $302,000 during the past two years, according to a Sept. 4 letter from museum CFO Jo Ann Finn, which Ingram provided to The Monitor.
“And so, in the past, the City Commission has always placed a high priority on the museum — arts and science — because we always thought that it was important for our community,” Ingram said. “A community is not just about restaurants and stores, it’s about education and trying to help children have opportunities to expand their minds and grow. That’s why the museum has always been a priority for the City Commission.”
McAllen’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $709,712 for the museum, which would primarily fund staffing; $452,000 for the local Boys and Girls Club, which supports youth sports and other activities; and $91,000 for the local symphony.
The McAllen Development Corp., which handles a half-cent of the local sales tax, also funds local educational and non-profit organizations.
El Milagro Clinic, which provides medical services to the uninsured, requested $175,000 from the Development Corp. for the upcoming fiscal year. City Manager Mike Perez recommended $120,000 — roughly 17 percent of the museum’s funding.
The controversy surrounding the museum flared in April, when Bravo approached the board and recommended they find a new executive director.
An art historian, Bravo helped grow the museum’s collection and forged relationships with key patrons, including Kirk Clark. The museum, though, needed someone with fundraising prowess, Bravo said. He’d also had problems with Suarez and past board President Alma Ortega-Johnson.
“Any museum is a contact sport,” Bravo said.
To smooth the transition, Bravo offered to stay until they found a new executive director. Instead, the boardbooted him almost immediately. Discussions about Bravo helping with a few in-the-works projects went nowhere.
“Yes, that was a shock,” Bravo said. “That didn’t seem in the best interests of the museum — to leave it in the lurch.”
The museum’s development director and education director also resigned recently, apparently for unrelated reasons.
Neither Suarez nor Bravo would offer details about their disagreements. Other board members, including Ortega-Johnson, declined to comment or asked The Monitor to contact Suarez instead.
“There were other things regarding his tenure. He was on an action plan the prior year,” said museum board Treasurer Arthur Hughes. “When it finally came to the decision of him staying or leaving, that was his — not the board’s. We did not ask him to resign. We did not sever his relationships.”
Bravo disputed that the museum board developed a formal action plan for him, calling it a “personal improvement plan,” which turned into a monthly performance review.
It’s also unclear whether Bravo ever had a formal contract with the museum. Asked on Friday, Suarez said he wasn’t sure and needed to double-check. Bravo said he never had a formal contract, which created problems.
“And to my knowledge, no director has ever had a contract,” Bravo said. “Which makes them vulnerable to the slightest political whims.”
Stronger oversight from McAllen and adherence to the board’s bylaws would strengthen the museum, Bravo said, and help solve structural problems with the organization, including frequent turnover.
“If it had that in place, all this personality and political business wouldn’t matter,” Bravo said.
Perhaps most importantly, the museum board must clearly delineate the board president’s role and the executive director’s role, Bravo said, adding that the blurry line aggravated personality conflicts between him and the board’s executive committee.
“And that’s not uncommon. That’s not unique to IMAS, necessarily,” Bravo said. “But at IMAS I think the problem was particularly acute: ‘Who’s running this museum?’”
What’s next for the museum isn’t clear.
The City Commission will approve a budget before Oct. 1, which will dictate the museum’s funding for the upcoming fiscal year. It will include the museum’s regular funding and any increase for the new executive director.
Meanwhile, Bravo moved back to San Antonio last week.
And neither Ingram nor Suarez have budged. Ingram still wants Suarez to resign immediately; Suarez still says the board didn’t do anything wrong and he’ll serve until Sept. 30.
All the controversy may leave the museum without even an interim executive director. After Bravo left, board member Kevin Graham volunteered to manage day-to-day operations without taking a salary.
Graham said he’s now reconsidering.
“I kind of value my privacy,” Graham said. “And if this is going to be some hotbed of newspaper articles and political debate than I’m not interested.”
Whatever happens, the museum and the board must move forward, said Clark, recalling how his parents helped found the organization.
“We care so much about the place, it’s kind of part of our family history. But more than that, it’s part of McAllen’s history,” Clark said. “It’s part of the fabric of our community, you know. I guess nobody can guarantee good management, particularly in a volunteer organization, but I think there are some opportunities to really improve in the future.”