PHARR ELECTION TURNING INTO A RAUCOUS AFFAIR
Tue, 2015-03-24 20:12 News Staff
By G. Romero Wendorf
PHARR – Pharr’s municipal election this year is almost reminiscent of the quip Ronald Reagan made to voters during his bid in 1980 to unseat Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In this case, however, the question might be: “Are you (the residents of Pharr) better off now than you were seven years ago? Because that’s when the political tide of this city really changed with the election of three new incumbents to the city commission: Eduardo “Eddie” Cantu, Bobby Carrillo and Oscar Elizondo Jr. In this year’s election, those supporting the incumbent slate (Pharr First) would undoubtedly tell Reagan, based on recent posts seen on social media: “Yes, we are better off, thank you very much. The city has brought in more new business than ever before. Our sales taxes are doing well. Our bridge is doing well. Our city commission isn’t always fighting amongst themselves. And overall, Pharr is making more progress than it ever has.” Supporters of the challenging slate (Pharr Forward), however, based on recent social media posts as well, would most likely tell Reagan, “No, we’re not better off. Pharr may be bringing in new business. But how exactly is it benefitting the taxpayer as opposed to special interests? And why aren’t the roads in better shape? And what can be done about the escalating crime?” Up until the outcome of the 2008 election, the politics in this city resembled high political drama, with the city commission majority shuffling back and forth between city commissioners like a high-stakes poker game on a late Saturday night. And at the heart of it all stood two men: Leopoldo “Polo” Palacios and Ricardo Medina. Mortal political enemies and then, political partners. And then back to political enemies. In this election, 2015, they’re back to being political partners. In 2008, Cantu, Carrillo and Elizondo won a landslide election, unseating the incumbents, including Medina, Raul Martinez and Raul Gonzalez (the three R’s). At the time, Palacios backed the challengers (the young guns, as they were called). In 2010, Palacios won his third term as mayor. On his slate were Arturo Cortez, Adan Farias (both of whom first won election in 2006) and political newcomer Aquiles “Jimmy” Garza. That slate also won the election in landslide fashion. The political turmoil inside Pharr city hall, which had basically come to a boil between 2002 and 2008, lowered back down to room temperature after the election of Cantu, Carrillo and Elizondo. It’s stayed relatively low key since then. But now, shades of the “old days” have returned. Some people bemoan that fact. While others, those who enjoy a good “political fight,” are happy to see it return. Some say it’s good to see a city commission that “gets along.” While others say, a split city commission is better for the taxpayers. One side keeping tabs on the other, that sort of thing. THIS YEAR’S ELECTION The man helping turn up the political heat this year, one might argue, is Pharr Mayor “Polo” Palacios. He and his family, including then-County Commissioner Hector “Tito” Palacios, backed “Eddie” Cantu and his slate (Carrillo and Elizondo) in 2008, and then pulled “Jimmy” Garza on to their side (slate) in the 2010 election, which like the 2008 election proved to be a landslide when the votes were finally tallied. But when Cantu chose to run against “Tito” Palacios for Hidalgo County commissioner (Precinct 2) in the Democratic Primary last year, a decision that gained the full support of the entire Pharr city commission, Palacios said he felt betrayed. After all, he said at the time, these were the same people – Cantu, Carrillo, Elizondo, Farias, Cortez and Garza – that he and his family had helped and supported during their respective city commission campaigns. If not for the support of the Palacios family (AKA, local political powerhouse), he said at the time, they never would have been elected. Cantu ultimately won the county’s primary election. His argument, and that of his supporters, was: Look, “Tito” promised us four years ago that that would be his last campaign. Now he’s changing his mind? Too late. Precinct 2 needs some new blood. FAST FORWARD TO 2015 This year, two political slates are vying for four seats on the Pharr City Commission, including the mayoral seat. And in a sort of twist, if you will, it’s almost as if the “new guard” has turned into the “old guard,” and vice versa. The incumbents, Farias, Cortez, Garza, along with newcomer Mario Bracamontes, have teamed up under the banner: Pharr First. The rest of the Pharr city commission – Carrillo, Eduardo Maldonado and Elizondo – is backing it. Farias is running for mayor; Cortez, city commissioner place 1; “Jimmy Garza, place 5; and Mario Bracamontes, place 6. Farias, now retired, has enjoyed a long career in public education, including several stints as school principal. Cortez is a retired postmaster who served 31 years with the USPS. Garza is a successful businessman in the family’s Pharr-based produce business. And Bracamontes is principal at Buell Central High School (PSJA). In opposition to them stands the Pharr Forward slate, which includes two political newcomers, both successful physicians, both raised in Pharr – Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez (for mayor) and Ramiro Caballero (citycommissioner, place 6). Teaming up with Hernandez and Caballero are two seasoned politicos: Ricardo Medina (place 5), who has previously served as both Pharr mayor and city commissioner, and Eleazar Guajardo (place 1), who has run before in prior political races (school board and the city). Professionally, Medina served as laboratory director at Knapp Medical Center for many years before he retired; and Guajardo has spent his career as a secondary math teacher in public education (Valley View ISD). Dr. Hernandez currently serves as medical director of surgical services (pediatric surgeon) in the Rio Grande Valley for Driscoll Children’s Hospital and is the chief medical compliance officer for DHR. As a surgeon, he’s also associated with DHR’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. Dr. Caballero is a neonatologist (a pediatric subspecialty that deals with the medical care of newborn infants, especially the ill or those born premature). He practices at McAllen Medical Center, Rio Grande Regional, and hospitals in Mission, Edinburg and Weslaco. To add a little more relish to this race, Medina opposed “Eddie” Cantu in last year’s Democratic Primary for county commissioner. Cantu is now serving as campaign treasurer for the Pharr First slate. To say that both men dislike the other would probably be an understatement. How much is personal vs. political is hard to gauge. In a story published previously in this paper (Feb. 25), Cantu said he decided to get involved in this campaign as treasurer for the Pharr First slate simply because he couldn’t stand to see Medina back on the Pharr city commission: “(I chose to back the slate and become its campaign treasurer) to get the right candidates elected. And to make sure that Ricardo Medina doesn’t get back in office. He’s been there before, and we saw how that went. Let’s continue the progress, that’s why I’m involved in this election. I don’t want Ricardo Medina coming back into office and taking the city back to where we were before (the new guard) was voted into office in 2008 (Bobby Carrillo, Oscar Elizondo and Cantu).” Firing back, Medina said, “(Eddie Cantu and the candidates he’s supporting) want to try and make it seem as if there’s a disagreement on the city commission, that’s a bad thing. And if you don’t agree with them, they call it a fight. But last time I checked, a city commission that has people with different viewpoints isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It shows that they’re not all a bunch of puppets, all voting the same.” Adan Farias, who is running for mayor against “Amos” Hernandez, said the use of the word “puppets” on the part of Medina is disingenuous, to say the least. “If you look at how the city commission was prior to the successful election of the 2008 slate (Cantu, Carrillo and Elizondo), what you had was basically turmoil on the city commission.” Farias was voted into office in 2006, along with Cortez. So he says now that he knows first hand how things used to be. He was there and watched first hand how things could be. “Constant fighting. Constant bickering on the commission. Other cities were asking, why can’t the Pharr city commission at least conduct itself in a professional manner? City staff were on edge. Since the 2008 election, I think the entire climate inside city hall has changed. We may not agree on everything. And none of us is a puppet to anyone. But when we do disagree, at least we do it in a professional manner. Every decision this current city commission makes is geared toward the betterment of the community and with the taxpayers’ interests in mind.” For his part, “Amos” Hernandez said he believes the power inside city hall now is too centralized. He doesn’t, for example, think that the city manager, Fred Sandoval, should be wearing so many hats. In addition to city manager, Sandoval is the director of the PEDC (Pharr Economic Development Corporation) and heads up the city’s new version of the old chamber of commerce (Pharr.Biz). “He’s (Fred Sandoval) wearing too many hats,” said Hernandez. “I’m not picking on the city manager or the city commission as a whole. I just think that the city is not being managed correctly.” Plus, he believes there are too many vendors involved in the political process. “If you are getting work or a contract from the city, and you’re a vendor giving money to the same people awarding you the contract, then yes, I do think there is a little conflict of interest there. The city talks about how it is transparent. I think being transparent is not being conflicted.” POLO’S BACK IN THE RACE When this year’s city campaign first kicked off, “Polo” Palacios said publicly that he was going to back “Amos” Hernandez. That was even before the others joined Hernandez as part of a slate: Guajardo, Medina and Ramiro Caballero. Now, Palacios is backing all four. Palacios had already decided not to seek a fourth term as mayor at the bequest of his family. Last year, he took a nasty fall that laid him up for several months. And although he’s still active and spry in his early 80s, his family wanted him to slow down. Still work at his drug/alcohol education and counseling business, but slow down a little bit on the political front. Still, however, he wasn’t going to quit campaigning for the Pharr Forward slate. Then, earlier this year, he retreated from his position and said that he had had a change of heart and was going to stay neutral. Keep his head low and serve out his term, which expires this May. But recently, he has shown up at Pharr Forward political rallies, voicing the merits of the candidates, telling listeners why they should vote for them instead of Farias (mayor); Art Cortez (place 1); “Jimmy” Garza (place 5); and Mario Bracamontes (place 6). Asked this week why he would re-enter the race after saying he was going to stay neutral, Palacios said, “I just decided that this race is too important for me to stay out of it. I just see too many bad things going on. I see them doing a lot of things they shouldn’t be doing.” Asked to elaborate, Palaciossaid: “Some of the things, well, we discuss in executive session, so I can’t say much. But there’s the Toby Keith concert and the pay raise to the city manager, for example. “But just look at the (Toby Keith) concert (Aug. 15, 2014). I didn’t even know the city lost money until I read about it in the paper (The Monitor; Sept. 10; Elizabeth Findell). The city commission didn’t vote to spend the money on the concert. At least I didn’t vote on it. That was the city manager’s doing. And first I was told we really didn’t lose $300,000, it was less than that. To this day, I’m still not sure how much the city lost.” The Keith concert sold less tickets than expected, but according to Mayor Pro Tem Adan Farias, something good still came out of the experience. “It did bring a lot of people to the city. And there is always a calculated risk in something like this. I think Boggus (Ford) got involved in that event (as a sponsor). And out of that, I think we ended up with the Boggus Ford Event Center in naming rights. And I think that brought back any losses that would have been involved with the Toby Keith Concert.” Last month, Boggus Ford signed a three-year agreement with Pharr. For $100,000 per year, the Pharr Events Center was re-named the Boggus Events Center. So now, when passers-by drive by the Hwy. 281/Exp. 83 interchange, the Boggus name is front and center on the east side of the road, its name on the tall sign writ large. When the agreement was reached late last year, city officials said that based on TxDOT numbers, more than 100,000 cars pass by the location on a daily basis. “Like my mom used to say, ‘No hay mal que por bien no venga.’ (Even in bad situations, good things will come). (Polo) was involved in that (Toby Keith) process himself. No, (Keith) didn’t bring in as many people as we thought he would, but at the end of the day, we were okay.” Asked if he thought the decision to spend close to $300,000 should have been voted on by the entire city commission, as opposed to a decision made by city staff, Farias said, “You learn from those experiences. We had figured it would turn out okay, but it didn’t, but at the end it did. I think you learn from those processes. You try to become a little more vigilant.” With regard to Palacios’ allegations that the pay increase to the city manager was done without his direct knowledge, more or less, Farias said, “(As a city commission), we talked about upping Fred’s salary because he’s doing both the EDC and (the job of) city manager. And so, again, don’t want to get into executive session stuff, but that was discussed. One thing that happened at that point (last fall), the mayor was out of commission (from injuries sustained in a fall), and so I signed that (city) form (which raised Sandoval’s salary to approximately $235k per year). But I did ask Fred, you need to run this by the mayor before we do anything. He did talk to the mayor. As a matter of fact, he also signed the form (or saw the form).” For his part, Palacios said he did sign the form (granting a raise to the city manager). “But I didn’t get the form until a month after (Adan) had already signed it. I didn’t know about it until then. It was brought to my office late one Friday night, and I signed it. They didn’t know that I already had a copy of the one that had been signed about a month before.” Farias said Mayor Palacios’ flip-flopping though doesn’t hold up, however. “The mayor (Palacios) knew of both situations when he first said that he was going to support the doctor (the Pharr Forward slate), even though he didn’t know him. He still knew about (those) situations the next week when he told (The Advance; Jan. 7, ‘15) that he was going to remain neutral.” Palacios attended a Pharr Forward political rally last week. Asked again why he is now throwing his full weight behind the challengers, he said, “This place (city hall) is getting scary, to say the least. It’s a bunch of bull. I can’t say much because of the executive session (discussions during them must be kept confidential), but I never thought I’d see the day Fred would go with Adan. If these guys win, believe me, it’s going to be a bad situation. Really bad.” Farias shakes off a lot of what Palacios says. “The city’s never been in better shape. And I think most residents realize that. And if you want to talk about the fact that Fred (Sandoval) is serving as both city manager and EDC director, compare us to other cities of comparable size, where they pay two salaries – one for city manager, and the other for an EDC director. We’re paying one salary for both positions, and I think we’re saving taxpayers money by doing so.” For his part, Farias’ challenger, “Amos” Hernandez, said splitting the duties between city manager and EDC director allows for more transparency. These guys (on the Pharr First slate) talk about how Pharr is first, he said. “Well, the Pharr Forward slate talks to citizens who want change and they don’t agree that everything is going well. Being first doesn’t necessarily mean being a winner.” Early voting for this year’s Pharr city election is still less than five weeks away, April 27th. The last day to register to vote is April 9th.