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Candidates face off on convention center

April 12, 2018 GMT

HARLINGEN — Candidates for the City Commission’s District 3, 4 and 5 positions squared off last night on some of the biggest issues facing the city.

The Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum moderated by the Rio Grande Guardian, with Editor Steve Taylor posing questions to the candidates at the Harlingen school district’s administration building.

The forum offered candidates five minutes to make opening statements, gave them three minutes to answer questions, then allowed them to make closing remarks.

District 3

In the race for the District 3 seat, two-term incumbent Michael Mezmar, a financial analyst, faces businessman Richard Garza.

Mezmar, who said he brought Habitat for Humanity to Harlingen and Cameron County, said he helped bring “stability” to the commission.

“The city is doing quite well — employment is at an all-time high,” Mezmar said. “It’s all about economic development. It takes time to seed businesses. It takes years of stability to reap rewards. What we have here is a stable city government. There are people who want to change that stability.”

Mezmar said Hidalgo County’s oil and gas revenues have helped cities such as McAllen, Weslaco and Edinburg grow bigger and faster than Harlingen.

“We have been growing faster percentage-wise (than other cities) in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Mezmar, who argued Garza had not voted in city elections in about five years.

In response to questions regarding the city’s $16.7 million project to build a convention center, Mezmar said the city held numerous meetings to inform residents about its plans for the project.

But Garza said the commission pushed the project without residents’ input.

“Not once were we given the opportunity on what the commission was going to do with our tax dollars,” Garza said.

Garza said he would have called for a vote to determine whether the city should fund the convention center project.

Cities such as Weslaco and McAllen have grown faster than Harlingen, Garza said.

Garza described himself as a leader “who can put Harlingen on the map as capital of the Rio Grande Valley. We need a leader who will change the future of Harlingen, is strong in faith and a proactive leader. I’m a leader with good leadership and fortitude.”

Garza said 5 percent of voters turned out for a recent election.

“We need to see true transparency, loyalty and dedication,” he said.

District 4

In the race for District 4, one-term incumbent Ruben de la Rosa, an instructor at Texas Southmost College, faces former Commissioner Basilio “Chino” Sanchez, a retired newspaper production technician.

Sanchez did not attend the forum.

“We’re moving forward,” de la Rosa said. “There has been a lot of work — a lot accomplished. We’ve brought business into District 4. Our hospitals have grown. We’re bringing more hotels to Harlingen. Tourism will go up with the convention center.

A lot of people say, ‘Why isn’t Harlingen growing?’ Harlingen is growing but not too fast. It took a good commission.”

De la Rosa said the city’s downtown continues growing.

“Harlingen has a very unique downtown compared to other cities,” he said.

De la Rosa, who declined to take a question regarding the convention center, said he stands against a merger of the Valley’s metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs.

“We don’t know who’s going to control the money or where it goes,” de la Rosa said.

District 5

Two-term incumbent Victor Leal faces attorney Jim Young.

Leal said he helped bring stability to the commission after he first won election.

“I ran because the city was a mess five years ago,” Leal said. “People were not opening businesses. We had a City Commission running amok.” Leal said he listens to residents’ concerns before making decisions.

“We have a commission that really cares about the city,” Leal said. “I always make myself available. I return all calls (and emails) within 24 hours.”

Leal said the city’s comprehensive plan and the Harlingen 100 plan listed the convention center as a priority.

“It was the citizens of Harlingen over many years” who called for the convention center, he said.

Leal said legal experts advised the city regarding the convention center’s financing. Leal said he pushed for annual street funding coming through the new street maintenance fee, which charges residents through their utility bills.

He noted the city’s police and firefighters’ unions have endorsed Young.

“We’re supposed to be independent. We’re not supposed to be endorsed by employees,” Leal said. “I’m here representing the citizens of Harlingen without any conflict of interest.”

Young said he would “speak the truth” on the commission.

“A city commissioner is not doing their job unless they really speak the truth,” Young said. “I’m willing to speak the truth over power. I’m not here to make friends.”

Young said he did not make promises to the unions.

“No promises, no commitment other than trust, honesty, respect,” Young said. “I’m going to listen to you and be honest.”

Young said he would “advocatefor more transparency.” Young called the street maintenance fee a “hidden tax.”

“Taxes should be approved by taxpayers,” he said.

Instead, the city should consider taking steps to use its sales tax revenue as general revenue.

Young also said the city pushed its public comment period toward the close of commission meetings.

“I love Mayor Boswell’s vision,” Young said, referring to the convention center project. “I do dislike some lack of transparency.”

Instead of certificates of obligation, Young said the commission should have considered selling municipal bonds to borrow money to fund the convention center project because they require voter approval and come with lower interest rates.

Young questioned the commission’s decision to use money from its three tax zones to help fund the eight acre convention center site.

Meanwhile, the commission used a single consent agenda to vote to use tax zone money to help fund the convention center site, Young said.