Harlingen leaders split over compensation proposal

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Harlingen City Hall is seen in this undated file photo. (Valley Morning Star file photo)

HARLINGEN — Commissioners are apparently split over a proposal to pay them salaries for their time of service.

As officials review the City Charter to consider proposed amendments commissioners could turn into propositions on November’s election ballot, the city’s Charter Review Committee is proposing paying the mayor $25,000 and commissioners $15,000 to help compensate them.

Now, the city’s paying the mayor and commissioners monthly stipends of $100, Mayor Norma Sepulveda said.

On Tuesday, DawnRae Leonard, a Charter Review Committee member, said the commission presented committee members with a list of recommendations.

While she proposed lesser compensation, she noted many Rio Grande Valley cities are paying their commissioners to help compensate them for their time of service.

“This is a 24/7 commission,” Leonard, whom Commissioner Frank Morales appointed to the committee, said in an interview. “In most cities in the Valley, the commission is compensated.”

Along with Leonard, commissioners appointed Delia Avila; Melinda Weaver; Carly Burns Thomas; Michael Garza, a WaterWorks board member; and Victor Leal, a former city commissioner, to the committee.

While Morales said he didn’t know who on the commission came up with the proposal, he said an original compensation package proposed giving the mayor $40,000 and commissioners $25,000.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Daniel Lopez said the commission and the committee came up with proposals while City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez documented the proposals.

At City Hall, Gonzalez, who oversees the committee, only said, “the recommendations that will be sent to the commission were voted on and approved by the committee.”

On Tuesday, Sepulveda said she wanted voters to decide if the city should pay the mayor and commissioners for their service.

”The Charter Review Committee has been diligently reviewing more than 20 possible propositions, including compensation for the mayor and commissioners,” she said in a statement. “If the committee proposes an increase in the stipend for the commission from the current $100 monthly amount, it will ultimately be up to the voters to decide. However, no formal report with the propositions has been presented to the commission, and anything being shared or rumored at this time is pure speculation.”

Sepulveda said the committee is set to present officials with its report next week.

“Following that, we will call a special meeting with a public hearing to further engage the community,” she said. “The commissioners will review the recommendations at that time and decide whether to accept them. The committee’s work reflects their thorough research and dedication to the community. Ultimately, the decision will be made by the voters of Harlingen.”

In her statement, Sepuleveda noted the city doesn’t give her a vote on the commission while she “will not decide what gets placed on the ballot.”

But Commissioner Michael Mezmar vehemently opposed the proposal.

“Mezmar did not want to speak before the issue comes to the city commission,” he said as part of a statement. “However, Mezmar said he will bring a verbal shotgun to the meeting.”

Like Sepulveda, Morales said he wanted voters to decide.

”The final say-so is up to the voters,” he said. “Let the voters have their say-so.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Ford Kinsley said he’s questioning the proposal.

“I have heard rumor of that. I have not heard that officially,” he said, referring to the proposal. “I didn’t sign on to the job for money. I’m a little concerned that people could be possibly running (for office) for a second income instead of meeting the needs of the city.”

Like Kinsley, Lopez said he opposed the proposal, but wanted to help compensate Sepulveda for her city travel expenses.

“I sincerely appreciate the committee’s recommendation for the mayor and commission to take a salary,” Lopez said in a statement. “It is humbling to know they believe we deserve to be compensated. However, I do not believe it is necessary.”

Lopez pointed to the City Charter, which directs the city manager to run daily operations while commissioners set policy.

”Our charter is manager-centric, meaning that the city manager runs the day-to-day operations; the commission, on the other hand, creates the policy our city manager executes.”

“When the mayor and commissioners were elected, we knew there was no pay aside from a nominal stipend,” Lopez said. “This is a volunteer position and should stay as such. We ran because of our love for Harlingen, not to be compensated.”

Lopez said taxpayer money should fund city services.

”Personally, I prefer that the money proposed for our salaries be spent on projects that benefit our constituents,” he said.

But Lopez proposed compensating Sepulveda for her city travel expenses.

”I do believe that the mayor should be reimbursed for personal travel expenses for city business outside of the city, either through mileage or a vehicle allowance, whichever is easier to track,” he said. “Mayor Sepulveda has done a phenomenal job representing Harlingen throughout the Valley, state and country. Her advocacy on our behalf has raised the city’s profile on every stage including in Austin and Washington, D.C. It would only be fair that her personal travel expenses such as gas and vehicle wear and tear be reimbursed.”

Commissioner Rene Perez declined comment.