The city of Weslaco has hired a high-powered lobbyist to look after its legislative interests just days before the 88th Texas Legislature convenes into session.
The Weslaco City Commission unanimously approved the hiring of Ares Services Incorporated and its principal, Rigoberto “Rigo” Villarreal, during its first meeting of 2023 on Tuesday.
According to Assistant City Manager Andrew Muñoz, Villarreal will help facilitate connections at the capitol throughout the five-month-long state legislative session, just as he did in 2021.
“This is our consultant that helps us with our legislative agenda, as well as with our grant consulting with our political figures, both on a local, state and federal level,” Muñoz explained to the city commission Tuesday.
“They’ve helped us with grants regarding FEMA, EDA, FAA, TxDOT, GLO, Texas Water Development Board, TCEQ. They’ve helped us with CARES Act funding with the county, as well as ARPA money with the county,” he said.
Weslaco will pay Villarreal $7,500 a month — plus up to $1,000 in pre-approved expenses — for the next two years.
The Monitor previously reported that Villarreal would be paid $2,500 per month, but that figure came from a 2020 draft copy of the contract, Muñoz clarified.
“I presented the wrong contract to the commission… I’ll clarify that on the 17th when we take the item back to the commission for reconsideration,” the assistant city manager said via phone Thursday.
Instead, the city will pay Villarreal $7,500 per month — the same rate it agreed to during the 2021 legislative session.
“The reason the numbers changed from ’20 to ’21 is because the workload changed,” Muñoz said.
“So, it’s not a performance-based contract, it’s a workload based off … the (city’s) priorities and how we want to approach the legislative session for that,” he added a moment later.
According to a draft of the contract included in an agenda packet for a Jan. 5, 2021, Weslaco City Commission meeting, the city had the option of paying Villarreal as much as $10,000 per month if his work was found to be satisfactory after a review by the mayor, city manager and economic development corporation.
Under that contract, Villarreal was guaranteed to make $180,000, but could have made as much as $240,000.
However, the new contract contains no such stipulations regarding the potential for increased pay.
The assistant city manager also clarified the legislative priorities Villarreal will be keeping tabs on for Weslaco.
In particular, the city is concerned with infrastructure — flood mitigation, water access and drainage.
Weslaco is also keeping an eye on transportation bills as the city continues to pursue a multimillion-dollar expansion of its international airport and industrial park, Muñoz said.
Further priorities include economic development, land annexation, parks and recreation, and public safety concerns, such as bills dealing with police, fire or EMS services.
Weslaco isn’t the first city to retain Villarreal’s services.
In late May of 2021, the Donna Economic Development Corporation (4B) hired Villarreal as a legislative consultant during a one-minute-long meeting that followed shortly after a separate meeting of the Donna International Bridge Corporation board.
The Donna EDC agreed to pay Villarreal $4,500 per month, or $54,000 per year.
His hiring came one day after the 87th Texas Legislature adjourned sine die.
At the time, Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena offered few details for why the EDC had chosen to hire Villarreal after the 2021 legislative session had ended. But he added that there was plenty of work to be done before the 2023 session.
“There’s things in between now (and then) that you can do to get things lined up. They’re gonna help us with different items. Just different items that — bridge items, different matters relating to the city,” Yerena said then.
Prior to becoming a lobbyist, Villarreal spent a decade as the bridge superintendent for McAllen, overseeing the Reynosa and Anzalduas international bridges. He resigned from the position in January 2020.
Villarreal has also served as a consultant for Mission’s Madero international bridge project.
He declined to comment about either the Weslaco or Donna contracts when reached by phone Wednesday.
He also refused to answer whether he still served as a consultant for Donna, which has since gone on to approve an $84 million expansion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge.
However, neither Villarreal nor his company appeared in documents Donna sent to The Monitor in response to a public information request regarding consultant contracts in October 2022.
“I’d rather not comment. … I don’t work for the public,” Villarreal said.
When pressed that his services affect a public entity, Villarreal replied, “Maybe you can ask them. I usually don’t comment on these things. … I just don’t comment on any of my work.”
The 140-day session of the 88th Texas Legislature begins Jan. 10.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 6, 2023, to include new information.