Push for term limits back on in Harlingen

New majority seeks change in appointments, retirement system

Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell delivers the State of the City Address Friday at the Harlingen Convention Center. Boswell covered topics ranging from finances, grants, COVID-10 response, first responders, public works, planning and development, and park upgrades, among other issues. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — The city commission’s new majority is pushing for change that could cap longtime Mayor Chris Boswell’s tenure along with his airport board appointments while calling for a switch in employees’ retirement system.

Later Wednesday, Commissioners Rene Perez and Frank Puente are set to request commissioners consider calling for a proposition in the May 2022 election setting term limits on the mayor’s and commissioners’ tenures.

During the meeting, Perez and Puente are also calling on commissioners to consider allowing the city commission to appoint members to the prominent airport board. Now, the City Charter limits the board’s appointments to the mayor.

Meanwhile, Perez and newly elected Commissioner Frank Morales are requesting commissioners return to the Texas Municipal League’s Retirement System they believe grants employees’ better benefits while helping to keep them from taking jobs with cities offering the program.

After calling for term limits last month, Perez and Puente said they want voters to decide whether they want to cap the number of terms elected officials serve in office.

“Harlingen has a history of elected officials going on, and on and on, and if we have term limits, we’ll have more people running for office and more new ideas and more change,” Perez, who narrowly defeated three-term Commissioner Victor Leal in the May 1 election, said Tuesday. “It’s the voters’ decision — it would be on the ballot for May, so the people of Harlingen would make the ultimate decision.”

Puente said some residents are requesting he push to place the proposition on next year’s ballot.

“Every three years, the citizens go out and vote so I guess that we could consider that a term limit,” he said, referring to the city commission’s election cycle. “Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve had some constituents ask about term limits. I’ve always had an ear for the citizens as far as what would be good for Harlingen so I thought, ‘Let them decide if we should have term limits and for how long as well.’”

Setting term limits could stop Boswell from seeking re-election in upcoming years.

First elected mayor in 2007, he’s serving his fifth three-year term in office after serving as a commissioner between 1998 and 2007.

During his election campaigns, Boswell has overwhelmingly defeated opposing candidates.

In Brownsville and McAllen, residents overwhelmingly voted to set term limits there in the May 1 election.

Revising airport board appointments

During the meeting, Perez and Puente are also set to request commissioners consider revising the City Charter to allow commissioners to appoint members to the airport board.

Now, the charter limits those appointments to the mayor.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Perez said. “The airport board is a major board. We should have input into who gets nominated. It’s about the people having a voice through the commissioners they elect. We get to confirm the picks but we can’t choose them.”

Puente said commissioners’ appointments would help diversify the board.

“I thought it would be a more diverse board if the commission would appoint people who they believe could serve on the airport board,” he said.

Puente, who suggested Marv Esterly, Valley International Airport’s aviation director, help recommend the board’s nominations, said he would like to restrict the board’s appointments to Harlingen residents.

“Some of the board members are people who live outside of Harlingen,” he said. “I personally feel we have a lot of capable, talented, experienced citizens who would serve well on the airport board.”

Returning to state retirement system

Meanwhile, Perez and Morales, who defeated former City Commissioner Basilio “Chino” Sanchez in the June 19 runoff election for the District 4 seat vacated by former Commissioner Ruben De la Rosa, are calling on commissioners to return to the Texas Municipal League’s Retirement System.

“Most cities in the Valley have it,” Perez said, adding some employees including police officers leave their jobs for cities offering the state system’s benefits.

“The system we have now is not a good one,” he said. “They start thinking about retirement and they go to cities having TMRS. We want to keep experience in Harlingen.”

Puente said he would like officials to conduct a cost analysis to determine whether the state system would be cost effective.

“We want to see what they have to offer,” he said.

Since 2007, the private Texas Capital Group has overseen city employees’ retirements, matching their contributions one-to-one.

As part of the state system, employees could contribute 7 percent, which the city would match two-to-one.

Under the system, the city’s unfunded liability swelled from $7 million to $15 million from 1999 to 2006.

As part of a former city commission’s policy, the state system was funding city employees’ and retirees’ accounts to cover cost-of-living increases, forcing the city to pay additional 2- to 3-percent increases which led to its mounting unfunded liability.

Earlier this year, Boswell announced the city’s liability had dropped to $600,000.

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