HARLINGEN — Amid some of the city’s most heated debates in years, the commission’s new majority’s going ahead with plans to give voters a chance to set term limits while capping the mayor’s appointments to the prominent airport board.
Earlier this week, Commissioner Rene Perez pushed to place a proposition on the May 2022 election ballot giving voters the chance to amend the City Charter to set term limits on the mayor’s and commissioners’ tenures.
The new majority will also let voters decide if they’ll grant commissioners power to appoint members to the airport board — an authority which the charter solely gives the mayor.
During Wednesday night’s meeting, Commissioner Michael Mezmar cast the lone dissenting votes.
Amid about two hours of fiery debate, Perez said his proposals weren’t aimed at cutting into Mayor Chris Boswell’s power.
When Mezmar asked if his push to cap Boswell’s appointments to the airport board stemmed from a drive to “neuter” the mayor, Perez denied the charge.
Meanwhile, Perez argued Commissioners Richard Uribe and Frank Puente were trying to “delay” his call for the election.
“From what I’m understanding from Commissioner Uribe and Commissioner Puente, they just want to keep researching and researching,” Perez said, referring to the commissioners’ call for further information surrounding setting term limits and changing the city’s system governing board appointments.
Puente, Uribe question Perez
During tense confrontation, Puente accused Perez of failing to consider details such as the length of the proposed term limits.
“You want to shove the number of years — you want to shove it down the citizens’ throats,” Puente told Perez. “You’re telling them, ‘This is what you all get to vote on.’ That’s not really giving them an option. I just want to explore term limits. We’re not delaying it. This is the process. So the process is part of getting information back so we can better understand that so we can make concise, good decisions for our citizens.”
Meanwhile, Uribe questioned Perez’s call for term limits.
“Don’t you think there’s something to be said about stability or being stable?” Uribe asked Perez. “What happens when you have a really good person that’s serving. It’s hard to find … somebody that’ll show up for meetings and do things the right way — people that want to volunteer to do this. We don’t get paid to do it …. Especially us — we’re by district. If my constituents in my neighborhood aren’t happy with me, they’re going to vote me out.”
Perez points to Boswell
Through heated discussions, Perez held his ground.
“I strongly believe we need term limits on the commission and I know some people try to put it in we’re going after the mayor on this one,” Perez said. “If we’re to even do this — term limits — it wouldn’t even affect Mayor Boswell. It wouldn’t probably go into effect probably till the next election, when I run for re-election, and these previous terms wouldn’t count toward him. This is just us giving the people of Harlingen the same decision that the people of Brownsville and McAllen did. It’s a good thing because it brings fresh ideas to the elected offices plus it prevents a lot of cronyism.”
Amid the debate, Perez pointed to Boswell, who’s served as mayor since 2007 before overwhelmingly defeating opponents in later elections.
“Incumbency has its benefits. Look at the mayor — perfect example with the mayor,” Perez said.
“He ran the last election — he mentioned right now he got 70 percent of the vote. I’m not saying you haven’t been doing a good job or anything,” he said. “So he’s been in there for a long time so that comes with a lot of people know him, people with recognition and all this other stuff and that has its benefits. So you’re getting the name of Boswell here in Harlingen, which everybody knows, and then you’re getting this (election opponent). There’s not going to be any competition. It’s been shown over and over and over again that when you’re an incumbent you have benefits of it. That’s why we keep on having it. It’s on a city level and a state level and a federal level.”
Perez calls for change in airport board appointments
During a second debate, Perez called for a change in the city’s system of appointing members to the airport board, arguing commissioners get a voice.
“I want to make it just like the WaterWorks board or any of the other boards that we have where we would, each person on the city commission, get a choice on the airport board, and the mayor, too — the mayor could be still be represented,” Perez said.
“I think this would add diversity and also more representation to the commission. We do get to approve or deny the picks but we don’t actually get to choose,” he said. “By doing that, give a little more representation to the people of Harlingen and not just leave this for one person to decide this entire board, because I believe the airport board is important and deserves more than just our approval or denial. We should be able to choose as well.”
Boswell: ‘Compromise’ led commission to swap appointments
In response, Boswell said a committee revised the charter to give the mayor sole power to appoint members to the airport board before he took office in 2007.
As part of a “compromise,” the mayor makes appointments to the nine-member airport board while commissioners appoint members to the Economic Development Corporation board and the WaterWorks board, he said.
“Here’s the concern I have about that. This was basically a compromise because the mayor does not have any appointments to the Economic Development Corporation board or to the WaterWorks,” Boswell said.
“He has appointments to virtually every other so there are three that are sort of a different animal — the EDC and WaterWorks and the airport board. So the compromise was, let the commission appoint 10 members — five and five — to the EDC and five to the utility board and the mayor appoints what are now nine members to the airport board. So if you’re going to change the method of the airport board appointments, I think you should also change the method of appointments to the EDC and the WaterWorks board and allow the mayor to have appointments to the EDC and the WaterWorks board.”
Perez’s proposal led Uribe to request commissioners consider setting up a committee charged with reviewing proposed changes to the City Charter.
Workshop called to discuss changing retirement system
Commissioners held off on discussing Perez’s and newly elected Commissioner Frank Morales’ request to consider returning to the Texas Municipal League’s Retirement System, calling for a workshop into the proposal.
In 2007, a previous commission scrapped the state system, picking the private Texas Capital Group to oversee city employees’ retirements, with their contributions matched 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 the former 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.