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The Brownsville City Commission and Mayor John Cowen Jr. have been recognized as 2024 City Council of the Year by the Texas City Management Association, or TMCA.

The city announced the news on Monday. The award is given each year to honor an outstanding city council or commission for “significant contributions to its local governance and the community it serves.”

TCMA is a professional organization of local government administrators and their affiliates dedicated to promoting the highest standards of governance, service, leadership ethics, and education while embracing the diversity of Texas communities. The organization’s mission is to support and promote professional local government management in Texas.

In selecting an honoree each year, TCMA considers criteria such as dedication to ethical governance, prioritization of public welfare over personal and political agendas, effective policy making, financial prudence, support for professional development, and fostering harmonious relations among commission members. TCMA also takes into consideration a commission’s commitment to enhancing community awareness, and to promoting positive community relations.

“It’s wonderful to receive recognition at the state level, that we are I think going the right direction as a commission, and maintaining a high standard of ethics and transparency and accountability at the local government level,” Cowen said. “That’s what people expect and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

He added that he’s “blessed to be part of a great team” in working together to move the city forward.

Brownsville City Manager Helen Ramirez congratulated Cowen and members of the commission.

“I commend the mayor and the commission for their leadership in the community, because with good governance and good leadership come results and improved quality of life and vibrancy for our whole community,” she said.

Among the factors weighing in Brownsville’s favor was the commission’s adoption of a code of ethics committed to ensuring transparency, and a fair-practices ordinances aimed at barring discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, national origin, sexual preference and other factors, Ramirez noted.

Also, the city’s commitment to reimbursing Brownsville Public Utilities Board ratepayers following an audit of the failed Tenaska power plant deal was an example of the commission’s priority for the community’s welfare, while receiving the American Planning Association Planning Excellence Award “speaks to the level of training that we have in our planning and building department,” she said.

The commission has also prioritizes better pay for city employees, Ramirez said, citing a recent 3.5% cost-of-living-adjustment, the first such since 2014, Ramirez said. Also, the commission is extremely supportive of professional development training for employees, from police and emergency personnel to executives and middle management, she said.

“We have a robust organizational development and HR department,” Ramirez said. “We’ve had over 800 employees go through different leadership programs and professional development programs.”

Shoppers are seen during Semana Santa along Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville early Wednesday afternoon, March 31, 2021. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The city used $65 million in allocations through the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, for a number of quality-of-life initiatives such as expanding broadband internet access citywide, West Rail Trail construction, wastewater improvements at the Gladys Porter Zoo, and construction of the Los Tomates Regional Detention Pond, she said.

As for maintaining a harmonious commission, in 2019 commissioners approved a five-year strategic planning and visioning document (updated in November) that produced six pillars: economic development, planning, zoning and development, infrastructure, public safety, qualify of life, and governance, Ramirez said, adding that every project the city undertakes — from software to drainage — must fall into one or more of these categories.

When reviewing nominations for City Council of the Year, TCMA also wants to know about “other extraordinary leadership accomplishments during the year,” Ramirez said. Brownsville was able to tout its parks and recreation department being accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies. That accreditation involves satisfying 154 standards, Ramirez said.

“It’s the gold standard for accreditation for parks,” she said. “Only 1% of parks departments nationally have it, so we’re part of the 1%.”

The city expressed gratitude to TCMA for the honor, and to all city employees, residents and community partners “whose support and collaboration make such achievements possible.“

The City Council of the Year Award will be officially presented to commission at TCMA’s annual conference, scheduled for June on South Padre Island.