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McALLEN — A political advocacy group that has had success passing $15 minimum wage efforts in the cities of Edinburg and Alton now has its sights set on new goals in Hidalgo County’s largest city, McAllen.

Ground Game Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit, is hoping to pass campaign finance reform and empower McAllen voters with the right to call for initiatives, referendums and the recall of elected officials.

It’s part of an effort to combat public corruption or “the perception of corruption” in local government, according to Mike Siegel, general counsel and political director for Ground Game Texas.

“One of the things that we heard from voters when we approached them for our petitions is that they felt cynical about politics,” Siegel said Tuesday as he and a pair of Ground Game staffers stood outside McAllen City Hall.

“They felt their voice didn’t matter. They felt that the system was corrupt and broken and that they couldn’t fix it,” he said.


The group is currently collecting signatures in support of holding an election that would amend the McAllen City Charter in several ways.

The first would be to codify limits on campaign contributions.

Under the proposal, individual donors would be limited to a maximum of $500 in donations per McAllen city candidate per election cycle. Should a runoff occur, donors would be able to donate up to $500 more.

The second proposal involves giving McAllen residents the power to shape the city’s legislation in a couple of ways.

One would give McAllen voters the power to call for a ballot initiative to pass an ordinance. Another would empower voters to call for a referendum that could potentially overrule a decision made by the McAllen City Commission.

And the third would give voters the right to petition for the recall of an elected official.

“Right now, the McAllen City Charter is unique. I have reviewed dozens of city charters in my work… and almost every home rule city has all three of those powers in it,” Siegel said.

“McAllen is a home rule city that has none of those powers in it,” he added.

Indeed, the 31-page city charter is silent on all three of those subjects, save one route of recourse for removing an official from office.

Article 3, Section 19 of the charter, entitled “Impeachments,” states that McAllen residents or taxpayers may attempt to remove any “officer of the city of McAllen for mal-feasance or mis-feasance” by suing in a state district court in Hidalgo County.


Ground Game says this latest reform effort is part of an attempt to combat the stereotype of public corruption in the Rio Grande Valley.

However, they admit that though news headlines have regularly announced incidents of public corruption in other Valley cities, the same has not been true in McAllen.

Instead, the group hopes that a successful effort to make changes in McAllen will translate to similar changes in other Valley cities, and perhaps even county government.

“As a Valley native, I have seen this everywhere on the news. I think, just a couple of weeks ago, there was something new about an Edinburg councilman,” Karen Salazar, a UTRGV political science student who is leading Ground Game’s McAllen efforts, said.

Salazar was referring to former Edinburg City Councilman Jorge Salinas, who The Monitor was the first to report had been indicted on federal bribery and racketeering charges.

“There’s always someone new that committed corruption… but I think the important thing to note, like Mike said, is the city of McAllen doesn’t have direct democratic policies for initiatives, referendums and recalls,” Salazar said.

“And these are very, very important to restoring faith in the communities in terms of them having a voice,” she said.

Ground Game polled McAllen voters to see if support exists for pursuing the campaign finance reform and power of initiative proposals.

An overwhelming number of the 661 people polled, representing a cross section of political leanings, said they do, Siegel said.

“We spoke to 661 of them to ask them how they felt about local government and whether they thought we needed campaign finance reform. And 81% respondents said they would support campaign finance reform,” Siegel said.

Since then, the group has been actively collecting signatures at polling places and elsewhere throughout the city with the intention of bringing the issues before the commission.

They hope to gather at least 7,000 signatures by May, Siegel said.


But city leaders have been reticent to speak on Ground Game’s efforts.

One unnamed city commissioner whom Salazar approached declined to sign the petition.

After that encounter, staff from the city’s code enforcement department soon showed up to the polling place where Ground Game was collecting signatures “and started surveilling what we were doing,” Siegel said.

McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez declined to comment on the matter.

“City Managers Office has no comment on that,” Rodriguez said via text message Wednesday.

But one person who was willing to speak was McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.

The mayor noted that McAllen is not a city plagued by public corruption and that’s due largely to the trust elected leaders place in city staff.

That trust takes elected officials out of the procurement and selection process for high-dollar projects and places it in the hands of city employees, who evaluate then make recommendations for the commission’s approval, Villalobos explained.

“We have a lot of confidence that our staff does the right thing. So, I don’t think any engineer, any architect, any construction company, anybody that does work for the city of McAllen has any influence over the mayor or any of the commissioners,” Villalobos said with emphasis.

And when it comes to limiting campaign contributions, the mayor said doing so would be akin to stifling a donor’s right to free speech.

“I know some people would argue you should (limit contributions), and some other people would argue (that) we have a constitutional right to a First Amendment to speak and do whatever we want to do,” Villalobos said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity.