Balance of power at stake in San Benito city, school board elections

Harlingen CISD voters set to decide school board election

A man walks past a sign directing voters to the early voting polling location Tuesday, May 2, 2023, outside the San Benito Community Building. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
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SAN BENITO — Voters head to the polls Saturday in bitter San Benito elections in which the city’s two warring political factions are backing a crowded field of candidates pushing for control of the city commission and school district administrations.

Meanwhile, Harlingen residents are casting ballots to elect two new members to the school district’s board of trustees.

Across Cameron County, voters turned out in fewer numbers to cast early votes than in the last few years, Remi Garza, the county’s elections administrator, said.

“The overall participation that we’re seeing is smaller than what we saw in 2020, 2021 and 2022,” he said.

But San Benito racked up the highest early voting turnout in the county, Garza said.

“They’ve had the strongest turnout for these May elections in Cameron County,” he said. “Although there has been a lot of activity, given what we normally see in San Benito, it seems a little lower than average for a May election.”


In San Benito’s city commission election in which Mayor Rick Guerra’s running for a second term, voters cast 1,588 ballots by the time the eight-day early voting period drew to a close at 8 p.m. May 2, the election department’s tally shows.

“The mayoral elections always bring out more people,” Garza said.

But the turnout couldn’t rival the record set during three weeks of early voting leading to the city’s last mayoral election in November 2020.

In the city’s red-hot school board election, 2,072 voters cast early ballots, the election department’s results show.


In the city commission and school board elections, voters could shift the boards’ balances of power, moves that could change the city’s and school district’s administrations.

In the city commission’s contest, with three of five seats up for grabs, the election could change the board’s majority.

Since winning office in 2009, Commissioner Rene Villafranco has helped lead the majority, which now includes Commissioners Rene Garcia and Carol Lynn Sanchez.

After City Manager Manuel De La Rosa took office in late 2015, previous commissions’ majorities stopped pushes to fire him.


In the election, the city’s economic development along with De La Rosa’s job are among the campaign’s issues.

While the city’s sales tax revenues have climbed to record levels, some candidates argue San Benito continues to fall behind many other Rio Grande Valley cities in its economic development.

Since taking office, De La Rosa’s conservative fiscal management’s boosted the city’s cash reserves to record levels while he worked to reopen the city’s $17 million water plant years after a previous administration shut it down after it failed to properly operate.

As part of one of the city’s biggest projects in decades, De La Rosa’s overseen a state-mandated multi-million-dollar project aimed at overhauling the city’s sewer system years after the Texas Environmental Quality Commission cited a previous administration for a series of sewage spills along the banks of the Arroyo Colorado.

But for years, members of the commission’s minority have criticized his leadership, describing his style as autocratic and sometimes disrespectful, while many residents have claimed he’s distanced himself from the community.

Meanwhile, members of the minority have chided his weekend commutes to his Austin home.

Now, De La Rosa has a year left on his contract, paying an annual salary of $175,000.

In July, he’s up for a $10,000 raise after the majority gave him high marks on a February job performance evaluation.


In the school board election in which four of seven seats are open, voters could also shift the board’s balance of power, which could trigger a change in administration.

After winning office in November 2020, trustee Ramiro Moreno has served as the board’s president, for two years leading a majority including board members Janie Lopez, Oscar Medrano and Mario Silva.

Then late last year, Lopez resigned after winning the new state House of Representatives District 37 seat.

In December, the school board unanimously appointed Frutoso Gomez, the Cameron County Appraisal District’s former longtime chief appraiser, to fulfill Lopez’s term.


In the election, a $40 million bond-funded construction project and the hiring of Superintendent Theresa Servellon are among the campaign’s issues.

In 2018, the past school board, which included trustee Orlando Lopez, pushed for the bond issue, which 54 percent of voters passed.

During the last three years, members of the board’s past majority have raised concerns over the project aimed at building the district’s first performing arts theater, aquatics center and indoor practice field.

Meanwhile, majority members pushed for a forensic audit which questioned the past administration’s procurement processes leading to the hire of the Edinburg-based Brighton Group to serve as project manager.

For months, Servellon has questioned factors that have led the project to run over budget, while the project’s leaders have blamed the coronavirus pandemic’s supply chain crisis’ materials costs escalations.

Last year, members of the board’s minority also raised concerns over the majority’s call for a local search that led its members to hire Servellon as the district’s superintendent.


In one of the city’s hottest races, Guerra, a retired Harlingen firefighter who’s served a former commissioner, faces Garcia, a Social Security Administration claims specialist, and former Mayor Ben Gomez, a school district parent specialist.

Garcia’s decision to enter the mayor’s race led him to vacate the commission seat he won in 2020, opening the door for Tom Goodman, a South Padre Island real estate broker, to challenge Eddie Abrego, San Benito High School’s assistant principal, in the race for the Place 1 seat.

In the battle for the Place 2 seat, Villafranco, a federal employee, faces Deborah Ann Morales, the vice president of Texas Funeral Associates who serves on the city’s Economic Development Corporation board.


In the race for the school board’s Place 4 seat, Orlando Lopez, a vascular specialist with a medical company running for a third term, faces Julian Joseph Rios, the manager of Chuy’s Custom Sports who serves as the city’s EDC president.

In the contest for the Place 5 seat, board member Rudy Corona, an AT&T fiber technician running for a second term, is squaring off against Jack Garcia, a former district official and former city mayor working for the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

Running for the Place 6 seat, Moreno, a Rio Hondo school district principal, faces Alex Reyna, a retired San Benito school district police officer.

In the race for the board’s Place 7 seat, Gomez faces Michael Vargas, the assistant public affairs director for the city of Pharr whom a group of residents removed as the school board’s president in 2019.


In Harlingen, 2,126 residents cast early ballots in the school board election by the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. May 2, the county elections department’s results show.

Today, voters will be electing two new board members in the election in which two seats are up for grabs.

In the race for the board’s Place 1 seat, Gina Cano-Monreal, an administrator, faces Lorraine De Leon-Galarza, a retired registered nurse.

In the contest to fill the Place 2 seat being vacated by Javier DeLeon, Ricky Leal, vice president of First Community Bank, is squaring off against Israel Aguilar, a university professor.