School board member chosen as new Rio Grande City judge

RIO GRANDE CITY — The Rio Grande City commissioners found their new municipal judge in Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal, a school board member with the Rio Grande City school district, replacing former Judge Leonel Lopez Jr. who resigned last month upon his guilty plea to federal bribery charges.

The city commissioners unanimously voted to appoint Villarreal, 62, during Wednesday’s regular meeting, granting him a two-year contract with a pay of $4,333.33 per month, the same amount and contract length that were given to Lopez, according to Mayor Joel Villarreal.

“He’s a pillar of our community,” the mayor said of the decision to appoint Villarreal as judge, noting he has more than 20 years of public service in the city.

“He’s an exemplary individual that we want to have in our court,” the mayor said, adding that he was very good at making impartial decisions. “He’s the perfect example of an individual that we want to have here as a municipal judge, he’s well-respected by the community.”

Before being elected to the school board in November 2018, Villarreal, served on the school board for about 18 years until 2014 when he declined to run for re-election. Lopez also served on the school board from about 2010 until 2014 when he also chose not to run for re-election.

Lopez, 52, was serving out his two-year contract as the municipal judge when he pleaded guilty on March 22 to federal program bribery in connection with a scheme to pay off two Weslaco city commissioners. In exchange, the commissioners are alleged to have voted in favor of awarding contracts to companies for work on the overhaul of the city’s water treatment facilities.

His guilty plea prompted his automatic resignation from the municipal court, as per his contract with the city.

Before the commissioners officially approved the appointment of Villarreal, the mayor addressed the “elephant in the room.”

“While it is unfortunate and disappointing what occurred to our municipal court,” Villarreal began, “I want to reassure the residents of Rio Grande City that the federal charge and subsequent plea by Mr. Lopez is in no way related to his duties or activities as municipal court judge for Rio Grande City.”

“It is imperative that we move forward and put this behind us,” he added.

Villarreal, the new municipal judge, immediately thanked the commissioners and assured them he would do what was “honest, right, and good for this community.”

He later said he was proud to join the RGC family given that both his father and brother served as mayors, his father being the first mayor of Rio Grande City.

“It just feels right, that’s what my family has always been about,” he said after he was sworn in. “I guarantee one thing: that I’m going to make that department one of the best departments in the state of Texas.”

Among his goals in his new position, Villarreal said, is to make the job as transparent as possible which includes making documents accessible to the general public.

“The number one thing is transparency,” he said. “That’s what I think I need to provide the office with.”