This election season, Weslaco residents have the opportunity to change the way their municipal government is shaped thanks to three referendums on the November ballot.
“We’re asking residents to make a decision if they want to go to a single-member district hybrid with two at-large. We’re asking if they want to extend the terms from three to four years, and if they want limitations on how long someone can be on the city commission,” explained Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez via phone Friday.
The referendums are not new ideas. Conversations among both the commission and residents have long included whether voters should be allowed to consider changing how the commission works — both as a way to better government efficiency, as well as to bring greater accountability and transparency to the elected body.
Now voters are getting just that chance by casting their votes on three propositions.
If passed, Proposition A would change the configuration of the city commission — from six single-member district commissioners and a mayor, to four single-member districts and two at-large seats.
Proposition B would lengthen a term from three years to four, the maximum number of years allowed under state law.
And Proposition C would institute term limits. Should it pass, elected officials would be limited to serving three consecutive terms in office.
“I’ve been here for a number of years and it’s been talked about for a long time. Some people wanted to go back to the old way,” Perez said of Proposition A.
That “old way” was how the commission looked prior to 2007, when residents first approved a referendum to change the commission’s six seats from at-large — or representative of the entire city — to single-member districts, wherein each commissioner represents only a narrow fraction of the overall electorate.
Under the current system, voters can only vote to elect the mayor and the candidate running to represent their specific district. Voters have no say in who serves on the other five seats.
For District 2 Commissioner Gregory Kerr, that system seems unfair. He spoke of how the current system means candidates like him need only secure just a few hundred votes in order to gain public office.
“I think it’s about expanding democracy, particularly with the single member district issue,” Kerr said of Proposition A.
“If the resolution passes, we have the ability to vote for four (seats) — for the majority of our commissioners,” he said, explaining that voters would have the opportunity to choose their district commissioner, as well as the two at-large commissioners and mayor.
Shaking up the configuration of the commission was an issue Kerr, a civil attorney, began speaking of when he made his first run for office in 2014.
He, along with District 3 Commissioner Jose “J.P.” Rodriguez — a career law enforcement officer who first ran for office in 2017 — made combating public corruption the central tenets of their campaigns in the wake of the water plant fraud scandal that rocked the city and whose repercussions continue to ripple to this day.
Rodriguez agreed with Kerr that voters should have more input on who their elected officials are.
Though he said he respects the choice voters made in instituting single-member districts in 2007, Rodriguez also said that change may have contributed to the situation that resulted in two now former city commissioners, as well as other public officials, facing felony charges for fraud in federal court.
“After that, that’s when we experienced probably the — as Commissioner Kerr refers to — the greatest fraud in the history of the city of Weslaco,” Rodriguez said.
“It wasn’t meant to be that way, but persons with an agenda took advantage of that system,” he added.
Rodriguez looks to his own “serpentine” district lines to explain how such a gaming of the system may have occurred, saying his District 3 appears to have been gerrymandered.
“The districts were gerrymandered, which made it more advantageous to some of the incumbents,” he said.
Should Proposition A pass, the city’s maps will be redrawn to create just four districts. According to Perez, the city has already retained an attorney who specializes in doing such; however, the maps can’t be redrawn until the city receives updated 2020 census data.
“One thing that the commission did say — all of them — is that they would like to have some easy boundaries that people would know, like Texas (Boulevard) or Business 83, so it’s easy and it doesn’t go through neighborhood streets and confuses everybody,” Perez said.
“We’re gonna do our best to make sure that all the districts are balanced and that it’s as fair a process as possible and that hopefully we’ll alleviate some of the past issues,” Rodriguez said.
As for Proposition B, that referendum asks voters to consider extending term lengths from three years to four.
Doing so would save the city money by not having to pay for elections services every single November.
“If we can align our elections with general elections or with gubernatorial elections, or school board elections, then we save money. We split costs on conducting those elections,” Kerr said.
Mayor David Suarez added that lengthening terms to the statutory maximum of four years would put Weslaco more in line with how other cities in the Valley are set up.
Should Proposition B pass, it will go into effect immediately — extending each sitting official’s term by one year.
The city manager said lengthening terms, along with the potential passage of Proposition C, could not only give commissioners a better opportunity to acclimate themselves to the governing process, but it could add better stability to the city.
There’s a learning curve to being a commissioner because running a city is complicated, Perez said.
“It takes them two, three years to kind of really understand how it’s going. Your effectiveness on there is not as good until you’ve been there for a few years,” Perez said.
As with discussions about implementing a hybrid system, conversations surrounding the institution of term limits also have their roots in increasing government accountability in the wake of the water plant fraud scandal.
“I talked to some residents and a lot of people want term limits because what has happened in the past,” Suarez said.
Term limits were an issue championed by District 4 Commissioner Adrian Farias, who last summer won the special election to fill the seat vacated by former commissioner Gerardo “Jerry” Tafolla after he pleaded guilty to federal programs bribery for his role in the water plant scheme.
But for both the mayor and Commissioner Kerr, term limits may not necessarily stop bad actors.
“If you have a good guy there, you want to keep him as long as possible, but if you have a bad guy there … you make yourself susceptible to corruption when you have people there for super extended periods of time,” Kerr said, adding that he remains conflicted on Proposition C.
Former District 2 commissioner John Cuellar, who became embroiled in the water plant scandal and last September pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud, served on the commission for 19 years.
“The true term limit is the voters, because if you’re not doing a good job, they’ll vote you out,” the mayor said before adding, “I think in the wake of Weslaco’s history and past, I think term limits are good.”
In the end, the mayor hopes residents will make their voices heard at the ballot box
“I think it’s one of our main civic duties as citizens and residents of Weslaco is to exercise our right to vote,” Suarez said. “Everybody needs to get out there and vote.”
This story has been updated.