WESLACO, RGV – As Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization board members entered the boardroom for last Thursday’s board meeting they were confronted with a big sign saying “You are being recorded.”

The sign was put there to explain that, for the first time, the MPO’s board meetings were being video recorded and streamed live on the Internet. Legislation passed earlier this year in Austin requires MPOs covering a region with a population greater than 500,000 to video and livestream their board meetings.

Mayor of Mission Norberto 'Beto' Salinas.
Mayor of Mission Norberto ‘Beto’ Salinas.

If the sign was put there to get Hidalgo County MPO board members, most of whom are elected officials, to refrain from showing passion for their transportation projects it did not work.

For example, at one point Mission Mayor Norberto ‘Beto’ Salinas, chair of the MPO, said: “Every community has got their own little projects right now and we are about to tear them apart.” To which Pharr Mayor Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez replied: “We are not tearing them apart.”

At another point in the discussion, Salinas said: “If we take this vote you guys are going to be without any more money. They are going to be bullying us all the time.” Hernandez replied: “Those are scare tactics.”

Salinas insisted he was not using scare tactics but Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) Chairman Randy Sweeten told Salinas: “Mayor, you are not being honest, that is not correct.”

What produced such passion? Two votes on how to spend $15 million of local transportation funds. Two key votes were taken and the margins were really close. On one motion the vote as 27-25 and on another it was 28-26.

Mayor of Pharr Ambrosio 'Amos' Hernandez
Mayor of Pharr Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez

Rather than allocate $12 million to city projects, as staff recommended, the MPO board voted to move the money over to the RMA. Some MPO members later told the Rio Grande Guardian that the eastern half of Hidalgo County was effectively pitted the western half and that the city of Mission was up against the cities of Pharr and Edinburg, with McAllen abstaining.

Video getting a lot of hits

The live stream from last Thursday’s board meeting, captured by Florida-based Granicus, has now been uploaded to the MPO’s website and, according to staff, it is getting a lot of “hits.”

Asked what he thought about the MPO’s meetings being videoed and put out live on the Internet, MPO Executive Director Andrew Canon said: “I think streaming the video is a great feature for the general public who cannot make it out to our meetings. They might see something on the video they want more information on. The can then contact the MPO staff and we can clarify any questions they might have.

“It might make the public more engaged, so they attend our next meeting. Remember, the MPO is one of the entities in Hidalgo County where you have a board that is made up of elected officials of all the municipalities within the county. It is really dynamic when you have those individuals sitting around the table trying to watch out for the well-being of the citizens.”

Andrew Canon, executive director of Hidalgo County MPO.
Andrew Canon, executive director of Hidalgo County MPO.

Asked what the public might make of the first video, Canon said: “It was a very engaging meeting. It showed the different personalities and the different ways we have of trying to resolve the transportation needs of the citizens.”

Asked what was being debated at the board meeting, Canon said: “There was a staff recommendation presented to the board that was approved by the technical advisory committee to fund in Fiscal Year 2016 the interstate illumination project, the Ware Road expansion project and one portion of the 676 project. The board chose not to approve the staff recommendation and voted to move forward with the interstate illumination and funding of the RMA 281 overpass project.”

The RMA’s non-toll overpass project crosses Military Highway close to the Pharr International Bridge.

A motion to accept a staff recommendation on how the $15 million be spent, went down to defeat 27-25. The recommendation was that the money go to city projects. A second motion, proposed by Mayor Hernandez of Pharr said that of the $15 of available MPO funds, $2-plus million go towards expressway illumination and $12-plus million go to the RMA’s overpass project. Hernandez’s motion passed on a 28-26 vote.

How the votes were cast

Here is a tally on how the votes were cast and the weight attached to each vote for the two motions discussed. Weight is apportioned depending on the population of the entity concerned.

Motion to accept the staff recommendation: Voting For were: Alamo (3), Alton (3), Hidalgo County (9), Mission (7), Palmhurst (1), Palmview (2). Voting Against were: Donna (3), Edinburg (7), Elsa (2), Mercedes (3), Pharr (N), TxDOT (1), Weslaco (4), Hidalgo County RMA (1). McAllen abstained. Penitas and San Juan were not present.

Motion to accept Mayor Hernandez’s recommendation: Voting for were: Donna (3), Edinburg (7), Elsa (2), Mercedes (3), Pharr (7), TxDOT (1), Weslaco (1), Hidalgo County RMA (1). Voting Against were:  Alamo (3), Alton (3), Hidalgo County (9), Mission (7), Palmhurst (1), Palmview (2), Penitas (1). McAllen abstained. San Juan was not present.

Watch Video

Click here to watch the video of the Hidalgo County MPO meeting.

Reaction to the MPO vote

Reaction to the discussion and the votes and the impact the votes will have has been mixed.

Mayor Salinas of Mission told the Rio Grande Guardian after the meeting that he was disappointed $12.07 million of state funding was not set aside for transportation projects that some of the county’s smaller cities are working on. He said the money should not have been shifted to Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority.

“The RMA came in and out voted us. They ramrodded the money that they needed for the bridge on Military Highway, they took the money from us,” Salinas said. “We in Mission can do without this money. We can fund our own projects. But, there are other, smaller, cities that need this money. They (the RMA) did the politics on it and talked to several cities.”

Salinas said he was unhappy McAllen’s representative on the MPO, City Commissioner Trey Pebley, did not take a stand. Pebley abstained on two key votes. He could not be reached for comment at press time.

“McAllen should have stood with us, the small cities. Instead they did not vote and that made it go the RMA way. I am very unhappy with what the city of McAllen did. I do not know why they do these things. We had a commitment from the city of McAllen but at the very end they abstained from voting.”

All is not lost for the smaller cities, though, Salinas said.

“We still have to come back in one month to ratify the vote. Hopefully we can get some people to understand and vote for the small cities and the projects of the small cities. McAllen had a project and they lost the money for that. Unfortunately Edinburg and Pharr went with the RMA and McAllen abstained and that killed us,” Salinas said.

“You have to understand the mayor of Pharr is a good guy but he is a doctor and Alonzo (Cantu) sits on the RMA board. It is okay, we will find a way to work things out with TxDOT to help the small cities. I just did not appreciate the way they did it.”

Mayor Hernandez laughed off suggestions that his motion was influenced by outside forces. “I do what I want. That is how I got to be where I am at. I get zero financial benefit from this funding, either as mayor of Pharr or as a doctor. I am only looking after the benefit of the entire county.”

Hernandez said he offered his motion because he wanted the MPO to abide by the rules.

“My argument was, don’t tie up money on projects that are not even ready. There is only one-shovel ready project and that is the RMA project. You may not like it. You might try to postpone using the money by linking it to projects in 2016 or 2017 but that is not what the rules say. We cannot fund pie-in-the-sky projects,” Hernandez told the Rio Grande Guardian, after the meeting had ended.

“The rules say fund projects that are ready right now, today. I requested we fund the RMA project using MPO money because it is ready. I am not sidestepping any rules. I told the mayor (Salinas), yours are not ready. Alamo, Alton, Donna, yours are not ready. What is it you are disputing? I am not taking anything from you. When new money comes in next year your projects will get done.”

Hernandez said he could not understand why the MPO’s technical advisory committee, chaired by L&G’s Joe Kalifa, L&G, would vote to fund projects that are not ready.

“It is like being told the check is in the mail. You never know if it is going to happen. Their argument was, let’s fund projects that may or may not happen in the future and forget about the one that is ready. By funding the middle one of the three segments the RMA is working on, it frees up money for the other two segments. Now, you get all three segments done. The project enhances the entire Rio Grande Valley. It goes all the way from Anzaldaus International Bridge to I Road. Everybody benefits from it.”

Hernandez added that he has a lot of respect for Mayor Salinas and the other mayors and commissioners on the MPO board. “I really like Beto. On a personal level I really like him and as a business guy I admire him a lot. All the mayors were very professional. Commissioner Flores was very professional. The chairman was asking very appropriate questions. We agreed to disagree on which projects to fund. But we both agreed to follow the rules.”

Hernandez said that in future he would like to see a certain some of MPO money, perhaps 20 percent be allocated exclusively for the smaller cities.

A member of the HCMPO who did not wish to be named said: “The interesting dynamic at play is that the RMA has the money to go ahead and do their overpass on Military Highway. But, they chose to come and get MPO dollars so they could shift their dollars over to cover the shortfall on their other projects. And they are still short on those projects. About $200 million short. If they have $250 million-plus, why do they need the MPO’s $12 million? The RMA overpass project was ready to let in August. When they heard the MPO was getting $31 million for 2016 and 2017 they postponed their letting so they could leave open the opportunity of raiding the MPO’s $12 million.”

The unnamed MPO member added: “The vote has limited the number of local projects the MPO can do. It has also taken the wind out of the sail for a lot of the communities.”