MCALLEN, Texas – A candidate for mayor of McAllen says he will not have to recuse himself if, as mayor, an issue comes before the city commission regarding South Texas College.
Javier Villalobos is an attorney whose law firm specializes in work for governmental bodies and education institutions. On Thursday, Villalobos reached provisional agreement to be legal counsel of STC.
“We have an agreement and hopefully we can negotiate something. We need to enter into an agreement so hopefully we will get there,” Villalobos said of his pending contract with STC.
STC is looking for a new lawyer because longtime legal counsel Chuy Ramirez is retiring.
Villalobos, currently a McAllen city commissioner, is in the runoff for McAllen mayor. His opponent is fellow city commissioner Veronica Vela Whitacre, a former educator who now runs a nonprofit. The election is Saturday, June 5.
Asked if there could ever be a conflict of interest if he was mayor and an item about STC came before the city commission, Villalobos said: “No, not at all. When you are representing a governmental entity… conflicts arise when it is a business entity. I have no stock, I have no ownership in the college.”
Villalobos said there is a government code that applies in this case.
“It (STC) is a governmental entity. Under the statute, 171 of the Local Government Code, it is specific and it tells you, a governmental entity is not a business entity for the purposes of conflict of interest. There are attorney general opinions on this.”
Another example of a potential conflict of interest was posed to Villalobos. His law firm is legal counsel for the City of Donna. Donna has an international bridge, just like McAllen. What if an item came up at McAllen City Commission about one of its two international bridges that gave an advantage to McAllen over Donna? Villalobos responded:
“There would not be a conflict because these are separate entities. Are they competing (the McAllen and Donna bridges)? They really do not compete. Now, when it comes to the issue of bridges, there is enough traffic for all. For Donna, for Anzalduas, for everybody. That is what people do not understand. It is not a conflict.”
Besides, Villalobos said, he could always recuse himself.
“Should I ever feel that there is a conflict, even an appearance of impropriety, all I have to do is recuse myself. As I tell people, there is nothing evil about recusing oneself, it is the proper thing to do if the occasion is proper for them.”
Villalobos has been on McAllen City Commission for the past four years. He said other members of the city commission have had to recuse themselves far more frequently than he has had to.
“In the past three years I am the only city commissioner that has not had to recuse him or herself. Everybody else has and there is nothing wrong with that. Some of them had a business interest and that is where the connection is.”
It was pointed out to Villalobos that current mayor Jim Darling, also an attorney, quit his legal counsel gig at DHR Health when he became mayor of McAllen.
“I have thought about it (potential conflicts of interest) and I don’t see it. I have always said, I will not represent Edinburg, Mission or Pharr, because they are right next to us and they do, kind of, compete. Even though it would not be a conflict it doesn’t look good. So I would not do that.”
Villalobos reiterated his point. “I cannot even think of where there could be a potential conflict.”
Asked which governmental bodies his law firm represents as legal counsel, Villalobos said: “Donna. I help out Crystal City every now and again. I help out Progreso every now and then, as needed. I help out La Joya Housing Authority. Sometimes different entities call me to help them out. They call for legal help.”
Villalobos pointed out that he never billed La Joya for his legal expertise.
“La Joya, I have never billed them. I helped them out for a couple of years. Whereas the previous attorney was billing them about $10,000 a month.”
Asked which educational institutions he has helped out, VillalobosVillalobos said: “I have done some work for Crystal City, Edcouch-Elsa ISD, Progreso ISD, Donna ISD, Monte Alto.”
Villalobos said his experience representing various ISDs could help in his work for STC.
“Education issues are not new to me. As a matter of fact, for me, a college is easier than a high school because over there you have a lot more issues with parents, students, contracts, teachers, Section 21 contracts. I see no issue here.”
Asked how his campaign is going, Villalobos responded positively. He said he was proud to get the endorsement of Mayor Darling.
“I feel very happy. Jim has been a good supporter and I did not want an endorsement. I told Jim, I want your support, not your endorsement. So, I was very happy with that. Hopefully, those that were on the fence, with Mayor Darling’s support, hopefully they will see because Mayor Darling has worked with both myself and my opponent, they will support me. So, why would he (Darling) come this way? I know why. Because based on my experience, what we know and what we’ve done.”
Villalobos added: “I am happy with how the campaign is going. The numbers are coming out where I want them, I feel very confident. The numbers are coming out in the areas we want them to come out. I feel confident but we are working very hard.”
The chair of STC’s board of trustees is Rose Benavidez. Benavidez told the Rio Grande Guardian that there were seven proposals from law firms looking to represent STC as legal counsel. Of these, she said, Villalobos’ law firm was selected.
Asked about a potential conflict of interest, Benavidez said:
“There were questions regarding that (potential conflicts of interest). It is obvious we want to make certain everything is right. We have an amazing relationship with the City of McAllen and have had since the inception of the college. So, we want to make certain that anyone who has been part of that effort continues to be an advocate. Obviously, we would never do anything that would jeopardize anybody’s professional integrity. We would hope that there never comes a time when there is a conflict that requires it (recusal) but we are hopeful that that relationship is going to remain and we will follow the letter of law however we have to.”
McAllen mayoral candidate Vela Whitacre did not return a call for comment on this story. However, one of her supporters did. Businessman Othal Brand, Jr., was defeated earlier in the mayoral race. After being knocked out, Brand endorsed Vela Whitacre.
“My biggest concern with a Javier Villalobos mayorship is the potential for conflicts of interest. Javier is city attorney for the City of Progresso and the City of Donna. He is on retainer for other entities as well. Both Donna and Progreso and others have economic development corporations and bridges that compete with the City of McAllen’s. This makes for an untenable situation because you have a lawyer being paid by such entities while also virtually volunteering to be mayor of McAllen. I say volunteering because there is hardly any financial compensation for a mayor,” Brand said.
“It is challenging human nature to choose where his best interests lie when economic development and bridge issues come before the city commission. One’s allegiance would rest with either a group that is paying you, ie., sustaining your livelihood versus another where you are volunteering with virtually no financial consideration.”
Brand made his comments before Villalobos was selected as STC’s legal counsel.
Brand added: “We surely want someone that is 100 percent for the city of McAllen, that will not have to walk out of executive session on key issues important to McAllen due to a conflict of interest. It should be evident with the recent endorsement by Mayor Jim Darling of Javier Villalobos that we have two peas from the same pod. Many times, our current mayor has brought into question potential conflicts of interest and from my viewpoint Javier Villalobos would face the same challenge.”
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