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Top 2011 stories: MEDA/MEDC shakeup, U.S. Census undercount allegations

20120106_SISD_SecondHighSchool_Site_CAB_0046MISSION — The top stories for 2011 in the Mission area concentrated on the growing population and the effects it has on economic development groups and a local high school busting at the seam, among others.

MEDA/MEDC shakeup

The biggest story here was the Mission City Council’s February decision to disband and eliminate funding to the Mission Economic Development Authority which eventually led to a reshuffling of the board of directors serving on the Mission Economic Development Corporation.

Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas indicated he was not happy with how MEDA projects were handled or how long they took to complete. He also said he wanted the city to  have one economic group like neighboring cities.

In March the council closed MEDA and moved its work to the city-controlled MEDC. Days after the abolishment, the MEDC’s president, Joe Roseland, who served on the board for 15 years, was removed. Mission Police Sgt. Jody Tittle was appointed to take his spot on the board.

In MEDA’s disbandment, all staff except CEO Pat Townsend Jr., were rehired by the city.

U.S. Census undercount

After Hidalgo County officials and several community outreach groups spent 2010 stressing to the public the importance to complete the U.S. Census forms delivered to their home or to visit with census volunteers to be counted, the population results were met with disappointment that eventually led to a lawsuit that alleges the minority population was severely undercounted here.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia in January said the rumored population total of 700,000 people was inaccurate as the county has an estimated 300,000-registered voters with about 25 percent participation from the eligible voters. With the county’s thousands of undocumented residents that don’t participate in the census, the population should be around one million people.

The U.S. Census reported that Hidalgo County has a population of 774,769, a 70 percent increase from 2000. In February, the county hired a San Antonio firm to contest the numbers. In April, Texas House of Representatives, through the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), filed a lawsuit against the state and Gov. Rick Perry alleging the 2010 U.S. Census undercount of Latino districts leaves border communities severely underserved when the state begins the redistricting process.

Sharyland ISD gets a second high school

Voters in the Sharyland Independent School District approved a $55 million bond for a new high school on 6 ½ Mile Line and Shary Road.

District officials met with voters to discuss the overcrowding issues at Sharyland High School in a district that’s growing annually.

Considering current enrollment records, Superintendent Scott Owings in September said that he predicts Sharyland High School reaching an enrollment of 3,400 to 3,600 students before a new high school is built by 2014.

Enrollment records show numbers have nearly doubled in the last 10 years. In August, enrollment at SHS was 3,048 as of Oct. 25. Owings said it could reach over 3,100 before the end of the year.

Sharyland schools awarded Blue Ribbon

In September, SISD’s Sharyland North and B.L. Gray junior highs were named two of over 300 recognized schools to receive a 2011 Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education.

The schools were two of 26 Texas schools to receive the commendation.

The National Blue Ribbon School award honors schools for overall academic excellence or for their success in closing achievement gaps. SISD schools received the award for dramatically improving students’ performance to higher levels on state tests. They were able to improve tests scores for at least 40 percent of their students.

La Joya’s council changes

After 14 years as mayor, Billy Leo lost his final bid for re-election against Jose A. “Fito” Salinas.

Leo’s running mates also lost their bids for seats on the council against Salinas and the Citizens Working Together team.

In the race for alderman, Salinas’ slate of Mike Salinas and Anna Lisa Ruiz were the top vote getters against United In Progress’ Lee Roy Alaniz and Angie Garza.

La Joya’s police chief found dead

As excitement over the city elections ran through the city, residents and leaders also mourned the loss of La Joya Police Chief Jose Del Angel who was found dead on May 12.

Del Angel’s body was discovered in his La Joya Police Department Chevy Tahoe along South Kika De La Garza Drive, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño said autopsy results showed Del Angel had died from a single self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest.

He started at the LJPD as a dispatcher in 1993.

City leaders named Lt. Julian Gutierrez in charge while they looked to hire a temporary chief. Months later, they selected Gutierrez to fill the spot permanently.

RMA board formation questioned

In March, Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority Chairman Dennis Burleson sent letters to Hidalgo County Commissioners and RMA board members about the need to ensure that all the members appointed fit the qualifications under a petition sent to the Texas Department of Transportation Commission for the board’s creation.

The question, which was originally posed by Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores, led to confusion about where board members should reside and if the county and the RMA were abiding by eligibility requirements.

Currently, the board consists of Dennis Burleson, a Mission resident appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, Joe Olivarez of Weslaco who serves as the secretary and treasurer who was appointed by Precinct 1, Michael G. Cano of McAllen who was appointed by Precinct 2, Ricardo Perez of Palmview who was appointed by Precinct 3, Forrest Runnels of McAllen who was appointed by Precinct 4, Alonzo Cantu of McAllen is a county judge appointee and David Guerra of McAllen who was appointed by the City of McAllen.

Members serve two-year terms. The newest members include Runnels, Cantu and Guerra.

As the group became McAllen-dominated, Flores asked the commissioners’ court attorney for clarification on its board creation. It was unfair to have so many McAllen residents on the board when other municipalities also wanted to have an impact and say in the creation of a loop here, he said.

But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said there was no rule that states what factors a county must consider to achieve fair representation of political subdivisions. The representation is up to the commissioners’ court, he explained.

MCISD voters approve tax ratification election

At the Mission Consolidated Independent School District, voters approved a penny swap to net nearly $7 million to help cushion the blow of the loss of about $4 million from state funding.

The district changed figures to increase the maintenance tax to $1.17 and decrease the debt service to $0.13 keeping the current total of $1.30.

With the extra funds, the district has discussed creating incentive programs for teachers, early college support and new school buses.

Operation Clean Slate

To collect on the millions owed to Hidalgo County in overdue fines and fees, officials initiated Operation Clean Slate in August, which included a large public campaign to get people to pay the county what it’s owed.

The first phase included the development of an online, searchable database that also allowed individuals with an outstanding fine to pay online. The phase also incorporated a media campaign to alert people to the new option. The program lasted 60 days and helped the county collect over $300,000.

Phase II prohibits motorists from renewing their vehicle registration if they have an outstanding payment due.

The final phase incorporates a law firm the county has had a contract with for collections. The county has had a contract with Austin-based attorneys of the Ray, Wood & Bonilla firm since 2007.

Texas Elections

Following the results of the 2010 U.S. Census, Texas began its redistricting process, which led to lawsuits that currently keep some of the current state elections in limbo.

In November, a three-judge panel in San Antonio rearranged lines developed by Texas legislators that left most of House District 41 completely restructured, leaving its incumbent Rep. Veronica Gonzales pushed out of most of her original district and giving Republican Aaron Peña in District 40 a chance at gaining the Republican vote.

The San Antonio judge’s restructured maps also gave the Rio Grande Valley a new House seat in District 35. The district covers cities of Peñitas, La Joya and Sullivan City as well as Delta-area cities like Edcouch and La Villa, as well as parts of Cameron County like La Feria, Santa Rosa, Combes, Primera and a portion of Harlingen.

But weeks later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott approached the U.S. Supreme Court about the legality of the redrawn maps. He asked for a halt to the implementation of the maps in the upcoming election. That request was granted.

The stay granted on the maps approved by a three-judge panel for the Texas Senate, Texas House of Representatives and U.S. House of Representatives means elections won’t not take place using the district court's interim redistricting plans pending a more thorough review by the Supreme Court.

At the end of December, the state parties agreed to move the primary election from March 6 to April 13. The deadline to file for candidacy is now Feb. 1.

Through the confusion, two incumbents said they would not seek re-election. Rep. Veronica Gonzales, days after the three-judge panel restored much of her district, announced she was returning to her law practice and not seeking re-election. Rep. Aaron Peña likewise announced he wouldn’t run for office as his district was largely Democratic.

But with recent changes in the elections as well as the redistricting maps, Peña recently said he was still debating whether he’d seek office again.

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