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image002_thumbEDINBURG — A question of eligibility for a few appointed members of the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority could not only negatively impact the group’s work on the project, but also affect the organization’s ability to hold onto $80 million in funding for the venture by stalling its progress.

Late last month RMA 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.

“This RMA…is supposed to be geographically diverse,” Burleson said. “We are asking for clarification about the geographic diversity.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores said he asked the Commissioners’ Court legal counsel to look into the proper make-up and eligibility requirements for the RMA board, specifically asking if the representatives had to come from defined regions within the county.

“I told him to look into it because we’re trying to sell bonds,” Flores said Tuesday. “The RMA board should represent the whole county, not the urban core or one city.”

Citing the need for equality amongst county cities, Flores said it was important RMA members come from all over Hidalgo County. Currently, four of the board members live in McAllen.

RMA member David Guerra, the City of McAllen’s appointee, said there was no split on the board pushing the project to benefit McAllen.

“We are truly responsible for the citizens of Hidalgo County and their taxpayer dollars,” Guerra said. “The reality is the loop itself has not set one single foot in the City of McAllen. That is the best independence you could possibly have.”

Likewise, member Alonzo Cantu sent a letter to Burleson and the court telling the group he had no special interest in the project despite his McAllen address.

At Tuesday’s Commissioners’ Court, county leaders, the RMA board and attorneys for both groups discussed the issue for over an hour, ultimately deciding to take no action on ratifying the problem this week. Until the court makes a decision, the RMA will not take action on any action before them, Burleson said.

“It’s quite troubling to be in this situation,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios, whose appointee, Forrest Runnels, lives in McAllen but has strong roots and a business in Edinburg. “I want to abide whatever rules are set.”

Some leaders said they’d like to reinstate a guideline that was somehow never approved by the commission. The petition called for a representative chosen by a commissioner from their precinct along with appointees from the City of McAllen, Texas’ governor and the county judge. Another option includes eliminating ineligible board members to accommodate the original petition.

“We want to avoid any confusion in the bond process,” Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said.

In a timeline of different drafts of their petition to TxDOT for the formation guidelines of the county’s RMA board, commissioners learned a second amended draft was presented to commissioners in 2005 but never approved with a vote.

“I don’t know why we didn’t follow through,” Garcia said, who in 2005 was the county judge.

The initial petition, from October 2004, states that the seven-member board would be constructed by an appointment from county commissioners in specific areas. Those specifically named were the Delta area, the mid-Valley area, the Pharr-San Juan area, McAllen, the Mission-La Joya area and one from Edinburg. Additionally, the Texas governor would appoint the presiding officer.

In July and August 2005, the petition was amended, adding that each court member could appoint an RMA member, along with the county judge and state governor making their own appointments. While discussed at court, no action was ever taken on the second amended petition, said Steve Crane, the court’s attorney.

“That’s the way it should have been in the beginning, but it never happened,” Flores said.

Currently, the board consists of Precinct 1 appointee Joe Olivarez of Weslaco, Precinct 2 appointee Michael G. Cano of McAllen, Precinct 3 appointee Ricardo Perez of Palmview, Precinct 4 appointee Forrest Runnels of McAllen, the county judge’s appointee Alonzo Cantu of McAllen, McAllen’s appointee David Guerra and Chairman Dennis Burleson of Mission.

Blakely Fernandez, the RMA’s attorney, said any inconsistencies with the board, when under review by the Texas Attorney General when the RMA seeks to sell its bonds, will cripple the group’s project.

“The RMA can’t issue debt without the issue finalized,” Fernandez said. “It’s important that we untangle this.”

Crane said the court can approve the second amended petition and send it to the Transportation Commission for approval, however that process can take anywhere from two to five months. Otherwise, the court can ask members to resign and appoint members that follow the court’s original petition.

“I’m not comfortable with asking people to resign,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Hector “Tito” Palacios, who explained his appointee resides in his precinct and also questioned the exclusion of Hidalgo and Alamo residents as potential appointees under the initial petition.

Garcia suggested that each commissioner determine the descriptions set forth by the court for the RMA as to what “area” is defined as for their precinct. But Crane cautioned the court that any assumption could be misplaced as the Attorney General has the final opinion.

“I think common sense should be used in this area,” Garcia said.

The court’s two newest elected officials said they were uneasy about moving forward without knowing the full extent of their abilities and current standing with the board and the current petition approved by the Transportation Commission.

“How can I move forward,” Joseph Palacios asked after Garcia requested a motion to approve the second amended petition.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Joel Quintanilla said he wanted a firm definition on who should be appointed from specific regions in the county.

“We need to make sure we do the right thing legally,” Quintanilla said.

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