PEÑITAS – Two slates and a lone wolf are facing off as nearly every seat on the city commission is up for grabs in the city’s first election in eight years.
Tomas Cedillo, former Place 3 commissioner, stepped down last month to announce his run for mayor. Current Mayor Antonio “Tony” Flores Jr. was appointed to the seat in October when then-mayor Marcos Ochoa was appointed Pct. 3, Place 2 justice of the peace. Flores is not running for reelection, and a special election has been called to fill Cedillo’s seat.
Two slates are going to head to head, lining up candidates for each free seat. Peñ1tas candidates are Rigo Lopez, mayor; J.R. Flores, Place 2; Armin Garza, Place 3; Ramiro Loya, Place 4.
The other slate, unofficially called “The Green Team,” is composed of Manuel Garcia, mayor; Rey Mendoza, Place 2; Arnoldo Ochoa, Place 3; Mary Cervantez Barrientos, Place 4.
Cedillo has served on the city commission 10 years, and is a liefelong resident of Peñitas. He graduated from La Joya High School in 1972 and works for Starr Telecom in Palmview.
In an interview in February, Cedillo said his goals for the city of Peñitas include completing Liberty Boulevard up to 3 Mile Line and constructing the new city hall. He also wants more lighting on Tom Gill Road.
Cedillo is the chairman of the Peñitas 4B Economic Development Committee, a member of the Planning and Zoning Committee, a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee and vice president of the Peñitas WhiteWing Festival Committee.
If elected, Cedillo said he would work to lower property taxes and improve communication with the city’s residents. Cedillo said he also plans to work with local property owners and developers to bring new business to Peñitas.
Garcia, Cedillo’s cousin, is running for office because “I just got sick and tired with all these people here and the way they run the city.” A local businessowner, Garcia said his family has been helping the people of Peñitas for 40 years.
Opponents may tout their educations, Garcia said, but he’s out to show what a hard-working person can do, adding that he’s been through good times and bad and he knows how to run a business.
As a member of the city’s economic development corporation, Garcia said he’s seen money come into the city and nothing come out.
The slate’s biggest issue is the city’s troubled sewer system. The city’s sewer project isn’t finished yet, but Peñitas is being sued by its contractors for $1.5 million in unpaid invoices. City officials have said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is funding the project through a loan, is withholding further payments until some paperwork issues are resolved. USDA also is requesting reimbursement for $421,000.
Garcia said residents’ sewer rates are based on 100 percent of the water each household uses when not all the water used goes back down the drain. Instead, water users should be charged a portion of the water used.
“You need to find another way to pay for it instead of making the people pay for your mistakes,” Garcia said.
Garcia believes money has gone missing at city hall, and he said he intends to find it. If he finds evidence of wrongdoing, Garcia said he’ll press charges.
“Somebody’s got to pay,” said Garcia, adding that’s the way to stop government abuse of power. “Everybody just gets a slap on the wrist and gets retirement and goes home with a smile on their face.”
It helps, he said, that he and other members of his slate are not employed by La Joya Independent School District. People who work for the district are afraid of getting fired, Garcia said. It’s time to stop the bullying, he said.
Lopez has lived in Peñitas three years, but he said he’s passionate about bringing the city together. He was elected to the Agua Special Utility District Board last year and is a coach at J.D. Salinas Middle School. Though he’s only been in the city a short time, Lopez said he considers himself part of the “Old Guard,” as older residents refer to themselves.
Peñ1tas aims to unite the city, Lopez said, adding that the candidates all have their own voices. The slate, with members in their 30s, 40s and 60s, covers all generations, Lopez said.
“I just feel that Peñitas needs to be protected more than anything right now,” Lopez said. “We’re in a vulnerable state because we’re growing so rapidly.”
If elected, Lopez said he wants to beef up the city’s parks and recreation department and install more lighting throughout the city.
Also, he said, emergency services need to be improved. A fire department is something every good city should have, Lopez said.
Lopez said he’s been on the Agua SUD board less than a year, but he’s already accomplished his goals. The board switched attorneys, cutting costs for the district, he said, and the board is currently seeking an executive director to oversee the agency. Also, Lopez said, Agua SUD approved an item allowing the city of Peñitas to seek funding to control its own water system.
As for the high costs of sewer service, Lopez said a separate meter to measure outdoor use of water that is not going into the sewer system is available for an extra fee. The sewer project was underway long before Lopez came to Peñitas, he said, and the debt’s not going anywhere.
The opposing slate wants to lower sewer rates, but Lopez said he doesn’t want to make that type of promise. Once the city is 100 percent connected, a new apartment complex is connected and more businesses come into the city, the cost will be spread around, he said.
“It’s a growing pain the city’s going through,” Lopez said. “Every big city needs to have a sewer now. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as possible, but it was done with good intentions. We as a community have to take the challenge and keep moving forward.”
Flores first was appointed to the commission less than two years ago and then ran for election to the seat unopposed. Prior to his appointment, Flores was a member of the planning and zoning board, and he’s still involved in it.
A migrant director for La Joya ISD, Flores said his experience working with federal funding is beneficial to the city. He also has a master’s in engineering. The sewer project was ongoing when he came on board, and it can’t be undone, Flores said.
He encouraged residents to get informed on the issues, pointing out that members of the public didn’t show up to meetings when sewer rates were discussed. Flores emphasized the importance of the city’s newsletter to keep residents informed of what’s going on in their community. When people don’t come to meetings, Flores said he takes it to mean they don’t care or are in agreement with what the city is doing.
Plus, Flores said, the rates are being lowered. The first 2,000 gallons used won’t be charged. He agreed with Lopez that lowering the rates won’t happen overnight.
Also, Flores said, obtaining control of the city’s water plant will benefit residents.
“Then it will be a different story because we can control our water and sell our water at a discount,” he said.
Mendoza said he wants to restore insurance and retirement benefits to the city’s police officers. It’s not worth training them, he said, when they soon take off to another city with more benefits.
He also said the city needs to improve on its service from first responders for ambulance service and the fire department, working with Palmview and La Joya, cities that both have their own fire departments.
Plus, he said, city leaders aren’t properly handling the issue with the sewer system funding by seeking a loan to repay USDA.
“All they’re doing to get out of debt is one loan after another loan,” Mendoza said. “That’s just money that’s being mismanaged by our current leaders and manager because you can’t divide them. They’re all together.”
Mendoza served on the commission from 2003-2005. During that time, Mendoza said he worked to lay caliche on city roads, and he ensured the school district paved Liberty Boulevard. Mendoza said he’s the one that made the motion to break off the city’s then-interlocal agreement with the city of La Joya and seek funds for a plant in Peñitas. But he was out of office by the time the sewer project went up for bid, Mendoza said.
The city needs to be run like a business, and if it’s going to bring in new business, city leaders have got to go out and sell the community, Mendoza said. They’ve got to get involved in agencies like the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is what Mendoza did when he was on the commission.
Garza could not be reached for comment. His application for candidacy indicates he has lived in Peñitas 35 years and is a teacher.
Ochoa said he was helping “The Green Team” when the application period for the special election for Place 3 was opened. He previously served a term as commissioner and in that time, Ochoa said he oversaw the paving of city streets on a much smaller budget.
“I was born and raised in that town and right now I feel like the city is in trouble,” Ochoa said. “I want to bring it back up to where it was when I left.”
Taxes have continuously increased, he emphasized, and the city doesn’t have a long-term plan. Ochoa said he wants to audit the city’s current expenditures and come up with a solution to its debt issue.
He wants to look into constructing a railroad bridge, and it makes sense, Ochoa said, because Peñitas is across from a maquiladora area of Mexico. The city needs someone willing to think outside the box. Every governmental body needs a devil’s advocate, he said.
“There’s room for infrastructure. There’s just growth that’s coming, and it needs the right people,” Ochoa said.
All members of the other slate, Ochoa said, work for the district, and he said that connection impairs their judgment and undermines the democratic process.
“That’s my passion – to correct what’s going on,” Ochoa said. “We’re big enough, and we have the heart, and I think all the cities that pertain to La Joya ISD can make this difference. It’s never too late.”
Cervantez Barrientos, a personal chef, said she decided to run for office because she saw a lack of leadership within the city. Cervantez Barrientos was one of the first city secretary’s when the community was incorporated in the ’90s.
Recently, she said she’s been hearing grumbling from residents, and “I want people to share my love for my city.”
People are frustrated with the sewer project, she said, and she is too, but Cervantez Barrientos said her main focus is on the city’s emergency responders. She’d like to see the city begin it’s own fire department, even if it’s just volunteer at first.
“I don’t know if anybody’s looked into that,” Cervantez Barrientos said. “And the police department, they’re a small, growing police department. The value that I put on their lives is infinite.”
Cervantez Barrientos also is pushing for a youth center, similar to a Boys and Girls Club. Currently, she said children play in the street because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Loya has lived in Peñitas all 65 years of his life and is manager of the custodial department for La Joya ISD. As a member of the Knights of Columbus, he’s long been involved in the community.
He pointed to his running mates, and said they all are well educated, are full of energy and want to see the city grow.
“We’re all new,” Loya said. “I’ve been there three months. We all have the same goals, to bring the city business, get more growth and support the police department.”
Just in the time that he’s been on the city commission, Loya said he’s been working to bring down the cost of sewer services.
Loya said he also served on the commission for two years in the ’90s.
“I know what it takes to help the city move forward,” he said.