Palmview pressed forward with a swearing-in ceremony for Mayor Rick Villarreal on Tuesday, setting aside concerns about whether or not a procedural error tainted the November election.
Ricardo “Rick” Villarreal, 48, of Palmview — an assistant superintendent at the La Joya Independent School District who served two terms on the City Council — filed for mayor on Aug. 16.
When nobody filed against him, Villarreal thought he’d won the election by default. Villarreal, though, wasn’t listed on the ballot along with the Palmview City Council candidates. He didn’t receive a single vote.
After the polls closed, serious questions surfaced about whether or not Villarreal actually won the election.
“Somewhere along the line, someone messed up,” said City Councilman Javier Ramirez.
Villarreal appeared on a section of the ballot that listed candidates without opponents who were declared elected. Voters couldn’t actually cast a ballot for him.
Weslaco and Donna allowed voters to cast ballots for uncontested candidates on Election Day. McAllen did the same when Jim Darling ran unopposed for mayor in May 2013.
Concerned about the potential screw-up, Palmview called the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, said Interim City Manager Leo Olivares.
“And Secretary of State’s Office is saying ‘No, you had to have someone vote for him, you can’t do it this way,’” Olivares said.
Olivares said Palmview received informal, verbal advice from the Secretary of State’s Office and didn’t request a written opinion.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
After discussing the matter, Palmview decided to hold the swearing-in ceremony anyway.
“We gave the information to the mayor-elect and it was up to him to make a decision on what he wanted to do,” Olivares said. “And as far as the city is concerned, based on the advice of counsel, we proceeded to swear in Mayor Villarreal.”
Villarreal couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Whether or not the procedural problem will cast a cloud over Villarreal — and, if so, who is responsible — wasn’t clear Wednesday.
Palmview hired the Hidalgo County Elections Department to handle the November election.
Along with the mayor, Place 2 and Place 4 on the City Council appeared on the ballot.
Palmview submitted the ballot information, including candidate names and the order in which they would be listed, to the Elections Department. Staff from the Elections Department sent the draft ballot back to Palmview for approval.
In response to a public information request submitted by the Progress Times, the Elections Department released documents showing that Palmview City Secretary Annette Villarreal approved the draft ballot.
“We follow their instructions,” said Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon, adding that the county Elections Department doesn’t provide legal advice to local governments.
Asked whether or not Palmview made a mistake, Ramon politely declined to offer her opinion.
“We don’t know what has transpired over there,” Ramon said, adding that the Elections Department isn’t familiar with all the issues local governments face, including city charter requirements and the intricacies of the Local Government Code. “Any opinions? What do I think? I don’t have any.”
Olivares, the interim city manager, said he didn’t know whether or not Palmview would request a written opinion from the Secretary of State’s Office.
City Attorney Eric Flores, who took the job on Tuesday, said he’ll research the issue and advise the City Council accordingly.
“This is the type of situation the city is trying to avoid by contracting the Elections Department,” Flores said. “Because, as the city, we’re relying on them as the subject matter experts to make sure everything is correct.”
Flores said he would consult with the City Council before deciding whether or not to request a written opinion from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Any decision will come after the Thanksgiving holiday.
The limited facts available, however, suggest a potential problem for Palmview, said former La Joya City Attorney Roberto Jackson.
“As it stands right now, I’m hard pressed to say that they have the proper transition of power,” Jackson said, adding that Villarreal needed at least one vote to win the election.
Jackson said he would advise Palmview to hold a new election within 120 days.
“And it’s not an error on the candidate’s part,” Jackson said. “It falls on the city for not properly putting his name on the ballot where he could have received a vote.”