KGNS On Your Side: Records reveal how much money was spent on councilmember events

Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 11:39 AM CDT
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LAREDO, TX (KGNS) - Back in May of this year, Laredo City Council held a meeting with an agenda item that touched a nerve for several council members—a proposal by City Management to change the ordinance that allows council members to use taxpayer money for events in their district.

In an open records request, KGNS went back five years to see what all the hullabaloo was about. What records showed was some districts spending more than others, as well as a duplication of events and no real method of holding council members accountable for their expenditures.

“The budget for these events through Parks is about $83,000, but the usage is $400.000, so a lot is being pulled from other departments,” said Amber Holmes, Assistant City Attorney presenting to City Council.

That amount is four times the budgeted amount for district-specific events, which is why some council members are now asking where that money is coming from.

“Where does all this money come from?” asked Dr. Tyler King, Council Member for District 6. “Where is this--all these extra resources--where does this money come from?”

“That’s a great question Dr. King, and the answer is there are no limitations and that is the reason for this proposal,” responded Joaquin Rodriguez, First Assistant City Attorney. The proposal from the City Attorney’s Office calls for restricting how much money each council member can spend to $50,000--with no limit on the number of events that money can be spent on.

“That way, we can kind of limit the amount of city resources that are being utilized and overtaxing those departments,” explained Holmes. Part of the problem is that there is no way for the city to track where the money is being spent. Even worse, the events are so costly, (City) management is using money from anywhere they can find it.

“So, what is happening right now is that they’re using other line items--freezing positions or finding (money) from other departments,” said Rosario Cabello, Deputy City Manager.

Records show just how out-of-control the spending was. In the fiscal years 2022 and 2023, two events in District 6 cost twice as much (in total) as the $50,000 proposal. Also, in 2022, other council districts spent way more. District 1 spent $85,500 and District 2 spent $97,500. Everyone else stayed under the proposed $50,000 budget. But not everyone is convinced.

“This is going to force us to really like... it’s going to hinder us from being able to do it, because we’re going to have to like basically be a budget person,” said Vanessa Perez, Council Member for District 7.

In response, the city’s legal team clarified council members are supposed to be doing that already.

On top of capping the yearly amount, the proposal also includes how events can be marketed and when members can host them out of concern that these events are being used for political gain.

“Because for one or two people who go to your event and enjoy it, there are people outside of that event that perceive what you’re doing during your campaign season is politicking,” explained Rodriguez.

Some council members do not buy that politics argument.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the area to have to go without these events that have been established, and I don’t think it’s fair that I’m running for re-election that I cannot participate,” said Council Member Perez.

In the end, nothing changed with a motion made by Alberto Torres, Council Member for District 4, to table the item—indefinitely.

“Mayor, I’d like to make a motion to table the item indefinitely,” said Torres.

“Second,” said Daisy Campos-Rodriguez, Council Member for District 2.

“And you’re tabling it indefinitely?” asked Melissa Cigarroa, Council Member for District 3.

“There’s no discussion,” responded Torres.

“Motion has been seconded, all in favor?” asked Laredo Mayor, Victor Trevino. “Four to three against.”

“Motion passes,” says City Secretary Jose Valdez.

Voting to approve Council Member Torres’ motion to table the item indefinitely was Gilbert Gonzalez, District 1, Daisy Campos-Rodriguez, District 2, Ruben Gutierrez, District 5 and Vanessa Perez, District 7. Voting against tabling the item was Alyssa Cigarroa, District 8, Dr. Tyler King, District 6 and Melissa Cigarroa, District 3. For the item to be brought back for discussion and vote, city attorneys say five council members would need to vote in favor.

At the meeting, the duplication of events was also discussed. For example, one year alone, nine Christmas events were held and paid for by taxpayer money, including a city-wide event. On that topic, some council members argued neighborhood events are more convenient for constituents to attend.

Also, it’s important to note that sometimes private donations are received to help offset some event costs.

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