Drainage districts are local governmental bodies tasked with managing drainage and sewer systems to prevent communities from flooding. Although important, they are not a regular part of resident’s everyday attention and are often thought of as boring. As a result, they’re unassuming until they’re not. Hidalgo County residents had to learn this the hard way. As they deal with the aftermath of a scandal involving their own drainage districts, they are now pushing for changes to the ways their local district operates in their communities.
Last month ProPublica published an in-depth investigative piece titled, “How a Local Bureaucrat Made Millions Amid the Rush to Build a Border Fence,” uncovering the details of how Godfrey Garza, the former Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 (HDD#1) Manager, and his family amassed millions during the construction of the levee border fence.
The article lays out a narrative of alleged corruption and unaccountability along the various levels of government involved, militarization of the border and tremendous profiteering, and the lasting consequences to Hidalgo County, to whom the Department of Homeland Security is now denying almost $3 million in reimbursement money. It provides insight to the “whistle blowing” which alerted authorities of the discrepancies surrounding drainage bonds money as well as the ethical questions surrounding Garza’s ties to Integ., a consulting company owned by the Garza family and paid with Hidalgo County residents’ bond money. The article also captures the bitter legal feud between Hidalgo County and Garza, which remains pending and has a court hearing scheduled in February 2018.
In the aftermath of it all, it has become clear how an entity that operates under the radar and is responsible for the investment of millions of local and federal dollars can severely affect Hidalgo County residents’ quality of life. Yet, as the details of this embarrassing local scandal unfold, Hidalgo County residents have been left to deal with the consequences and continued flooding problems. In May and June of 2015, for example, the northern part of the county experienced severe rains that flooded many colonias, overflowing septic tanks and some residents without basic sanitary services. One property owner even appeared at Hidalgo County Commissioners Court to deliver a petition from his neighbors requesting the county’s assistance to provide portable showers and toilets. Like this individual, residents who are most affected by drainage problems in their colonias are organizing and speaking out against issues with their regional drainage systems.
When colonia residents’ homes flood many of them turn to community organizations like La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE) for help in relaying their problems to the proper authorities. These grassroots groups utilize educational materials and leadership development activities to equip residents with knowledge on neighborhood problems and their potential solutions. One resource advocates frequently use is the Land Use Colonia Housing Action (LUCHA) Initiative library, which provides community leaders with easy-to-read, bilingual popular education material on topics like governance, drainage, public services, housing, planning and development. When a neighborhood floods, residents often use this resource to learn more about why the flooding occurs, how the regional drainage system is connected, and who is responsible for addressing the problem.
In 2015, after the Hidalgo County scandal broke out and Garza was ousted and replaced by the Raul Sesin as HDD#1 General Manager, residents and community leaders saw the new leadership as an opportunity to interject and address colonia and regional drainage issues. Since then, residents and advocates have identified at least three areas of improvement for the drainage district.
The first area of improvement involves transparency and community engagement. Thanks in large part to the work of community organizations like LUPE and ARISE, the county has made some progress in building community rapport and in being-at least in comparison to the Garza days- more accessible to community residents. Since 2015 LUPE and ARISE members have attended the drainage district meetings every month. They have also engaged their commissioners and the precinct staff by presenting their drainage and community concerns in house meetings. Furthermore, community groups have also held rotating quarterly meetings with the commissioners and the drainage district director for close to two years. On its end, in an effort to be more transparent, in 2017 the county revamped its website. District project data like funding sources, completion status, project description, etc. is now more publicly accessible and user friendly. However, more is needed.
Among other things, community organizations are pushing for the provision of simultaneous translation services for people with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Despite the fact that the county is a recipient of federal funding and has certain legal obligations, the county has yet to provide these services. These are especially essential if meaningful engagement is to occur in drainage district and commissioners court meetings. Advocates have also added that an effort should be made to include updated material, including actualized cost for some of the projects completed in-house, and more educational material on drainage in the education corner of their website.
The second area of improvement touches upon the need for localized solutions and a more practical approach to the allocation of resources and funding across the county, particularly as relates to unincorporated colonias, which are neighborhoods which rely mostly on the county for services in comparison to residents in larger cities who are served by their municipal government.
Following Garza’s resignation, advocates learned that the majority of the drainage improvements made through bond money have served to increase the regional drainage system rather than address localized flooding. In response, community organizations are pushing for localized solutions in the neighborhoods with the most urgent need. They see endeavors like the Spanish Palms or Lucero del Norte Rural Drainage Development Projects which directly improve storm sewer systems in neighborhoods with chronic flooding as examples of projects that should be prioritized over projects such as the La Joya Watershed Study in Pct. 3 which cost over a million dollars and benefitted an area currently not served by the drainage district. Leaders also believe practical revisions in the distribution of funds are necessary. As it currently stands, the process for distributing drainage resources is largely influenced by the county commissioners who compromise the Hidalgo Drainage District #1 board. Commissioners control equal portions of the Community Development Block Grant which is then used for several purposes including the development of infrastructure improvements in their precincts. While this may seem equal, advocates stress that it is not equitable as certain precincts are left to tackle the problems of a much larger number of colonias and unincorporated subdivisions with the same amount of funding as precincts with fewer colonias.
Finally, residents and advocates insist updated drainage rules and standards are needed in Hidalgo County. Hidalgo residents believe that the regional drainage system does not meet the growing needs of the community. In an interview with the Brownsville Herald, HDD#1 Raul E. Sesin stated, “Our system originally does not take into account the additional runoff being generated from urbanization.” The rules and regulations that governed development and the provision of services ten years ago are no longer sufficient. In order to prevent the building of entire neighborhoods with inadequate drainage and without public lighting, residents believe amended Model Subdivision Rules and stronger standards are needed. Although the Hidalgo County Planning Department has been working on amending the regulations, advocates are placing pressure on officials to make appropriate modifications soon.
Systemic problems take commitment and action to address and just as they did not appear from one day to the other, neither will they be solved as such. Rebuilding the community’s trust after being placed at the center of a scandal involving millions of dollars will be a difficult and arduous process. It will require consistent and meaningful community input and engagement. The Hidalgo County Commissioners, the County Judge and the Hidalgo Drainage District #1 staff should acknowledge this and continue to work closely with community organizations and leaders who have the best interest of the community at heart and who represent larger communities that are tired of being at the losing end of yet another local scandal.