A second top public official in La Joya resigns

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Mike Alaniz, a longtime administrator for the border city of La Joya, is resigning at the end of June in the wake of an FBI land deal investigation.

This is the second time in the past four months that La Joya has lost a top administrator over questionable decision-making. The La Joya Independent School District agreed to buy out the contract of longtime Superintendent Alda Benavides after state politicians including Gov. Greg Abbott pilloried the district for spending $20 million on a water park and technology center.

Neither Alaniz, 55, nor the FBI has confirmed that an investigation is under way, although his attorney and city officials discussed it with a reporter for the Progress Times, a local newspaper in Mission.

Alaniz and his sister, Blanca Valdez, bought five lots in a subdivision that were part of a foreclosure auction in August 2012, according to the Progress Times. They were part of a group of city and law enforcement officials and their relatives who bought much of the property at “rock-bottom prices,” the paper reported.

Three lots in Alaniz’ name were purchased for a total of $23,600. Two lots in Valdez’ name were purchased for a total of $16,400. Alaniz transferred ownership of two of his lots to the city of La Joya in 2015 and Valdez sold one of hers to the city two years later, according to the paper.

How much taxpayers paid Alaniz and his sister for the lots is not part of the deed documentation and the city refused a Progress Times request to see the payment records, according to the story.

The Progress Times reported that it filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office over the city’s failure to produce the sales records. An assistant attorney general sent a letter dated May 21 to Alaniz suggesting the city release the records.

Ten days later, Alaniz presented a brief letter of resignation to Mayor Jose Salinas and city council members. The effective date of the resignation on the letter is June 30.

“I think that the big inquiry for La Joya, and for any other city, is when you’re either elected or employed by any municipality, you have no business dealing with yourself,” Rick Salinas, attorney for Alaniz, told the Progress Times. “And I’m not saying that’s what Mike Alaniz did.”

Alaniz became city administrator in July 2000, after leaving a math teaching job with the La Joya school district. In April, Alaniz came under fire for recommending the city hire a part-time youth coach with a 17-year history of misdemeanor arrests and convictions for theft, drug possession, driving while intoxicated and evading arrest.

Mayor Salinas had earlier appointed the employee, Jose Luis Rodriguez, 39, of La Joya, to the city’s housing authority. Salinas took criticism after Rodriguez failed to attend any meetings.

The retirement of Benavides is also effective at the end of June. The school district agreed last month to make interim superintendent Gisela Saenz’s promotion permanent, with a salary of $275,000 a year.

Benavides has been working for Saenz as part of a buyout agreement in which the district paid Benavides a severance of more than $319,000 plus 21 weeks of unused vacation and sick pay.

Pressure from the school board for Benavides to resign followed the tumult over the water park element of an educational center opened in April 2018. As The Texas Monitor reported in February, not only did state officials criticize the use of state tax funds for the water park, but the school district reported a $550,000 operating loss in the first year at the park and the district’s golf course.

On May 2 the legislature passed Senate Bill 1133, which state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, directed at the La Joya district. It explicitly prohibits school districts from spending state tax funds on projects that are not part of the core teaching mission of public schools.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

 

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