Newly named City Manager Horacio De Leon is an articulate and concise communicator, one who believes economic development, sound data for informed decision making, technology, and forward thinking are key elements of city government that well serves those who pay for it.
Though his tenure in city employment stretches over 24 years, his demeanor is not that of a public servant who holds the keys to a well-oiled political machine. Nor is it that of a shy neophyte content with the status quo.
The native Laredoan served as interim city manager since former City manager Jesus Olivares left the post at a May 15 Council meeting.
De Leon’s employment with the City of Laredo began as a code enforcement officer in 1993. He became an administrative assistant I in 1993 and an administrative assistant II in 1996 before becoming
an assistant to the City manager in 1998. He took the helm of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department in 2001. De Leon became an assistant City manager in 2005.
He spearheaded the development of a Parks Master Plan, and as an assistant City manager, he oversaw the design and construction of the Max A. Mandel Golf Course, which is ranked among the top municipal golf courses in Texas.
De Leon has worked to re-shape and streamline City departments and policies to deliver services more efficiently. An example is the restructuring of the Code Enforcement Department to include technological advancements and performance strategies. “These measures vastly improved customer service,” he said.
Among his most notable contributions to cost savings and efficiency was the 2012 implementation of a Municipal Energy Cost Savings Program that has translated into a 28% reduction in energy use and $400,000 annually in savings to the City.
His development of the City’s Viva Laredo Comprehensive Plan, which invited public input and factored it into the plan, is testimony to his tenet that citizens play a vital role in forging policy and shaping the quality of life they want.
He continues to work with all City departments on the Bloomberg Foundation’s What Works Cities initiative to establish an open data portal that will improve the City’s ability to use data as a strategic asset for economic development.
De Leon is known to spend 14 to 15-hour days planning new projects and seeing them to completion.
I asked him how — as politics in Laredo are and always have been a factor in how public money is spent — he would keep politics out of decision making.
“The challenge is not to keep politics out of decision making but to manage the politics by providing the decision makers facts, true data, and information so that they can make an educated decision. Stakeholders, the public, and special interests are all part of the politics, and they bring value to the creation of public policy. As City manager, it is important to create a public forum that shapes policy, and then it is our job as City staff to enforce or execute policy,” he said.
De Leon said that among the City initiatives in development that will yield significant quality of life changes are projects in transportation infrastructure that will provide improved mobility and alternative transportation options like bike lanes, paths, hiking trails, pedestrian walkways, and a better mass transit system.
“Another,” he said, “is the downtown revitalization project that will see more of a mixed land use in the central business district. This will create opportunities to experience downtown’s township ambience and walkability as the dominant form of transportation. The district will offer employment opportunities, housing, eateries, and entertainment — all within walking distance.”
De Leon said that the River Vega Master Plan, the Convention Center, a City Museum, the four-block approach to the Juarez Lincoln Bridge, a natatorium, and further development of the airport property will all contribute to quality of life enhancements, as will more green spaces and public spaces that offer environmentally friendly and sustainable infrastructure.
The City manger said he wants to push forward to brand and market the Port of Laredo for its infrastructure and efficiency as the best logistical choice for international commerce between Mexico and the U.S.
“Investing in infrastructure that increases capacity to the international bridges accomplishes two things — it adds value to commercial cargo carried over the border, and it would make the crossing a more pleasurable experience for visitors coming into the U.S. and Laredo,” he said.
De Leon looks forward to improvements in air service from airlines that offer more affordable fares. “This could make Laredo more of a destination for visitors and conventioneers,” he said.
De Leon believes that a City Economic Development Department could work with other agencies to attract business by incentivizing private investment for companies and industry that would otherwise not locate to Laredo. “An example,” he said, “would be the development of a medical center with specialty medical clinics to serve the South Texas region and Northern Mexico with services not available within 150 miles. This would bring good paying jobs to our City and provide services we may not yet have in Laredo,” he said.
De Leon said that an Economic Development Department and its staffing are written into the 2017-2018 budget.
“We need to consider all economic development initiatives that bring jobs to Laredoans and offer employment and competitive compensation to millennials who want to stay in Laredo or who want to come home to make this a better place to live, work, and play,” he said.
De Leon talked about finding the balance between the engine that drives Laredo’ economy — international trade — and experiencing growth that is orderly, planned for, and bears high yields.
“Smart planning, investment in technology, and public investment in infrastructure projects give the highest return on investment. You work with a cost benefit analysis, and you prioritize projects. You look at innovative financing by leveraging state and federal funds as well as private investment through Private Public Partnership (3P) Projects,” he continued.
“You want to attract private investment that pays livable wages, which in turn produce disposable income that generates tax revenues for governmental services,” De Leon said.
District VII City Council member George Altgelt, who did not attend the meeting at which De Leon was named City manager, said De Leon was a natural choice for the position. “He is very calculated and data driven,” Altgelt observed. “If we are going to take our city in the right direction, we need someone who is a thinker and who is not reacting, but is diligently managing where we will be in the next 5, 10, 15 years, and beyond.”
He added, “He gets where we are. He has demonstrated the ability to keep politics in check and to collaborate with us as council members.”
Architect Viviana Frank, who has worked with De Leon on the Viva Laredo Comprehensive Plan, said, “He understands the power of local government to create a city that citizens want and need. He knows the value of data and evidence to make decisions, especially where policy and economic development are concerned.”
Berman Rivera, a construction superintendent for the City Parks and Leisure Department, anticipates the urban agriculture development of the grounds of the Canseco House in the Heights, which will feature demonstration gardens, community vegetable gardens, and xeriscaped gardens. “Mr. De Leon’s vision for the Canseco property is really important to its success. He has a background in agriculture, and he is focused on plants that are region-specific and water-wise. He sees the potential of the Canseco gardens as an educational platform to teach which plants and trees thrive in our climate. One of the footprints he will one day leave behind will certainly be that of a conservationist who made the city landscape greener,” Rivera said.
De Leon holds a degree in agricultural science from Texas A&I University in Kingsville, has undertaken Masters coursework in public administration, and is an alum of the Harvard School of Government Senior Local and State Government Leadership Program.
Looking ahead, the City manager said, “Eventually, I plan to step back from operations and focus on providing resources and organizational changes that will improve the level of service we offer the taxpayers.”
I asked him what he wants City staff and administrators and Laredoans to know about his work ethic. “I want them to know that the culture of the City workplace is rooted in integrity, transparency, and an ethic that has high regard for the public it serves,” he said.