The Texas Senate rejected a voter ID bill two years ago, with Democrats blocking the bill out of concern that requiring voters to show a picture ID would discriminate against certain sectors of the electorate (i.e. minorities and the poor.) But Texas Republicans, apparently desperate to stop a purple surge in the Lone Star state, are picking up the dying embers of the voter ID torch for yet another run.
A Supreme Court ruling that allowed Indiana to institute such a law has paved the way for state Senators Troy Fraser (R-District 24), Tommy Williams (R- District 4), and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst to try again. Fraser introduced Senate Bill 362 in December, which would require that each voter show photo ID before being able to cast a vote.
"Voter impersonation is a serious crime, but without a photo ID requirement we can never have confidence in our system of voting,” said Fraser at the time. He also introduced Senate Bill 363, which would require voter applicants to prove U.S. citizenship by furnishing a birth certificate or, if a naturalized citizen, the city, state, and year of taking the naturalization oath. Williams voiced his support for a mere majority vote on the bills that would bypass the normal two-thirds vote required, while Dewhurst crows at his website that “We all know thousands of people have voted illegally in Texas elections.”
Dewhurst, Fraser and Williams appear to be in a tizzy about the concept of voter impersonation, having made some bold claims about the reality of such fraud. Yet they are hard pressed to come up with a SINGLE example of such a crime actually taking place in Texas. The QueQue has inquired with each of their offices as to any evidence of such vote fraud and we’re still waiting. Dewhurst says he knows of thousands of such crimes, yet can’t document any? This lends his position the rancid smell of disingenuous, partisan politics.
David Iglesias of New Mexico, one of seven U.S. Attorneys fired by the Bush White House for their refusal to bring voter fraud prosecutions, says such vote fraud concerns are trumped up. "We took over 100 complaints," from the GOP, he told acclaimed investigative reporter Greg Palast in 2007. "We investigated for almost 2 years, I didn't find one prosecutable voter fraud case in the entire state of New Mexico."
Iglesias charged that the Bush White House ordered him to illegally prosecute the baseless cases to create contrived vote fraud publicity. He said further that his refusal cost him his job. "They were looking for… improperly politicized U.S. attorneys to file bogus voter fraud cases."
“It’s really a shame when you look at how more people vote for American Idol than for President… We should make it easier [to vote], not harder,” said state Sen. Mario Gallegos (D - District 6) of Houston, one of the Democrats who blocked the previous Texas voter ID bill in 2007.
Gallegos said a voter ID bill would suppress the Democratic vote from about three to five percent. He then cited numbers from the most recent judicial elections in Harris County, where Democrats won an overwhelming majority of those races, all by around three percent said Gallegos. He said the handful of races that the Democrats lost were all by about one percent.
Ryan LaRue, spokesperson for Tommy Williams, says that the group Texas Watchdog found 4,000 dead people registered to vote in Harris County and that there’s evidence some of those names were used to cast fraudulent votes. This is the same Texas Watchdog group who warned last year that 6,000 dead people were registered to vote in Dallas County, and that some of those names were used for fraudulent votes. But The Dallas Morning News debunked such claims in a December story where it was revealed that of the 48 names Texas Watchdog said may have been used, 47 were shown not to have been involved in a fraudulent vote and that the other had been purged from the voter rolls.
“In the majority of cases, clerical errors by poll workers or county employees explained why the voter was marked as having cast a ballot, when no ballot was cast,” The Morning News reported. “Those errors stem from the very methods the county employs to prevent fraud and track voting at polling precincts.”
In the case of the 48 names produced by Texas Watchdog, The Morning News determined that the mistakes generally occurred because a poll worker stamped the wrong name in the poll book or a county employee scanned the wrong bar code. When queried about the quantity of deceased on the rolls, county officials said that those rolls have always contained the names of many dead people since they aren't updated constantly, and because it takes time to verify a death with certainty.
But LaRue still argues that the case for voter ID in Texas is bolstered by the 6-3 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Indiana law, in which Chief Justice John Roberts cited that more than 40 percent of the names on the state voter rolls were composed of dead people or other duplicate entries. The court ruled that this created a potential for fraud that the state had an interest in combating. Still, Justice David Souter's dissent said "Indiana's 'Voter ID Law' threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting right of tens of thousands of the state's citizens and a significant percentage of those individuals are likely to be deterred from voting."
LaRue says Texas is similar to Indiana, citing a November 2007 state auditor’s report which found that roughly 49,000 out of about 12.3 million names (0.4 percent) were ineligible to vote in the May 12, 2007, special election. These included over 23,000 for “possible felons,” another 23,000-plus who may be deceased and duplicate records for 2,359.
Yet that report also noted that “Auditors did not identify any instances in which potentially ineligible voters actually voted during the May 12, 2007, special election…” Likewise, Paul Smith, attorney for the Democratic Party of Indiana, countered that despite the inaccuracies of the voter rolls, there was still no evidence of any actual vote fraud in Indiana and that a voter ID law would unfairly affect the poorest voters.
All of this makes a voter ID law appear to be a politicized solution in search of a non-existent problem. The danger of legitimate American citizens being disenfranchised from their right to vote in Texas by such a law is highlighted by a new lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund that challenges “recently-adopted rules and policies of the Texas Department of Public Safety that are preventing thousands of persons across Texas from receiving standard-issued licenses.”
MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa says they have filed suit in the Travis County District Court to stop DPS from making itself into a de facto immigration agency.
“It’s not that it could affect citizens, it is [already] affecting citizens,” said Hinojosa. He described a call MALDEF received from a U.S. citizen who was not born in the country, but is a derivative citizen, who was denied a driver’s license three times for not having the documentation that was being required. A passport did not suffice.
“It seems that you would have to present a certificate of citizenship or birth certificate, and all that’s unnecessary,” said Hinojosa. “That’s just one story, we’ve heard from many people being denied and having to come back time and again with more documentation… They [DPS] have become pseudo immigration agents…”
Hinojosa accuses DPS commissioners, appointed by Governor Rick Perry, of trying to undemocratically circumvent the state legislature on the issue.
"DPS has tried to sneak these rules in through the back door and in doing so, has created a litany of problems preventing both citizens and non-citizens with legal permission from receiving licenses," said Hinojosa in the MALDEF press release. "This is not only harming persons by denying them licenses but also businesses that need their workers to drive in performing their jobs."
“You can talk to DPS employees themselves and they’re not very happy with having to institute these policies,” said Hinojosa. He said MALDEF hopes the case will be heard in mid-February to at least gain a temporary restraining order from the court.
“It’s [voter ID] really targeted at suppressing minority voters. It’s partisan, it’s the old Karl Rove [trick] back again… The Republican Party is seeing census numbers that the Latino community is voting in record numbers,” concludes state Sen. Gallegos. “So I think… it’s a last gasp to try and suppress the vote.”
Sustainability studies, chatter fleshed out in speech
As promised in this week's QueQue, Planning and Development Services released an updated evaluation of the year-old Digital Billboard Pilot Program that went dark at the end of 2008. It calls for nine more months in which to evaluate the signs' impact before a final report is presented to Council.
Regular readers will recall that Council initiated the program -- which gave Clear Channel and Lamar the right to convert 15 existing billboards to digital faces in exchange for taking down a few old vinyl signs -- in December 2007. Clear Channel got 12 permits, Lamar 3. Clear Channel wasted no time plugging theirs in, many of them along Scenic and Scenic Urban Corridors, including a particularly obnoxious one at the 281/37/35 highway interchange by the Pearl Brewery redevelopment.
The ordinance called for City staff to evaluate the program, and the signs' effect on driver safety, before Council considered extending it, and City staff had initially planned to compare three months of data from before and after the signs were turned on, a proposal viewed as ludicrous by pros such as the Veridian Group's Jerry Wachtel. But after consulting with Scenic SA Chair June Kachtik, Planning spoke with Wachtel and others.
“I explained to [Chief SA Sign Inspector David] Simpson that, in my opinion, and in the opinion of others who have written on this subject, accident studies such as this, in general, and particularly those collecting data for only a six month total period, would not produce meaningful results,” Wachtel wrote in a January 17 memo.
Planning Director Rod Sanchez says the City simply realized that the data it had on hand didn't tell them anything.
The QueQue asked Wachtel to look at the new report; we'll follow up with him and you later this week. In the meantime, you can read Wachtel's memo here, on the Vance Jackson Neighborhood website (where Ted Trakas has amassed a thorough set of resources on the subject). Wachtel's currently working on a study to be released this spring that is aimed at supporting cities and states that want to regulate digital signs, but aren't sure how to say no to a powerful industry. (If LA is thinking about it, SA can, too.)
The May Day take: Since Clear Channel -- a major contributor to recent mayoral initiatives and select candidates -- has given every indication that it'll be back for more digital signs in the only major Texas city to be receptive so far, this is a live issue for the spring elections.
By Gilbert Garcia
Who needs opinion polls? After all, you can always spot the frontrunner in any political race by the way they get tag-teamed by the other candidates.
On that basis, Julian Castro must be the candidate to beat for mayor this year, because halfway through a Tourism Council forum (not to be confused with a debate) last night at the Menger Hotel, his two major opponents -- District 8 Councilwoman Diane Cibrian and marketing consultant Trish DeBerry-Mejia -- blasted Castro for supporting meet-and-confer bargaining rights for non-uniform city employees.
Intoxicated by the chance to bring Castro down a peg, Cibrian and DeBerry-Mejia left no doubt that they despise unions, viewing them as job-sucking agents of weaseldom; that is, when they're not viewing them as deadly viruses that infest municipal economies. "I am not the union candidate in this election," said Cibrian, apparently willing to kiss off labor votes for the plum chance to kiss up to the 250 hospitality industry reps (many of them partaking of red-wine hospitality) in attendance. She mocked Castro, seated to her immediate right, as a pawn of the formidable Service Employees International Union (SEIU). DeBerry-Mejia chimed in: "As a small-business owner, I am not a union supporter."
DeBerry-Mejia pumped the "small-business owner" angle all night, to the point where I wondered, if someone asked her the location of the nearest restroom, whether she would have answered: "As a small-business owner, I'd say follow the double-doors and hang a right."
Even at this first joint appearance by the Big Three, you could see the key themes emerging for each campaign.
For DeBerry-Mejia, of course, it was her business experience, meeting payrolls and putting "food on the table for 75 families." In her own parlance, she's the "walk the walk" candidate.
For Cibrian, it was her presence on a Council led by popular Mayor Phil Hardberger. She hinted that she was the best option to continue the policies of Hardberger and City Manager Sheryl Sculley and argued that previous Councils -- perhaps the ones Castro served on from 2001-05? -- balanced the budget on the backs of the police and fire departments.
For Castro, it was something akin to "I'm not so scary, really." Aware that resistance from the business community cost him the 2005 election to Hardberger, he sought to reassure an audience that was plainly sympathetic to DeBerry-Mejia that he's pro-growth and eager to work with business leaders.
Aside from the union smackdown, there was little to separate the candidates on the issues: They all favor Convention Center expansion, oppose hiking the Hotel Occupancy Tax, and consider downtown car theft to be a bad thing.
DeBerry-Mejia noted that her husband recently had a laptop stolen from the front seat of his car. Castro revealed that vandals broke into his vehicle six months ago, forcing him to pay $620 for a window repair. Cibrian, apparently frustrated that she couldn't up the vandalism ante, wanly responded: "We all have our car-theft stories."
You know the race is starting to heat up when the candidates get competitive about who's had the most stuff stolen.
If bad polluting energy and economic rack and ruin had been loosed on the world as ghosts and gremlins, we may have collectively shut this depression thing down before it started to unwind a year ago. That is, we would have found the portal and slammed it shut back when the slime — or ectoplasm — from thousands of questionable lender's first started leaving slippery trails of familial heartbreak across our communities.
But, alas, it did not, and we did not. The despairing faces of our neighbors were not enough to move us.
However, if we were living through such a Real World remake of that Bill Murray classic Ghostbusters, the kumbaya moment of federal-local synchronicity we officially enter tomorrow would be portrayed by the glorious union (or, more specific in our case, the suggestion of glorious union to come) between Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, the "gatekeeper" and "keymaster" that must make whoopie to save creation bring on the new world odor.* [See correction at bottom.]
Just remember, it didn’t have to turn out this way. That is to say (current global economic depression aside), it didn’t have to turn out so suspiciously perfect.
I’m speaking, of course, about the appearance (pre-release, mind you) of Mayor Hardberger’s “Mission Verde.”
Those who have been working for more than six months meeting in committee, gathering in public hearings, and reviewing and debating various consultants’ reports to the city, are feasting on the success of their two-parts-vision, one-part-luck approach today at the much anticipated roll-out of Verde, the Mayor’s sustainability plan for Alamo City.
It seems San Antonio is for once in perfect stride with The Fates — skillfully disguised this visitation as the Obama Administration.
Verde, eerily mirroring the president’s own stimulus priorities, is expected to be packed with plans for the weatherization of housing stock and municipal buildings, deeply engorged in mass transportation and hike-and-bike trails, and set to stimulate a future of low-carbon energy solutions and employment opportunity.
Mayor Hardberger’s advisor Larry Zinn said that while today’s energy and environmental aspirations weren’t exactly shrouded a year ago, more recent developments could not have been predicted.
“They all talked about renewable energy, green jobs, and all that,” Zinn said of the presidential candidates. “What we didn’t know was that the economy was going to crash and in his first weeks in office Obama was going to totally recreate the economy.”
Fortunately, Obama has been drawing from the same pool of experts as Hardberger and company. The newly-elected president and former community organizer was once a board member at the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, the same non-profit sustainability group that first served notice on San Antonio’s energy vulnerabilities (and opportunities) last June, creating a starting square for Verde’s development.
How far will Mission Verde go? Into what nether regions of the green development buffet will Hardy’s tongs venture? If you haven’t registered for the Chamber-sponsored State of the City Address being held today at noon, you’ll have to wait for the broadcast. As many as 880 people have already reserved seats — selling out the annual affair that typically brings in about 500 to 600, according to one chamber rep.
Don’t feel bad, though. This vision seems to be spreading. You’ll likely catch it sooner or later.
Keep watching the San Antonio Current for details.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn has been working hard to position himself as the GOP’s top attack dog now that Dick Cheney is off to Dr. Evil’s Retirement Home for Used-Up Despots. Cornyn single-handedly sought to hold up Hillary Clinton’s confirmation as Secretary of State, calling for more transparency on foreign donations to the foundation headed by her hubby Bill. Cornyn then went to work with GOP cohorts to delay the confirmation hearing of Attorney General-designee Eric Holder, saying he wants assurances Holder won’t prosecute intelligence officials from the Bush administration for their role in torture schemes.
The QueQue actually commends Cornyn on the Clinton transparency issue – we’d like to see Bill’s donor list too. If it's all good, then why not disclose?
“We should not let our respect for Senator Clinton… or the many good works of the Clinton Foundation blind us to the danger of perceived conflicts of interest caused by the solicitation of hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign and some domestic sources,” said Cornyn on the Senate Floor last week. That current lack of transparency does indeed fly against President Obama’s initiative to bring the “light of day” to American government. Cornyn voted to confirm Hillary, but said he’d be working on legislation for “an across-the-board disclosure requirement” that isn’t just targeted at the Clintons. Cornyn spokesperson Kevin McLaughlin says that the impending legislation intends to make it illegal for Cabinet-level appointees (and their spouses) to accept any payments or donations from foreign entities while they serve.
But the Holder nomination is another story. Cornyn has been accused of classic partisan politics with his treatment of Holder, with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) saying Cornyn is pulling a “double-standard” after having confirmed a less-qualified Alberto Gonzales to the same position. Asking a prosecutor to make a determination about who to prosecute, or not, before he has all the facts, does indeed smell of such partisanship. McLaughlin says Cornyn simply wants to protect those who were just following orders, deemed legal at the time, to defend the country. As to potential prosecution of someone like say Donald Rumsfeld for giving those orders (if he did), McLaughlin said Cornyn believes legal decisions have already addressed this and that anything else would be “a fruitless expedition.”
The QueQue gives Cornyn a Stephen Colbert tip of the hat on the Clinton issue but a wag of the finger on the Holder nomination. The delayed committee vote on Holder's confirmation is now scheduled for January 28.
Following last week's surprise exit by Federal Judge Xavier Rodriguez, the Free Speech Coalition's suit to overturn the City's new parade ordinance has been assigned to Judge Fred Biery, who will set a new trial date. That means Monday's court marshalling of free-speech forces is postponed, as is the January 25 vigil.
Rodriguez ruled last February that several provisions in the ordinance are unconstitutional, in part because they gave the City too much discretion in determining fees, which could effectively result in silencing groups with controversial messages by levying heavy expenses for cops and barricades. The City has since rewritten parts of the law and asked the court to lift the injunction, but the Coalition argues that the fees, which can range from two grand to 30K, are still prohibitive. That request, as well as a City motion for summary judgment are still before the bench. Biery could decide to address those, or proceed directly to trial.
Judge Rodriguez recused himself last week, saying that a witness in the suit, Assistant City Attorney Veronica Zertuche is an old childhood friend, and although they don't pal around as adults, he characterized their relationship as "close as cousins" recalled Coalition attorney Amy Kastely. Zertuche was added to the witness list in early January, after the plaintiffs received copies of 2008 parade permits from the City and found that the City Attorney's office had been asked to determine whether two permit applicants were holding First Amendment Processions, which qualify for a discount. According to the documents, Zertuche rendered those opinions.
The Coalition plans to use the extra time to continue educating the community about the issue.
"Our position is that all processions, parades, and marches are First Amendment processions," Kastely said. "The ordinance is really misleading in suggesting any procession isn't covered by the First Amendment."
"What is especially problematic," she added, "is for City officials to be empowered by the ordinance to tell someone their procession is or is not protected by the First Amendment."
You can find the court documents and orders to date here, along with links to join the Coalition, sign a petition, etc. Kastely expects to get a new court date in the next few weeks.
A pattern is starting to develop at the board meetings of CPS Energy. Spend two hours on self-congratulatory chatter and presentations about the company’s so-called commitment to sustainability and renewable energy, and only then deliver a unanimous vote to move the company and San Antonio further along toward a financially and environmentally risky investment on increased nuclear power usage.
The CPS Energy board unanimously approved investing another $60 million for planning and engineering the expansion of the STP nuclear plant in Bay City yesterday, raising the company’s financial commitment on the project up to $267 million. The vote authorized entering into an EPC Agreement (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) to replace the existing technical services agreement.
Mike Kotara, CPS Energy executive vice president of energy development, pointed out that the agreement does not lock the company into building the two additional proposed reactors at the STP site but that it protects the existing investment and enhances the opportunity for a Department of Energy Loan Guarantee.
“I can’t understate the importance of this factor,” said Kotara of the federal loan.
CPS officials have consistently argued that the utility's 40 percent ownership position in the STP nuclear plant has helped keep San Antonio's electric rates low. The South Texas Project currently provides 36 percent of the city's electricity.
Board Chair Aurora Geis also emphasized that the request for the additional $60 million was “not to build a nuclear power plant, but to advance nuclear processing, if you will, before we make a decision.” The board agreed in November to delay that final decision until the fall of 2009, a decision which will require City Council approval. The board said the additional $60 million would be financed by restructuring of debt.
The way in which the board prefaced this new decision with so much environmental talk about their “Commitment to Sustainability” – much like the November board meeting — struck a disingenuous chord though. If pursuing more nuclear power is such a great move, then why not just come right out with it?
Mayor Phil Hardberger, previously silent about where he stands on the controversial plan, gave an endorsement that was in large part based upon the apparently pro-nuclear stance of Steven Chu, President Obama’s pick for Secretary of Energy. “Nuclear power will be an important part of the energy mix,” said Chu at his confirmation hearing earlier this month.
“My position on nuclear power has been to go as slow as possible and not invest anymore than we need to, to keep the nuclear option alive,” said Hardberger. He noted that there had been uncertainty regarding the incoming Obama administration’s policy on nuclear power but that his view on the matter was significantly impacted by Chu’s comments. “It’s very unlikely at that level he would be saying something President Obama disagreed with.”
Chu also said a federal loan program to provide funding to build new nuclear power plants needs to be accelerated. Kotara’s emphasis on that point seemed to indicate that this is perhaps the biggest factor in understanding why CPS seems so eager to increase nuclear investment, despite the continuing lack of a clear national plan on how to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Hardberger at least acknowledged that issue when he noted that Chu had made a point about putting substantial resources into developing such a plan. No one mentioned the fact that America has already been waiting roughly six decades for that plan.
Hardberger went on to say that he doesn’t see nuclear power “as economically dangerous as it was a few days ago,” and that “it’s a good gamble at this point” for CPS to continue to move forward with this “incremental step.”
“It seems a prudent thing to do at this time, unless you’re absolutely decided against it,” said Hardberger. The mayor did propose a resolution that the utility devote at least one-third of the money it spends on new nuclear projects to renewable energy investment, which was approved.
Trustee Derrick Howard acknowledged “vigorous debate” on the nuclear issue but agreed with Hardberger that he sees the comments from Chu as positive.
“Although this step is small, I certainly think this is the right step to take in keeping our options open,” said Howard. He had earlier analogized talk of the company’s sustainability plans with a quote from the Ridley Scott film Gladiator, saying “Your actions today will echo into eternity.” San Antonio can only hope that the board’s actions on its nuclear plans will not echo into eternity with infamy.
Geis stated for the record that there was a public comment from Karen Hadden, Executive Director of the SEED (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development) Coalition, though Geis failed to read it. The SEED Coalition, in conjunction with the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, sent out a press release this week pointing to a new study finding that new nuclear power investment is not economically competitive.
The report from power plant expert Craig Severance, “Business Risks and Costs of New Nuclear Power,” states that “adding new nuclear power — with costs for generation alone that are 2 to 5 times total retail electric rates now in place — will have a dramatic upward effect on electricity rates.” CPS Energy, by its own admission, stated numbers at its November board meeting showing that new nuclear power investment wouldn’t save San Antonio consumers a dime on their electric bills for at least 32 years.
The report speaks further to the financial risks of nuclear power, noting that “if a utility chooses an option with significant risks of failure to meet its projected costs and timetable, severe consequences could ensue in the form of higher rates or, in the worst case, service interruptions.”
“This report explains how utilities and the nuclear industry are underestimating nuclear costs,” said Hadden in the release. “Texas utilities say that their responsibility is to provide affordable, reliable power, but nuclear power falls short on both counts.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, takes umbrage in the press release with the nuclear industry’s reliance on federal loan guarantees.
“Nuclear industry leaders have said no new nuclear power plants can be built without federal loan guarantees. It makes no sense to use taxpayer dollars to ‘bail in’ an industry which has relied for decades on subsidies and handouts. The nuclear industry is not economically viable on its own, much less competitive with other energy sources,” said Smith.
Smith and Hadden both came down to San Antonio from Austin in December to promote renewable energy options along with David “Green Cowboy” Freeman, an energy expert who helped create the EPA, as well as serving as an energy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and as general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin from 1986 to 1990. He is currently president of the Los Angeles Port Authority.
“We have all the renewable energy we need to ween ourselves from the three poisons [oil, coal, nuclear] and create a sustainable future for our planet,” said Freeman during that visit. “The reason we aren’t using more renewables is because Big Oil and the electric utilities have waged a slick campaign to deceive Americans.”
“You have a cult out there, a religious cult, with a lot of scientists included… that feels we dropped the bomb and we’ve got to do something good with it [nuclear energy],” said Freeman on why nuclear power is still being pursued by utility companies.
“This stuff will die of its own weight, but the city of San Antonio could fail itself in the meantime,” continued Freeman. “The business community in this town is still under the impression that the nuclear plants are giving low rates. But they’re unaware of how much it will cost… this is economic suicide for San Antonio.”
“The reason they’re all looking at this is because they wanted to lure Toyota [with lowest electric rates],” added Smith. “But they won’t [have lowest rates] if they build this plant… it will result in a large increase and large cost overruns.”
CPS Trustee Stephen Hennigan seemed to acknowledge some of these arguments when he said of the nuclear plan that the company’s “biggest challenge is to sell this story.”
From the National Affairs Desk -
The Current's sister paper in Cleveland (a fine journalistic outfit that I freelanced for while in grad school at Kent State a few years ago) has an in-depth cover story today investigating the death of Republican IT guru Mike Connell:
The QueQue was turned down cold today when we showed up at the offices and putative residence of declared District 2 council candidate Byron Miller. Miller, an insurance broker who also serves on the board of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, is claiming 135 Paso Hondo as his legal residence for the race; City law requires candidates to live in the district they're running to represent for at least six months before filing for office.
Fellow District 2 hopeful Ron Wright issued a press release yesterday suggesting Miller withdraw from the race (or rather, never file, once the window opens February 7) because Miller really lives on Port Royal -- in an Eastside neighborhood that lies just outside the district's boundaries.
The Port Royal house is registered to Miller's ex-wife -- according to the County, they were divorced in 1997, although Miller still refers to her as his wife on occasion, and they appear in a family photograph in a recent church bulletin that nonetheless lists separate addresses for each. Whitepages.com turns up a listing for Byron Miller on Port Royal, but according to the Bexar County Appraisal District, the house belongs to Monica Miller, his (ex)wife. Wright claims to have photos showing Byron Miller's car at the Port Royal house with a recent newspaper (somebody's been watching CSI) to prove the date. But Miller says he simply visits his ex-wife regularly, and lives at Paso Hondo.
So, the QueQue swung by 135 Paso Hondo today to set the matter to rest with a quick home tour of the charming Victorian bungalow (which BCAD has listed as office, not residential). We even brought our camera. But rather than greet us with open arms, Miller quickly turned argumentative, accused the Current of invading his privacy, and told us to come back after we'd toured the homes of the other District 2 candidates. (You want to see my bedroom? he asked indignantly more than once. Well, yes, actually, since that seems like a key difference between "home" and "office," and the part of the house we did see was clearly an office.) As we drove off empty-handed, it was hard not to imagine Miller's assistant jumping into the truck parked out front for a quick trip to IKEA.
Miller's similar evasiveness on the phone yesterday (he's buying the Paso Hondo house, he said; later he amended that to "leasing to own") got us to wondering about that Edwards Aquifer Authority board seat. Miller was first appointed to fill the vacant District 2 seat in 2006 -- which required him to fill out an application averring that he was a resident of EAA's District 2, which covers roughly the same area as the council district. Miller listed 1149 E. Commerce as his residence -- you've seen the building: it's one of the charming renovated storefronts just across from Sunset Station, where SAGE and theFund keep offices. No apartments in sight, but I suppose there's nothing stopping someone from moving in -- there are bathrooms down the hall.
According to BCAD, Miller doesn't own other property in the district. But maybe he really does live at Paso Hondo and just wanted to straighten up before he showed a camera-wielding reporter around. He reminded the Current that many people live and work in the same space. You bet. We'd just like to have seen the homefront for ourselves.
The Secretary of State defines "residence" as "domicile, that is, one's home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence," but the Secretary's office notes that whether an address qualifies as a residence for the purpose of running for the EAA board is a question of fact for the courts.
Leticia Vacek with the City of San Antonio said that they verify council candidates' residences by comparing them with the County voter-registration records -- no word on whether a coffee maker and pajamas are required.
In the meantime, please consider that Miller told us he wasn't saying "no, you can't see my home," he just wasn't saying yes. We need to return to his home as an invited guest, he said, not a reporter. We're waiting for our invitation ...
By Gilbert Garcia
Two weeks ago, the Current asked the $47-million question. It went something like this: If, as various Councilmembers insisted at their December 11 session, City Manager Sheryl Sculley has saved this city $47 million over the last three years, and all we've been told is that $17 million of it came from reorganization efforts and savings accrued from a AAA bond rating, what about the other $30 million?
Over the last few weeks, we'd made inquiries with the Mayor's office and the Department of Management and Budget, but no one seemed to know where the other $30 million came from.
Well, this morning we received the most direct answer imaginable, as Sculley, Mayor Phil Hardberger and eight Councilmembers (Jennifer Ramos and Diane Cibrian were the only no-shows) held a press conference to announce that Sculley and her staff had discovered $30 million in unspent money from old, completed bond projects that would now be available to the city.
"We have some extraordinarily good news," Hardberger announced, noting that in these recessionary times, it's not often that municipal goverments find a spare $30 million burning holes in their pockets. "I imagine this is the first time in San Antonio history to find $30 million we didn't know we had." He added: "[Sculley] plays a principle role in this little drama that we're playing."
As Sculley prepared to enter the press briefing room, Councilwoman Delicia Herrera turned to her colleagues and said: "Let's clap when she walks in."
They didn't stop there. The room repeatedly filled with applause for Sculley, who explained the windfall by saying that when the city launched its current bond program in 2007, she and her staff began looking over the last 25 years of bond programs, and discovered money, earning interest, in various bank accounts.
"It was tedious and not as simple as it sounds," Sculley said, seemingly anticipating a question that asked if her "discovery' wasn't simply a matter of noticing what her predecessors had overlooked.
The funds are expected to be used for infrastructure improvements and spread more-or-less proportionally across the city's 10 districts, with priority given to projects such as Voelcker Park, the Mission Drive-in Library Project, and Medina Base Road.
Of course, all that talk about $47 million last month means that city leaders knew about the newly announced windfall several weeks ago (at least), but wanted to save it for a self-congratulatory press conference that would perk up the cold, dreary days of January.
The report, released late last month and made public Tuesday, said the Ogallala aquifer is located beneath land owned by Envirocare of Texas and may also lie beneath Waste Control Specialists’ hazardous and low-level radioactive storage facility.Finally, (not that there's anything wrong with paying politicians!) a few notes about Simmons' considerable political contributions ($3.8 million since 2000, says the Morning News) as told by Queque:
Now Queque doesn’t pretend to understand campaign-finance laws or why a waste-company man would so prefer the elephantine party (Is it for the same reason smaller men buy Hummers?). In 2006, $559,600 of $570,000 went to Repubs, according to data maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.the Texas Sierra Club chapter.
Don Elroy, former advocacy director for Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation (and his reprehensivly long hair) explains concerns about Lucky's health at a recent dinner.
Okay, we’ve told you all about Lucky the Asian elephant at the San Antonio Zoo, the effort to Free Lucky and release her to the Tennessee sanctuary, the fact the zoo has no longterm plan for the pachyderm that not so long ago was giving irritating tourists and locals alike “piggybacks” under Brackenridge’s lofty canopy (see "we've told you," above).
Since our first story on Lucky ran, the Animal Care Services Advisory Board has written to the zoo to advocate for Lucky’s release (See "Lucky's Charm").
Now, a recent article published in Science magazine confirms long-repeated and pretty well understood thought on elephants in captivity, chiefly that they live shorter, sadder lives than their wild counterparts.
Those of you who have seen Lucky doing that repetitive-motion thing (which Zoo Director McCucker likened to a dog waiting for the dinner bell, in our sit-down), will be interested to read this tidbit from the BBC on the Science article:
Expecting a lot more of these smiles, now that Rafael is home again.
After a month and a half bed-bound at Methodist Children’s, Rafael Garcia and his mother and sister are home. At last.
You may remember Rafael, who suffers from the degenerative disorder known as spinal muscular atrophy, was admitted after a nasty bout of pneumonia recently.
If you read my story, You Kill Me, you know about the family’s long fight for home health care and their pledge to not leave the hospital this round until that care was under contract for Rafael. How the tables turned on the family, and they were subjected to investigation by Child Protective Services and rounds of psychiatric testing. About Rafael coming down with pneumonia and lung infection thanks to his extended hospital stay. All the nasty things readers had to say about Yvonne (or me). About the threatening phone calls my boss had to field from the hospital’s public relation apparatus. (Wait. I didn’t tell you about those last few. No matter.)
Well, it appears the family has navigated the worst pitfalls and snares of the medical scene and returned home safe and mostly sound yesterday — with home care in tow.
All I can say is good work and congratulations to this tenacious family. They fought through more than a year of private medical black-balling (and then some) and lived to tell about it.
Much love to each of you.
Rafael, I'll see you soon for deep-in-the-couch bleary-eyed video gaming!
HOW TO BUY A CITY PARK, PART II
As we warned prospective land barons a few weeks ago, a city park isn’t the sort of purchase you make on a whim: It takes time, connections, lawyers, and, of course, cash. There is also the pesky matter of citizen input. The state allows municipalities of our size to sell off wastrel parks of less than two acres, but it requires local government to jump through several hoops first, including a public hearing and a sealed bid process.
Undaunted by these obstacles, lobbyist Walter Serna has been working to secure long-neglected Healy-Murphy Park for La Villita Development Corp, which would like to add another limited-service hotel to the clutch of soulless hospitality chains hugging the eastern edge of I-37 like so many beige barnacles.
He’s been aided in his quest by the office of District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil, who appears to have initiated the sale after Serna’s office expressed interest last fall. (McNeil told the Current that the idea of selling the small Eastside park -- which at the moment is used mostly by the homeless, who don’t necessarily comport themselves in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead – came up much earlier, although we’ve yet to find or receive any documentation to that effect. Serna’s office has not returned numerous phone calls, but McNeil said in December that his client is still very much interested in the purchase).
Maybe I’m trying to make too fine a point here, but I feel like there’s a big difference between:
No wonder we couldn’t get the records we were seeking from the Bexar County Probation Department, no one could f'ing understand them!
Over the past few months, we've written a bit about problems in the department’s contract with its pee-testers at Treatment Associates (under investigation by the state Attorney General for dumping client records in a public dumpster) and its own administration (under threat of lawsuit for jailing clients for very likely erroneous urine analysis results by TA).
But assembling the paper trail to substantiate a broader range of allegations made by former and current probation officers with deep grievances with the department has been a tougher undertaking.
First, we were informed Probation is not actually a county department and does not have to provide documents through the District Attorneys office. Our mistake. (There were avenues to explore here, but we really didn’t feel like spending thousands of dollars to create a computer program to search out more wronged probationers or dedicate the next six months of our life to searching records court by court. Hey! We’re a small paper.)
Then, when we refiled our request with the state it appeared that so many exemptions to state Open Record law that we weren’t going to be in much better position.
So we have contented ourselves to gradually pull on the state audits, the most recent of which fell into our paws this morning. And, yes, like the headline says, it appears there are problems beyond our as-yet limited accounting.
An audit performed last year, Bexar County Supervision Department Revocation Compliance Review, was published on December 31 and released to the San Antonio Current today.
Now, we blogged some earlier audits for the recent Year in Review ish, letting you know that:
By Gilbert Garcia
When Mayor Phil Hardberger unveiled SA's new City Auditor Committee at City Hall this morning, there was no denying how problematic the auditor position has been for local leaders.
Hardberger cited the brief but thorny history of SA City Auditors, blaming past confusion on the fact that "we didn't have a history with it, so there were no guidelines." He added that auditor oversight has been done "on a temporary basis, because we had nothing to go by." Even new City Auditor Committee Chairwoman (and District 6 Councilwoman) Delicia Herrera called the auditor provision in the City Charter "awkward," and commended Hardberger for bringing some clarity to the situation.
Hardberger and co. are still reeling from the PR fiasco of Pete Gonzales's 2008 firing from the auditor position, after he'd recommended that the City audit its playground-inspection program. City leaders argued that he'd overstepped his bounds and he was quickly fired. Days later, the Express-News reported that the City had failed to properly inspect local playgrounds and that 15 of those playgrounds posed safety risks.
The new City Audit Committee, which replaces a two-member Council subcommittee, includes Herrera and fellow Councilmembers Phil Cortez and Louis Rowe, along with Stanley Blend, a tax lawyer with Oppenheimer Blend Harrison & Tate and Manuel Long, a CPA with Sol Schwartz & Associates.
Blend, widely recognized as one of the best tax attorneys in the country, donated $1,450 to Hardberger's two successful mayoral campaigns, and also attended Hardberger's alma mater: Georgetown Law School.
The recent environmental disaster in Tennessee where a coal-ash dump ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of the Volunteer State brought new national attention to the variety of environmental health dangers that coal ash presents, putting to rest the myth of “clean coal.” The New York Times reports this week that there are more than 1,300 similar dumps across the country in 46 states, with most of them being unregulated and unmonitored. The Times also reports that “Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans…”
Friends of the Earth is calling out to the environmental community today to lobby Congress to transition the nation away from coal and to ban new coal-fired power plants.
San Antonio, meanwhile, may have a developing coal-ash problem of its own. The San Antonio Housing Authority and partner Franklin Development started digging up some coal-ash waste in November at 1901 S. San Marcos Street on the near West Side, site of the former Swift meat packing plant. SAHA was originally planning to build a $3-million warehouse there, but the site was shut down in 1998 when workers discovered a thick layer of buried coal ash that contained beryllium, a toxic substance that can cause bone and lung damage. The coal ash was speculated to have come from old boilers and/or animal residue from Swift’s rendering operation. SAHA spent $300,000 to place an underground plastic liner around the coal ash and shut down the site.
But at the end of 2006, SAHA decided to move forward with development of the site after receiving a September ’06 clearance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (a process that the Current is still investigating.) SAHA and Franklin are now planning to build a new low-income housing complex on the site to be called the Artisan Apartments at San Pedro Creek. But site neighbor Fred Perry is waving a red flag.
Perry says he became so ill after dust from the ongoing excavation blew into his used-furniture warehouse that he shut down his business at the end of December, saying he was physically unable to continue working there. He suspects that toxic heavy metals in the coal ash are the culprit for his health problems, which have included trouble breathing, nausea and a metallic taste in his mouth with accompanying sore tongue. The 60-year-old Perry isn’t a scientist but he has plenty of experience investigating toxic threats, having previously lived near the Brio Superfund site in Houston, where the entire neighborhood he lived in was eventually razed due to the toxic conditions. He also spent another four years selling and servicing respiratory-protection equipment to the hazardous-materials industry.
“I’m just the canary in the coal-mine,” says Perry. “But I’m at least smart enough to know that this stuff can kill me and that the testing [SAHA] has done is not adequate.”
SAHA and Franklin disagree, claiming that the site has been remediated in compliance with TCEQ standards. But whether those standards are actually adequate and whether environmental testing by contractor Geo-Marine has really eliminated concern about human health hazards from the coal ash at the site remain open questions that the Current is currently digging into. The NY Times story reports that “In Texas, the vast majority of coal ash is not considered a solid waste, according to a review of state regulations by environmental groups. There are no groundwater monitoring or engineering requirements for utilities that dump the ash on site, as most utilities do, the analysis says.”
SAHA is at least now taking a closer look at Perry’s problems, but only after he raised hell and called the Current to help investigate. Stay tuned for more on this story from the Current later this month…
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