By Enrique Lopetegui
(Update on 2/1/10: Jim Knotts clarifies status of communication department, newly created position, and reveals his salary)
On January 20, the national office of the San Antonio-based military charity Operation Homefront eliminated nine positions, four of them locally, even as donations have greatly increased since at least 2006.
“We actually didn’t do any layoffs, we did a restructuring,” Amy Palmer, Operation Homefront’s chief operational officer, told the QueQue. “We’re trying to reduce our ongoing operational expenses, and we restructured the national staff.”
Operation Homefront, founded in 2003, provides “emergency and morale assistance for our troops, the families they leave behind and for wounded warriors when they return home,” according to its website. It has more than two dozen independent chapters around the country which operate under the national charter. One third of the national staff of 27 is based in San Antonio, one-third in Washington, D.C., and the rest are virtual employees scattered around the country. Ashley Matta, administrative assistant for the Texas chapter, also based in San Antonio, confirmed that the job losses didn’t affect the chapter’s staff.
Two of the eliminated positions were already vacant, so the decision affected seven positions in human resources, marketing, administration, and Operation Homefront Village, the OH apartment complex that since March 2008 serves as short-term transitional housing for wounded vets. But there is also a new San Antonio office assistant position created that is currently open.
"We are in the process of developing the job description and advertisement," said Jim Knotts, who took over as CEO in November 2009. "We eliminated a marketing specialist and an administrative assistant positions. We are taking the most important responsibilities of those two positions to create the new office assistant position. So, in effect, the position was created when we announced the restructuring on January 20. With one new position created, we have 28 positions on the national staff after the restructuring: Twelve are in San Antonio, six are in D.C., and the other 10 are virtual across the country."
Any more "restructuring" in the near future?
“We hope not,” said Palmer. “We have to monitor our fundraising progress and continue to reassess our financial position. But we do not intend at this time to make additional restructuring decisions. A lot of organizations have gone through changes in the last couple of years, with the economy the way it is. We’re no exception, but we’re looking at ways to get more money to the families that we’re trying to serve. Our services weren’t cut. This is not unique to military charities, and it’s not unique to operation homefront.”
Knotts told the QueQue that those whose positions were eliminated should be able to receive unemployment benefits.
“We pay into the state for unemployment insurance, like every employer,” said Knotts from Ecuador, where he has just adopted a son. “It was explained to us that, yes, they’ll be able to apply for unemployment insurance.”
Palmer said that for the last year several employees have been reassigned to different areas within the charity. But, for the outsider, the loss of positions came as a surprise: According to the organization’s last three 990s, OH received donations of $3.5 million in 2006, $12.7 million in 2007, and $16.4 million in 2008. And as late as December 1, 2009, Operation Homefront earned its third consecutive four-star rating from Charity Navigator “for its ability to efficiently manage and grow its finances.”
“Only 13 percent of the charities we rate have received at least three consecutive four-star evaluations,” wrote Charity Navigator’s president and CEO Ken Berge, in the December letter addressed to Palmer, “indicating that Operation Homefront executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way, and outperforms most other charities in America.”
But some comments written on Operation Homefront’s Charity Navigator’s page accuse OH of “dismantling” its communications department, and of having “internal issues,” illustrated by the fact that here have been three presidents in the last few years.
"Operation Homefront has had three CEO's in three years," Knotts wrote the QueQue. "However, the organization has also grown each of those years in terms of needs met for our military families and total revenue, which is a testament to the depth and professionalism of the staff."
On the issue of the communications department, Knotts sent us two emails.
"Earlier in 2009, we rearranged some reporting structures within the national office, changes that had nothing to do with this restructuring,” said Knotts in the first email. “As a result, our online communications team moved from communications to operations. So before the restructuring we had two positions in communications. Both are currently vacant, and we plan to fill both."
An hour after this posting, Knotts sent another email for clarification:
"We did have a VP of Online Communications take a job outside of Operation Homefront in November," Knotts wrote. "At that time, we chose not to refill that position. That was the same time we changed the reporting structure so that the online communications group began reporting to Operations instead of Communications. Since it was unrelated to the restructuring, I had overlooked the change, but your specific questions about eliminated positions in Communications reminded me."
Although the personell info in the Operation Homefront Charity Navigator page is outdated, Knotts said he makes $175,000 a year, "which will be public record when we file our 2009 taxes." His predecessor, Mark Smith, made $125,648 a year.
No matter what changes Operation Homefront goes through, Palmer says the four-star status is not in jeopardy.
The sophisticated hacking of a major UK climate research center two weeks before the would-a-been-historic international gathering on climate change in Copenhagen last December “bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated intelligence operation,” according to Sir David King, former science advisor to past British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
King told the Guardian, “it was an extraordinarily sophisticated operation. There are several bodies of people who could do this sort of work. These are national intelligence agencies and it seems to me that it was the work of such a group of people.”
Such a group, he added, could be marshaled only by a foreign government or, perhaps, the well-funded “anti-climate change lobbyists” in the U.S.
The hacking preceded the United Nation’s global conference on climate change, where representatives from around the world were hoping to cobble together a successor to the Kyoto Protocol with a binding reductions agreement intent on stabilizing the planet’s climate.
The hacking — and subsequent mass misinterpretation and mischaracterization by U.S. media outlets like FOX — played a central role in squirreling the deal.
Obama, widely criticized for turning Copenhagen into a photo-op to announce agreements that hadn’t actually been reached, came back to Washington with an edict for the federal government: reduce global-warming gases by 28 percent by 2020. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense committed to doing one better, or four better, with plans to cut by 34 percent by 2020.
However, these are “non-combat” emissions we’re cutting. The ill-defined War on Terror continues to rack up monster carbon costs.
One of the top beneficiaries of the DOD’s fossil fuel purchases is San Antonio-based Valero — ranked fourth among the agency’s fuel contractors with Fiscal ’08 earnings of $1.04 billion. The hometown crew just edged out The Bahrain Petroleum Company ($1.02 bil) and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company ($918 mil) for the honor, according to the Defense Energy Support Center.
Seems a plausible alternative explanation for the company’s pump-based anti-climate legislation ad campaign … but is it enough to motivate top officers to fund a band of federally trained cyber-warfare renegades to remotely storm the East Anglia Climate Research Unit? Utter conspiratorial nonsense, I’m sure.
However, the profits do make American Apparel’s $14-million arrangement for battle uniforms, coats, and trousers for the U.S. Air Force (being stitched together in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas) sound like small (American-grown, organic) potatoes.
Still, there are plenty of other San Anto outfits earning less than a bil per-annum. Recently announced new or renewed contracts fueling the all-points conflict with ground stations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, include:
* LaBatt Food Service and Sterling Foods are keeping those Meals Ready To Eat as real as possible with continued $9-mil and $38-mil contracts, respectfully, for “full line food distribution” and bakery goods.
* Valero Marketing & Supply Co. earned another bump of federal largesse with $118 million for “aviation turbine fuel” out of the Corpus refinery.
* Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney Military Engines bagged another $6-million contract for continued “maintenance, logistics and engineering supplies and services” performed in San Antonio for F-16A and F-16B engine parts.
* Decypher Technologies, Ltd, P3S Corp., and SpecPro Technical Services, each took a $93-mil contract for hyper-technical gobbledygook, ie. “administrative and functional support, medical and biomedical research assistance, clinical and clinical hyperbaric medicine services, environmental bio-terrorism support, technology evaluation and research studies support services to Brooks City-Base and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base units.”
* Three percent of an $8-mil Lockheed Martin project expected to showcase the possibilities that dedicated space for conducting “cyber security experiments” is also coming to San Antonio.
Remember, war is today’s growth industry. It’s the one front Obama’s new fiscal conservatism won’t touch — unless its something-less-than-surgical drone strikes we're talking about.
Sixteen-year-old Angela was said to be a “case study” in the difficulty domestic human trafficking victims represent to law enforcement.
Though first forced into prostitution at age 11, it would be several years before local police would discover her. But instead of being rescued as a child victim, she was placed into the juvenile system in 2008 on a theft charge after a man accused her of stealing his wallet and pants. Only after first prosecuting her as a criminal — due in part, they said, to her uncooperativeness — did law enforcement recognize her as a child victim. Some months later her full story came out.
County officials said last summer that ‘Angela,’ diagnosed with hepatitis and HIV, was finally in a “safe place” getting counseling and medical attention.
Some would like to see child victims jump straight to the help line, and a decision pending with the Texas Supreme Court could move things strongly in that direction, according to Dottie Laster, a New Braunfels-based advocate fighting against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.
The case involves a girl identified as B.W., taken from her mother at age 11 and placed with Child Protective Services. After running away from CPS, she was picked up by Houston Police Department officers two years later after they observed her trying to sell herself on the street. She was booked on charges of prostitution. Later, after her age of 13 became known, she was placed in the juvenile system and charged with delinquency for committing prostitution instead of returning her to CPS.
Attorney Ann Johnson (left) argued that the child should have never been put on the “prosecutorial train.” That state law holds that children under the age of 14 cannot consent to sex. Period.
“Despite their discovery that one of the passengers on that train was a 13-year-old, mentally deficient child with undeniable evidence of sexual exploitation no one to this day has pulled the emergency stop cord to say, ‘Wait. We’re supposed to be handling this issue differently’” Johnson said.
When Harris County Assistant DA Dan McCrory (right, below) stumbled in his defense of the prosecution of B.W., Justice Harriet O’Neill asked, “Why in the world would a prosecutor want to put her through the criminal, sort-of quasi-criminal system?”
“We already know what happened to this juvenile when she was in the custody of CPS, she was on the street being a prostitute,” McCrory responded.
You can tune watch the point-counterpoint yourself.
Interestingly, Johnson further alleged the police didn’t make any attempt to track down and interview the 32-year-old man B.W. identified as her “boyfriend” — a violation of B.W.'s due process under the U.S. Constitution, she said.
Laster disputes Harris County’s assertion that it is necessary to place children like B.W. in the juvenile justice system was for their own protection.
“You can protect a child when they’re in danger without charging them with a crime,” Laster said, adding that the outcome in the case could transform how state law enforcement responds to child victims.
“I believe if they rule to protect the victim that it could greatly change the way juveniles are protected in Texas; if they rule to punish the victim, it could set us back years and cause harm to many more juveniles, or minors, children. However you want to say it, I still look at them as children.”
And if Texas judges find their way to the federal mindset, they will discover that “any child in commercial sex is considered a victim of trafficking,” Laster said.
Of course, this is Texas. Worse. This is Houston, Texas, we're talking about.
The city was pegged last year as the national hub in child trafficking. Judging from the position of the DA's office, reform there — despite the training that Laster, now working with MillionKids.org and running her own consulting group, has given many of its law-enforcement officers — may come most grudgingly.
I’m not sure why the protesting rockers up in Cowtown honed in on trees like they did. I mean, I like to hug a tree as much as the next brainwashed lover of all things verdant and life-sustaining (you rascals!), but in the miasma of potential problems that natural gas drilling in North Texas could create — drinking water spoilage, toxic air emissions, earthquakes, and the possibility of increased cancer rates — I would have chosen a different tune to spoof than Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
By Enrique Lopetegui
On January 4, Ricardo Guzman got a haircut. The 43-year-old San Antonio resident wanted to look good when he turned himself in at court the next day for outstanding drug-possession charges. Guzman had no way of knowing that trusting himself to Bexar County could play a part in his death three days later.
“He turned himself in on Tuesday and Thursday is when the police came to my mother-in-law’s house and announced he had passed away,” said Kathy Ruiz, Guzman’s sister-in-law. “They wouldn’t give her any information as far as to what happened. The only thing they said was they found him on the floor and that he had passed. They wouldn’t let her go identify him. They said he had already been identified.”
Guzman died at 5:46 pm on January 7 while being held in a detox cell at Bexar County Jail two days after his conviction on possession of a controlled substance. According to jail officials, a unit officer was distributing dinner trays when he found Guzman, who was detoxing off heroin, unresponsive on the cell floor.
Sheriff’s deputies would still not let Guzman’s mother, Lupe Guzman, see her son when she signed for his body at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office the next day. “She thought maybe there was a possibility it was a mistake. They said no, he’d already been identified by fingerprints and photos.”
Guzman was buried on Monday, January 11, with the family still not understanding why or how he died. “He went in fine one day and then he was dead the next. Obviously something happened and we just need answers, you know? What happened to him?” asked Ruiz.
David Fathi, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, said jails across the country had been found liable in similar deaths. “It’s a critical 24 or 48 hours immediately after a person is taken into a jail, and jails have to be aware of that and prepared to deal with this kind of urgent medical need. If the jail has reason to know if a certain arrestee is at risk of drug detox then they have an even stronger duty to take stronger action.”
A spokesperson for the Bexar County Jail said that while a cause of death has not been established, Guzman's death is not being investigated as a possible suicide. A toxicology report is pending at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Last year, suicide deaths at Bexar County were triple the national average.
Detainees at the jail receive comprehensive medical screenings to help determine drug dependence, mental impairment, and suicide risk. However, it is the actions that follow those screenings that matter, said Fathi.
“You can have the world’s best screening program on paper, but it’s only as good as the people who implement it. Obviously, if it’s not being reliably done, or the screening’s being done but then nothing happens as a consequence, then you’re going to get bad outcomes.”
In the history of the conservation movement, notions of wilderness have rarely included people. Homo sapiens were universally tagged as the hapless despoilers of the land. Nearly 30 years ago, writer Gary Paul Nabhan exposed a notable exception to this ingrained prejudice by examining two desert oases — A’al Waitpia, located inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, and Ki:towak, across the Mexican border.
De-peopled of Tohono O'odham subsistence farmers by the U.S. Parks Service in 1957, A’al Waitpia had since chocked on sediment, Nabhan wrote in in The Desert Smells Like Rain. It had regressed to a quiet pond visited by few animals or people. Across the border, at Ki:towak, fruit trees bloomed and insects rushed about thanks to the irrigation that made use of still-flowing springs. Native greens and healing herbs grew, and biological surveys showed human partnership with the land resulted in double the variety of bird species present.
On a larger scale, the Parks system had long past driven out Lakota, Crow, Blackfeet, and Miwok from enormous parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite to preserve this “virgin” country. So it was with “First World” historical precedence and the tacit approval of the global conservation movement that the government of President Festus Mogae began to drive the Bushmen of Botswana’s Kalahari Reserve off their land while exploiting global affection for the “animal-rights darling and antitrade emblem,” the African elephant, writes James Workman in Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought.
In this well researched and carefully footnoted offering, Workman not only exposes the suffering the practice brought to First Peoples fighting for liberty in the Kalahari, but argues that our increasingly thirsty world desperately needs the knowledge of those we persecute in the name of saving the Earth.
Workman’s’ 247-page narrative tracks the unraveling of what had been one of the most successful democracies in Africa as former President Mogae presses for the total removal of the few remaining bands of subsistence hunter-gatherers attempting — during what turn out to be the planet’s hottest years on record — to hold onto their traditional ways.
Though many human rights organizations mobilized against Mogae’s effort to drive Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Workman suggests it was winked at by American and European wildlife biologists. After all, in protecting the over-sized elephant’s wide-ranging habitat entire ecosystems hosting untold numbers of other plant and animal species are preserved, as well. For Botswana, there was nothing quite like Loxodonto Africana for the balance sheet: with tourism-related revenues climbing in pace with the growth of the elephant population. “The trouble with indigenous people, it seemed,” Workman writes, “was that they generated insufficient cash flow, especially foreign exchange from ecotourists.”
But it wasn’t only elephants and tourist dollars motivating Mogae’s government to shut down the sole federal water pump inside the CKGR and sustain a low-intensity war upon the Bushmen. The world’s largest diamond company, De Beers, also reportedly had its eye on the Kalahari for new mining sites. In a nation and region where native peoples were frequently relocated to make way for development projects, the case against the Bushmen was exacerbated by the inherited racism of the dominant Tswana, many of whom ridiculed the Bushmen a “serf” class or as embarrassing “Stone Age” creatures. “If the Bushmen want to survive, they must change,” Mogae had said in 1996, “otherwise, like the dodo they will perish.”
Workman uses the story of resistance to tell a broader story about the gathering global water crisis that is already recasting international — and, perhaps more importantly, intra-national — relationships around the planet. Ultimately, Workman’s tale is a rallying cry. It is a call to trade in our leaky, centralized water systems, massive pumping of irreplaceable fossil water, and food production systems soaking up seven of every 10 gallons of water worldwide (as much of the world slips into a state of permanent drought), with a decentralized model based upon key Bushmen principles.
He turns the tables on centuries of hydrological thought to ask, “What Would the Bushmen Do?” The answer — to Workman’s mind — doesn’t flow from a UN resolution establishing an inherent human right to water. Neither does it come through privatization. Instead it sits somewhere like a submerged Kalahari sip well, beckoning us to part the sands, fashion our reeds, and reevaluate the value of life itself.
By Enrique Lopetegui
Update on 1/25/10: Pat DiGiovanni on potential City parking job losses.
In a unanimous vote Thursday, the City Council approved a resolution of support greenlighting the incorporation of Centro Partnership, a public-private non-profit umbrella corporation that would oversee the Downtown Alliance (advocacy and marketing), Centro San Antonio (operations and maintenance) and the Community Development Corporation (real-estate acquisition) in order to turn San Antonio’s downtown area into, according to the June 2009 proposal, “a new model other cities may seek to copy for years to come,”
Despite a few reservations on the part of some council-members (District 10 councilman John G. Clamp drilled deputy city manager Pat DiGiovanni on funding, and District 9 councilwoman Elisa Chan wants more City involvement in the Centro’s bylaws and governance), the Centro’s proponents were able to convince the Council that this was a good idea that, in the words of DiGiovanni, will correct the fact that the downtown area “has no key person or entity to go to.”
“The Centro will have a tremendous impact on surrounding areas,” DiGiovanni said, in what the QueBlog calls the “trickle Downtown effect”: Pour money into Downtown, and everybody else will shine.
“Downtown is a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces, but we’re missing some pieces,” said David Freehan, president of Civitas Consultants LLC, who was contracted by the city in January 2009 to expand on recommendations made by the International Downtown Association Advisory Panel, which met in San Antonio in May 2008. “We need a system that will find these pieces.”
The planned Centro Partnership is a 501(c)(6) non-profit corporation that would manage, market, and maintain downtown’s public spaces and economic development. It would be headed by a CEO, but its ultimate authority will rest in a board of directors, with the public sector represented by the Mayor, City Manager, Bexar County judge and a representative selected by the City Council.
Among other organizations, the Centro is endorsed by the Frost Bank, the Greater Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation and the Tourism Council.
However, at Thursday’s Council meeting, GOP tie-wearing local conservative –– and perennial presence at the Council chamber –– Jack M. Finger expressed his skepticism.
“Good day, sirs… It’s a good day to be an American,” he said, “especially if you’re a Republican, he-he…” The council sat stone-faced, and Finger proceeded to show them handwritten signs reading HemisFair ’68, Urban Renewal ’70, Target ’90, and CRAG (Community Reinvestment Action Group), all, in his opinion, high-profile initiatives of the past that didn’t do jack for San Antonio.
“We’ve been through this before, and nothing was accomplished,” he told the Council. “Now we’re going down the same road.”
Although it is not clear what impact the Centro will have on small business owners, its immediate impact might soon be felt by the city’s parking-lot attendants. Under the new plan, all municipal parking systems will be under the Centro’s control, and there are no guarantees that the current lot attendants will keep their jobs.
“Nothing has happened [yet], and we will continue to communicate with [the Council],” said DiGiovanni, after District 7 councilman Justin Rodríguez asked him about a memo the councilman received talking about a “possible reorganization” of the parking system.
“I hope we don’t lose any employees, and whatever shrinkage [there is] comes from elsewhere in the system,” said District 3 councilwoman Jennifer V. Ramos.
“Details to come, Councilwoman,” replied DiGiovanni.
During lunch recess, the QueBlog decided to visit a nearby city parking lot, where a man and two young women employees were talking. After introducing ourselves, upon the sole mention of “Centro Partnership” they looked at each other, smiled, and the women took off in different directions.
“They’re scared shitless,” said the man, who wanted to remain anonymous (we’ll call him “Deep Lot”). “Wouldn’t you be if you didn’t know how much longer you’re going to work? But come with me, I want to show you something. Let me take you on a merry path.”
He pulled out a couple of printouts from his pocket, the first one being an agenda for an October 9, 2009, Centro presentation by Freehan before the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation at the Hilton Pavilion, which he attended.
“[The City] is trying to take over the parking division to raise money to do other things, like acquiring land, which otherwise it would be much harder for them to do,” Deep Lot said. “As one of the Council members said before, it is a complex mess of many layers, and the more layers you put in, the harder it is for anyone to track down what they do.”
He was probably referring to Chan. According to an Express-News report from September 25, 2009, at that point she thought that, “rather than streamlining the city's downtown plan, [it] would merely add another layer of bureaucracy and introduce more organizational confusion.” She now supports the project.
“The reason why [Chan] went along with it was because the [Centro’s] bylaws were amended,” Jeff Bazan, director of communications for Chan, told the QueBlog. “Part of those amendments included adding the chairman of the Economic [and Community] Development Committee and all four of the members of the ECDC on the board of the Centro.”
Deep Lot said the parking-lot attendants are well aware that their jobs may be at risk, but few want to talk about it.
“You know… If you look for another job, nobody wants the City to speak badly about you,” he said. “They say they’ll find us jobs in another City position, but nobody is guaranteeing anything. We’re expendable, because our [parking division] is the ugly step-child of the city.”
Then he said, “Let me guess: The [City Council] vote [approving the Centro] was unanimous, wasn't it?” It was, we tell him. “Of course! It'd be political suicide if they don't vote the same thing. Look who’s on the board [Mayor Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, among others]!”
On January 20 (a day before the council meeting), Director of Downtown Operations Paula X. Stallcup sent an intradepartmental correspondence to the parking division employees, with a copy to DiGiovanni. That’s the memo Rodríguez talked about at Thursday’s Council meeting.
“Open communication with our staff is a top priority, and this letter serves to communicate with you directly about potential changes in our department,” the memo reads. “As you know, the City of San Antonio has been working with a consultant to create the Centro Partnership, a new organization charged with leading redevelopment efforts of downtown. On January 21, 2010, the City Council will be considering a resolution to support the concept of the Centro Partnership. Because the parking system is an integral part of downtown, it has been recommended that the city considers transitioning the parking system to this new organization. The city will be studying and evaluating this potential transition in order to determine how we will move forward. Please remember that the city has always made an effort to continue employment of affected individuals. The council’s consideration on January 21 is a resolution supporting the concept of Centro Partnership. Through additional studies we will be able to determine how the parking system will be affected. We appreciate your continued hard work to create a positive experience for our downtown patrons. We will keep you informed as further decisions are made.”
“What does this sound like to you?” Deep Lot asks. “A warning,” I say. “No, they’re making it sound like they’re helping us, but really, she works for the City and she was representing the City in that [Oct. 9] meeting. So they make it sound like they’re trying to help us, but… If they want to fire us because we’re not doing our jobs well, that’s fine. But don’t fire me just because that’s how they do it in the big cities.”
As I leave, the woman who “escaped” from the QueBlog earlier collects for my parking ticket and says, “Hmmm… You’re still here?”
I pay, and ask her, in passing, “You’re not too much into the Centro Partnership idea, are you?”
“No,” she says, “but what can you do? Whatever they decide, they decide, and we have to go along with it.”
Councilmen Rodríguez and Clamp, neither of whom knew anything about potential job losses until Wednesday (Rodríguez) and Thursday (Clamp), offer a tiny ray of hope.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a deal breaker,” Rodríguez told the QueBlog Friday, “but we directed staff to bring that back to us for further discussion. The two main issues are governance, whether authority is taken away from City Council, and the well-being of the employees. There’s a commitment, at least in theory, that the City never had to layoff employees. So we’ll continue to talk about that.”
“I’m concerned that the [parking] workers are going to be displaced,” Clamp told the QueBlog Friday. “I didn’t even think about the workers until yesterday, because I just assumed that they were going to go over to the new partnership. But we only voted for a resolution to incorporate the partnership. They have no funding yet. They’re just a paper entity and we still have several concerns. Do I buy into the notion that the City will offer [City parking lot attendants] other jobs within the city? Yes. I’m just not so sure as to whether the jobs will be good or bad.”
Or whether there will be enough of them, but deputy city manager DiGiovanni stands by the city's track record.
"First of all, no one’s losing their jobs," Di Giovanni told the QueBlog on January 25. "The City’s pledge in the past has been that, if we do these kinds of transitions, nobody loses their jobs. I would suspect this will be the case in the future. There’s no danger, if you will, of anyone losing their jobs. We had a no-layoffs policy for ages here.
"What I’m talking about is absorbing them into the rest of the organization, and giving them jobs that are comparable to what they’re being paid right now. We’re not talking about them going with the [new] parking system. They will have an option like that available to them, just like we did with the golf employees, but no one took us up on that offer. When they were offered the opportunity to go with a new golf organization, they refused to go and the City found them all jobs within the city organization, so no one lost their jobs, and no one lost pay. That’s exactly the scenario that we will be looking for with the parking system."
OK, so they may not lose their job, but they may lose that particular job, right?
"Yes," DiGiovanni said. "But we’re getting the car way before the horse here."
Dr. Ruth Berggren, head of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, has been back in Haiti since Monday providing medical care in rural areas. After an inquiry from the QueBlog, Berggren sent us the following email:
"We are fine but heartbroken about all the amputations that are being performed on children. The aftershock of [Wednesday] was not felt in terms of shaking earth, but shook a lot of souls as our patients learned of the event. They began to pray very fervently and earnestly for their people and for their country. This afternoon we received yet more patients, including a three-year-old all alone who had a head injury. We quickly realized he needed neurosurgery and by some miracle a helicopter not only showed up, but allowed us to put him on the chopper with one of our pediatricians. We see miracles like this every day which gives us hope in the midst of so much tragedy. Thanks for your concerns and your prayers."
And thank you, reader, for helping Haiti.
Wind power isn’t dead. Not by a long shot. Despite the cancellation of what was being billed as the next world’s largest wind-power complex by former corporate raider, woulda-been West Texas water mogul, and relenting wind-power booster T. Boone Pickens, things are just starting to get interesting for lovers of overgrown pinwheels. Especially in West Texas.
Last week, engineering minds at Texas Tech University and the Pantex nuclear weapons plant outside Amarillo agreed to work together to study the possibility of powering the subterranean warhead care and refurbishment center with pollution-free, bat-exploding wind power towers.
So speaketh the Associated Press:
By Enrique Lopetegui
The following is a partial list of local and national organizations, including Obama's White House, doing their part in trying to alleviate Haitians from the devastating effects of Tuesday's earthquake. In order to make an informed donation, we suggest you visit Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.
The Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics (write 'Haiti' on the check's memo line)
Partners in Health
P.O. Box 845578
Boston, MA 02284-5578
Remote Area Medical
Remote Area Medical Foundation
1834 Beech Street
Knoxville, TN 37920
The White House
Clinton Bush Haiti Fund
Red Cross (1-800-REDCROSS or Spanish 1-800-257-7575)
Doctors Without Borders
For some employees within Bexar County Adult Probation, the New Year couldn’t come fast enough. As January approached, Former Probation Chief Bill Fitzgerald, ridiculed by more uncouth elements of the San Antonio media family (read: us) as a paranoid, out-of-touch, union-busting, foot fetishist, overflowing with blind faith in poorly performing piss sniffers (read: Treatment Associates), was ambling toward resignation and a string of court appearances. After shameful, closed-door votes violating the spirit of state Open Meetings law, local judges at last agreed to rotate 16-year felony case manager Jarvis Anderson into Fitzgerald’s seat.
And so with the Arctic chill that swept San Anto last week, Anderson blew in. Day three on the job brought the expulsion of his predecessor’s (mostly) loyal companion and legal adviser Kathy Cline, who had been likewise mistreated by pro-legalization forces in the city (read: us) as a vindictive, paranoid, union-buster with a penchant for late-night email snooping (on her boss and any suspected union members, according to the former IT director).
Jehovah may have rested on the seventh day, but Anderson is far from ready to kick back and sedately survey his creation. For starters, he’s got lots of re-creating to do. But tomorrow, his seventh in the swivel seat, he’ll be receiving the “blow-by-blow” briefing from Texas Attorney General suits on the slurry of lawsuits naming Fitzgerald and Cline and Adult Probation. “We have to come to some kind of resolution quick, where we can still function as a department,” he said.
As new hopes spring with these titular changes, local labor attorney David Van Os says he is close to submitting a settlement offer on one of his suits against Fitzgerald, one that would see Sheri Simonelli, head of the Central Texas Association of Public Employees, reinstated in her former position as a case worker at the department.
Simonelli was fired after publicly blowing the whistle on Treatment Associates. Though he didn’t name Simonelli specifically, Anderson said he hopes employees that left under Fitzgerald will consider returning to work. Simonelli, president of the CTAPE, says Fitzgerald’s retirement has been good to the union, with membership shooting up between 15 and 20 percent over the past week.
But one of Anderson's biggest tangles will be Treatment Associates. Drug-testing TA has had a rough time expanding from drug counseling to fluid dynamics. Strike One immediately followed Bexar County’s contract with the company as a rash of false positives swept the department, results that, according to at least one lawsuit, sent innocents into the cooler and caused some local judges to swear off their readings entirely.
Strike Two came when a TV crew caught TA employees dumping client records into public dumpsters. Finally, came allegations of employees charging probationers for guaranteed clean results, prompting a District Attorney investigation.
But Anderson’s first priority will be bringing the computer network into the 21st Century. Already representatives of Bexar County Juvenile Probation, Bexar County Information Systems, SAPD, and the DA’s office have expressed interest in linking up, something that would vastly improve the ability of his case managers to do their jobs, Anderson said.
“The system is long overdue, especially for a department this large,” he said. “Right now we have a system that’s kind of old, if you are not a part of that system … you can’t share it, you can’t send it, you can’t receive it. … That’s my number one priority.”
You know, it feels an awful lot like reform just having the boss calls you back for a chat. It's been more than a year that the righteously muck-rackin' Current has been begrudged (read: ignored) by the Fitz/Cline combo pack. It'd be impossible not to grant Anderson a full pack of gold stars.
Suddenly, Simonelli has lost her nemesi. That's alright, she says, from here on she expects the union won't be tied up fighting management and can switch to advocating for better state funding. That may be something the whole department can get behind.
Though humiliated and driven from his position as Interim General Manager at City-owned CPS Energy for failing to divulge a multi-billion gap between CPS nuclear-expansion cost estimates and its partner Toshiba, Steve Bartley isn’t suffering.
Under terms of his negotiated settlement agreement, Bartley was “given” nearly two years of service time with the utility so he could qualify to receive a pension from CPS under terms of an Early Pension program that allows employees 55 or older with 10 years of benefits service to retire with a pension. Bartley joined CPS in September, 2000, and resigned under fire on November 29, 2009.
While, former Vice President of Nuclear Development Bob Temple is seeking to block the release of the terms of his severance package with an appeal to the Texas Attorney General's Office, Bartley’s settlement was released today to the Current through a Texas Public Information Act request.
In addition to receiving a company pension, Bartley will receive 15 months of base pay and 1.78 years of health care coverage for himself and his wife with the option of continuing health coverage through the City Public Service Group Health Plan into the future.
In fact, Bartley even got the money (“up to $5,000”) to hire an attorney to review the terms of the severance agreement with CPS.
For his part, Bartley agreed never to sue CPS, share CPS secrets “including any and all concepts, advertising information, techniques, processes, designs, trade secrets, business methods, cost data, computer programs, software, scientific or technical know-how, financial, marketing, manufacturing processes, research developments, business activities and operations, inventions, customer or client lists, industrial practices, financial statements and /or other business information, or any information CPS Energy specifically refers to as confidential information or labels as confidential information,” or ever utter any “derogatory comment” against the utility.
In another interesting clause, Bartley pledges to aid CPS in its existing and potential future legal troubles while CPS agrees to pay for Bartley's legal defense in any matters that pop up related to his time at the utility.
CPS Energy lied to and manipulated the public and City Council in its rush to consolidate support for the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex outside Bay City. That’s not only the running public narrative these days, but the substance of a fresh legal complaint piled onto the multi-billion CPS-NRG spat this morning by a freshly minted non-profit.
CPS can’t represent the City of San Antonio, argues the Ratepayer Protection Coalition, a collection of familiar faces from the vindicated critics' pool. Not only has CPS “conducted a campaign of misinformation, disinformation, and deception designed to convince the San Antonio community about the merits of pursuing nuclear power” but threatened the City Council “that a decision not to pursue the nuclear project would lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the project to date by CPS Energy.”
In short, CPS has “dirty hands” and can’t represent the City of San Antonio in court, according to RPC's complaint filed this morning in the 37th District Court, joining the CPS-NRG lawsuit as an intervener.
“We have standing,” said Karen Seal, a local Sierra Club member and one of the architects of the pleading, said today. “They have to do something to take us out.”
Representatives of CPS and its partners in the planned expansion of STP — NRG, NINA, and Toshiba — were scheduled to gather this morning at the Westin Riverwalk Hotel by invitation of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who hoped to broker a peace deal and keep CPS's lawsuit from reaching trial later this month.
CPS is suing NRG, alleging the utility has manipulated CPS’s position in an attempt to gain control of the project by, in part, feeding sensitive information to the media. Interestingly, when CPS Board member Steve Hennigan first made the allegation, Express-News Editor Bob Rivard ridiculed it as a “conspiracy theory.” Now the theory has become the substance of a $32-billion lawsuit between feuding partners. (For more backstory, see “Operation: CPS”)
From the RPC press release:
By Enrique Lopetegui
Update on 1/11/10: Includes quotes from Michael Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association)
According to city officials, the police union’s unwillingness to give an inch on its health-care benefits – as most of the rest of the U.S. population has done – has brought the collective-bargaining contract talks between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association to a “temporary standstill” with no immediate end in sight.
“There’s no deadline,” attorney Lowell F. Denton, the city’s chief negotiator, told the QueBlog on the phone Thursday. “I really thought that at some point in the fall we were going to wrap it up, but it didn’t happen. Negotiations came to a [temporary] standstill over the issue of the health-care portion of this contract.”
Although Denton said it would take him “about 45 minutes” to explain the complex positions of each side on the issue, and that he preferred to do it in writing before press time (which he didn’t), he did say that SAPOA’s position is the exact flipside of what regular Americans go through daily.
“People lose their health care either because they change jobs, or they come up with a condition and their carriers won’t renew their policies,” Denton said. “On the other hand, police officers have a very good plan, they don’t want it to be reduced, and they don’t want to pay more money for it. That’s what we’ve been arguing about for the last two or three months. That’s what kept us from going anywhere and the negotiations are stalled. Everybody else in society is experiencing that their costs are going up, the deductibles are going up, the list of drugs are being reduced, but [policemen] don’t want to have changes that take away from anything that they’ve enjoyed for a long time.”
“One of our primary objectives is to address both the short-term and long-term costs of health care,” assistant city manager Erik Walsh told the QueBlog on Friday. “But in both police and fire contracts there were significant changes in their health benefits plan, so it’s a continuation of that. And, from the city’s perspective, the four [Police Executive Research Forum] recommendations that we brought forth to the table were pretty straightforward. If you ask the police association you might get a different answer, but I don’t think it was complicated.”
Shortly before press time on Monday, SAPOA president Michael Helle told the QueBlog that the city's insistence on making changes to the officers' health-care is unnecessary.
"For the last two years, our health-care has seen less than one percent growth, and there is no reason to change our plan," Helle said. "Considering national health-care trends, our growth is well below average."
As far as the city's demand being a "continuation" of changes made in the 2005 police and fire contracts, Helle said that, "precisely, those plan modifications are one of the major contributing factors why our health-care is flatlined. Why change it again?"
Even if the city had a case on the health-care issue, Helle sees no reason to delay the agreement because the existing contract (which expired on October 2009 but has a 10-year evergreen clause) has mechanisms that allow the city to renegotiate with the police association.
"It's certainly not the position of our organization that, if the city is in financial crisis, we're going to take that arm and twist it even further behind their backs," Helle said. "No, we're in this together."
The last of the meetings (which began in January 2009) took place in late September. Since then, both parties agreed to have discussions with their respective health-benefits consultants, but no new collective-bargaining sessions have taken place, and none are scheduled.
In addition to the health issue, Denton said “four or five” PERF recommendations were being discussed in the contract talks, “all of which were proposals by the City, and all have not currently been accepted by the association.” These included increasing the number of civilians in the Chief’s Advisory Action Board (made up of police officers and community members, the board reviews and makes recommendations on internal investigations), and the removal of the so-called veto provision by SAPOA.
“The City Council should select the civilian members of the Board without the involvement of the Police Officers Association,” reads page six of the PERF report. “Allowing a police labor group to effectively ‘veto’ potential board members is unusual and is detrimental to community trust in the process.”
Helle denies the claim that SAPOA refused to follow the PERF recommendations.
"I can't [be] 100 percent [sure], but pretty much we found middle ground to acommodate what the city was looking for on the PERF recommendations," Helle said.
Local civil- and human-rights activists are more concerned with those PERF recommendations than with the health-care negotiating. Out of the 36 PERF recommendations that the SAPD refused to follow (of a total of 141), three are particularly troublesome for the activists: the fact that the SAPD does not give citizens who file complaints copies of the reports, the use of tasers, and the fine print that indicates to complainants that perjury is a third-degree felony.
“The argument [SAPOA] gives us [to deny copies of the reports] are absurd,” said former councilman Mario Salas, who represented the San Antonio Coalition for Human and Civil Rights on the task force formed to negotiate the implementation of Internal Affairs-related PERF recommendations with the police union. “They tell us that they’re trying to protect the confidentiality of the police officer, and that’s not absurd. What is absurd is that when I suggested that the officer’s name be hidden so that the person making the complaint would still get a copy, they refused.”
The PERF recommendations don’t mention anything about giving report copies to complainants, but do suggest that, in these cases, “The procedure should include required notification of outcomes to the complainant.”
Just as important for the coalition is the issue of the “fine print” that warns complainants that lying is a third degree felony.
“Obviously, it’s been put in there to discourage people from filing complaints,” Salas said. “People are going to lie no matter what. But you can discourage people from telling the truth. It’s an old trick.”
Based on a standard November 2006 report named “Conducted Energy Devices: Development of Standards for Consistency and Guidance,” which was compared to current SAPD practices, the PERF report recommended “Establishing parameters on the number of CED [taser] activations permitted; Placing restrictions on CED use against visibly frail people; Requiring medical evaluation for all those subjected to CED use; Providing guidance regarding the duration of CED activation; Placing restrictions on multiple officers activating a CED on a person simultaneously; and, Establishing a requirement that a supervisor should respond to the scene of each CED activation.”
“That’s another one that came up,” said Salas. “ACLU was more into that than me, because they have statistics and stuff. I’m opposed to tasers, they should not be used, or they should be used only in very, very special circumstances. Anybody who is taking any type of medication is subject to death if they are tasered.” ACLU attorney Ed Piña couldn’t be reached for comment.
Among the 105 PERF recommendations Police Chief McManus agreed to follow are no more tasering of bicyclists, working in a required pause between taser jolts, and having Internal Investigations respond to all officer-involved shootings.
Finally, Salas is particularly upset at what he says is an SAPD practice of “throwing someone’s background check in their faces” whenever someone with a checkered past files a complaint against an officer.
“They’ll tell the person making the complaint, ‘You’ve been to prison, young man,” Salas said, “and you’re making an accusation against an SA police officer? How dare you!’ My position is nobody’s record should be checked when filing a complaint, and it ought to not even be mentioned. The fact that somebody has a record doesn’t mean they’re not telling the truth. That’s something you use to discredit someone in a court of law. It should not be used in a complaint process.”
Salas said he will soon meet for the first time with Mayor Castro, the son of a long-time acquaintance.
“I’ve known his mother for 35 years,” said Salas. “I saw her at the cleaners the other day, and I supported Julián for his campaign. He’s a pretty good guy, but this is a tough issue because the union doesn’t want to come clean with the public.”
When the QueBlog asked him about former Mayor Phil Hardberger, Salas sighed and recalled a 2008 meeting at Mount Zion First Baptist Church in which Hardberger, according to him, declared that he was in favor of citizens getting a copy of the complaint that they filed against the SAPD.
“He said that publicly, but he didn’t do anything that I know about it,” said Salas. “Maybe he did, but he didn’t communicate it to us. The Mayor came, [City Manager Sheryl L.] Sculley came, [SAPD Chief William] McManus came, members of the PERF committee were there, and they all agreed with everything that PERF had decided. Well, McManus didn’t agree with everything, of course. But Hardberger did, and I never saw him say or do anything else. He spoke nicely and, like a good politician, disappeared.”
Hardberger didn’t return a call from the QueBlog Thursday.
Despite his original skepticism about the PERF report, Salas admits that the results could’ve been a lot worse.
“I was extremely skeptical, but afterwards I thought they did a decent job,” he said. “In retrospect, I would have to say that part of the reason for doing a decent job is that many of these police officers in the PERF committees were police chiefs, and chiefs generally don’t belong to a union, they’re management. Oftentimes police chiefs tend to be a lot more fair than people who belong to the union.”
Still, only the City can pressure SAPOA into implementing the recommendations –– it won’t come voluntarily from the union.
“The city must find a way to put [the recommendations] in the contract and fight very aggressively for transparency at Internal Affairs. There’s like … a cult of secrecy around that place.”
The question is, will they? Why would Castro, who was endorsed by SAPOA on January 23, 2008, risk pissing off the powerful cop union by pressuring them to implement reforms they’ve already expressed a disagreement with?
“Endorsements don’t come easily,” said Helle, with then-candidate Castro at his side on the steps of City Hall. “We need to be aggressive to fight crime, and Julián will provide the forward thinking that we need, which will enable officers to do their jobs better.”
He then passed the mic to Castro, who pledged to turn San Antonio into “the safest big city in America.”
“We will make sure we give our officers the resources and equipment they need to fight crime,” said Castro, without specifying whether the “resources and equipment” included tasering or denying report copies to those who accuse police officers of excessive force.
In a statement sent Friday to the QueBlog, Mayor Castro said he is all for the PERF recommendations, “especially those that call for greater civilian participation on the citizens disciplinary review board.”
“I've made my perspective clear,” Castro added. “We are all in agreement – myself, the city manager and the City Council – that the review board needs greater citizen representation.”
Denton, the city’s chief negotiator, can’t understand those who doubt Castro’s commitment to the citizens.
“I don’t think [doubters] know what they’re talking about,” Denton said. “The city is absolutely committed to implementing those changes and reforms, and Mayor Castro is personally committed to implementing those reforms.
“I may be wrong about this,” continued Denton, “but I think if you ask the [police] union president, he’ll tell you that the proposed changes that came out of that PERF report, for the most part, would’ve been included in our new agreement if we could get past these other issues. He might not say that, but I think he would.”
He did. On Monday, January 11, Heller confirmed that the health-care issue is the only stumbling block threatening the negotiations but that the stubborn party is the city, not SAPOA.
"We've been leading the charge the whole way to make it happen," Helle told the QueBlog, "and basically [City Manager] Sheryl [Sculley] is coming up with a smoke screen regarding health-care, which has stalled everything."
To show SAPOA's good will, Helle said the police association has agreed, "for the first time ever," to have a zero percent salary increase for the first year in the new contract, to increase civilians (and even allow them to bring an observer if they want to) to the Chief’s Advisory Action Board, and to create a "dual role employee" that would dramatically improve response time for the department.
"I hear a lot of complaints from people waiting for hours on end for the police to show up, and that is embarrassing as hell," Helle said, explaining that the SAPD a "power shift" that would reduce waiting time and allow officers to both respond to calls and collect evidence.
"[In the past] we hired civilians, trained them [in evidence collecting], and they ended up quitting our department to work for another department that pays them 25 or 30 percent more," Helle said. "If your house is a total wreck after being burglarized, sometimes it takes up to six or eight hours for the police to show up to collect evidence because there's no one available. We want our officers to be able to do it all, and we all agreed to do it, but we can't do anything about it until we finalize the contract. And it's all because of the health-care issue."
“I think ultimately we’ll be able to achieve an agreement with [SAPOA],” assistant city manager Walsh said. “I know that for the [City] Manager and the Council it is a priority to get these issues resolved to the benefit not only of the citizens, but the employees themselves. We’ll get it done.”
"It's not that Sculley doesn't respect us or anything," Helle said. "I just disagree with her position. We hope to finally agree on everything. It's probably too late for January, but probably we'll start back up again on February. Our argument is: Quit trying to make a fire where there is none: There is nothing wrong with our [health] plan. Let's get our deal done."
ACCD Special Board Meeting
Date: Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Time: 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Location: 201 W. Sheridan, San Antonio, TX 78204-1429.
Robert J. Pohl
An important public meeting will occur on 12 January. Alamo Community College District (ACCD) is hosting a special meeting to address the issue of single accreditation. Single accreditation would require aligning ACCD colleges so that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools can accredit the district as a whole -- instead of leaving the colleges independently accredited. Some professors have alleged that single accreditation has been Chancellor Bruce Leslie's surreptitious plan since his arrival at ACCD in 2006. The consequences of single accreditation are multiple and have the potential to affect all 1.6 million Bexar County residents (read the summary of the Accreditation Review Committee Report below). ACCD is only giving the public one chance to come speak or learn about single accreditation. Several forums were held last semester for faculty and students to learn and speak about single accreditation, however.
The Accreditation Review Committee Report was released to the public on 16 December. The facts gathered for this report indicate that single accreditation would be harmful, not helpful. After five months of research, the 21-member committee released the report with these important findings:
learn more, go to theranger.org. Or, pick up The Current on 13 January.
Another consequence of single accreditation is that it requires the standardization of curriculum among all colleges; the board of trustees and the chancellor have already begun this process. Most professors oppose standardizing curriculum because they say that standardizing curriculum fails to meet the needs of students who come from discrete communities. For example, Professor Christy Woodward Kaupert of SAC's political science department said that a disproportionate number of students who attend St. Philip's College come from Title 1 Schools, schools that have the highest concentrations of students who come from impoverished families. Kaupert said that the prerequisite standards, for example, at St. Philip's College are not suitable for San Antonio College and vice versa because the needs of discrete communities of students vary.
Knowledge of this general opposition to standardizing curriculum comes from letters that the faculty senates at Northwest Vista and San Antonio College sent to Chancellor Leslie, interviews with faculty senate members, and the resolutions that were read on the night that over 90 percent of professors who participated presented their votes of no confidence to Chancellor Leslie.
On 15 September, over 90 percent of professors who participated presented their votes of no confidence to Chancellor Bruce Leslie. Average participation among the four colleges that participated in the vote was about 80 percent (Faculty at Northeast Lakeview College did not participate because NLC is not yet accredited). Standardizing curriculum was just one of many reasons for the votes of no confidence. To learn more, go to therange.org.
Since the inceptions of St. Philip's, San Antonio, Northwest Vista and Palo Alto College, each college has been independently accredited.
San Antonio Lightning readers probably recognize the signature punny headline up there, which arrived in my inbox this a.m. R.G. Griffing and his crew have a new post up about a local Valero store that's selling pipes -- "near the 'munchie aisles.'"
According to the story, San Antonio-based Fortune 500 company Valero asked the store, which the Lightning says is independently owned but branded Valero, to remove the paraphernalia in December after the Lightning brought it to the company's attention.
Griffing's a libertarian at heart (also an animal lover), so I'm a little surprised to find him on this side of the drug war. But it's good news for local head shops, which don't need the competition from convenience chains.
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