I don’t know where you get your air, but I'll wager it doesn’t pass through an air treatment plant or labyrinthine network of pipes before blowing down your street. Unlike our centralized water system in San Anto, air comes to us as is. When polluted by heavy industry or our millions of combusting engines there are only overburdened trees and periodic rain showers to help us out. But when we’re talking tens of millions of pounds of industry-created toxic chemicals hitting the Texas sky each year, we can’t bank on our trees to keep the cancer away.
Eight years ago, the U.S. EPA examined national skies for 124 air toxics (80 of which are known cancer-causers), and labeled San Antonio as one of those special red-dot cities where the cancer risk was elevated. That, should the air stay as fouled as it was at the time, those forced to breathe it over a lifetime would develop cancer at a rate as high as 25 50 per million*, higher than the national average of 36 per million.
And while powers now are lining up to correct Texas’ regulatory Clean Air flounderings, the toxics in Texas have been declining — just not as fast as they should have, according folks at the state Sierra Club. Many of the older refineries and chemicals plants in the state were “grandfathered” and never required to go through a review of their air pollution emissions. Sometimes only part of a plant is required to submit to review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“It’s a giant quagmire,” said Neil Carman, clean air program director of the state Sierra Club. “There’s nothing like Texas. Nothing.”
The list of complaints against the TCEQ include a miasma of alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, Carman said, including: accepting “flexible” permits from plants, where only a portion of the total emissions are considered, rather than adhering to the more stringent federally mandated New Source Review (NSR) process; the bundling of several smaller permit actions at a facility to avoid NSR; changing legal definitions to allow installation of weaker pollution control systems; and the illegal grandfathering of facilities to keep them from having to go through the permitting process at all.
Texas has more industrial plants that any other state in nation. Nearly About 2,000 individual air-emission reports were filed with the TCEQ in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. And while the EPA is prowling to take over the air permitting process from the TCEQ if it doesn’t change its ways, the Sierra Club has announced it is preparing to sue the EPA to force stricter federal oversight on Texas.
According to the TCEQ, all of the criteria air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act have been in decline in recent years. Statewide emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide all saw minimal reductions between 2004 and 2006. A larger reduction appeared in 2007, the year the global recession kicked in.
The same is true of air toxics like those studied by the EPA in 2002.
Between 1995 and 2006, a million pounds of toxic chemicals regulated by the U.S. EPA were either sent straight into the air or into flares in Bexar County. Ten years later, that amount had only been trimmed back to 965,878 pounds. In 2006, however, toxics in Bexar County dropped to 847,624 pounds. And once the recession gripped the state in 2008, the toxics dropped precipitously to 505,842 pounds. Statewide, air toxics have dropped from 93 million pounds in 2002, according to EPA figures, to 82 million pounds in 2006. Toxic emissions statewide dropped more rapidly, down to 69 million pounds in 2008.
No one can say how large the reductions would have been if the changes the feds now want to make had been implemented years ago, but Carman said, “We think it would have been greater.”
“If these flexible permits weren’t any better or cheaper than a New Source Review permit, why would industry want them? Why would industry say, ‘We want a flexible permit rather than an NSR permit’? … Our concern is that some of the plants, but we don’t know, may have made reductions that are inadequate.”
Al Armendariz, EPA Administrator for Region 6, also couldn’t say definitely if air would be cleaner today if TCEQ had never adopted the “flexible” permit program. But he did suggest the whole thing has served to keep such data difficult to divine, a fringe benefit that would serve any polluter’s interest.
Al’s Point One: The Lone Star State is the only state in the Union that uses the so-called “flexible” permits to help regulate the federal Clean Air Act. (And, no, these permits were never approved by the EPA.) “All of the 50 states operate a standard New Source Review program. The state of Texas has chosen to also establish the flexible permitting program, which sits alongside and runs parallel to the standard program,” Armendariz said. “That program was never approved by the federal government. It was never approved at all.”
And, you know what else? Those companies are doing fine outside Texas. “The vast majority of them also operate large, very complicated facilities in Louisiana, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, and the other large industrial states. And they operate very profitably in those states without flexible permits … under the traditional mechanisms of the Clean Air Act. If they can do it in those states, they can certainly do it in Texas.
Al’s Point 2: “When you look at the permits that these facilities operate under, in Texas they are much more difficult to interpret and understand. That makes it very difficult for my enforcement staff who do inspections and do oversight to properly do their jobs at these facilities. It also makes it more difficult for the public and the media to understand what the requirements are. And I do think that enforcement and public oversight and media scrutiny can all provide a very strong incentive for facilities to comply with the law and then also go above and beyond that and reduce their emissions. Unfortunately in Texas, with the flexible permitting program the permits are simply too opaque for those kinds of incentives to take hold.”
Al’s Point 3: The Clean Air Act is an economic motivator. “There are people … every time we revise an air quality standard, who claim that EPA’s actions are going to cost jobs and shut down factories,” Armendariz said. “What you find is that the empirical evidence does not support that whatsoever. … When you actually look at the financial benefits that happen in terms of public health — the fact that people are healthier, they live longer lives, workers are more productive, children have fewer asthma attacks and fewer missed days in schools, which means their parents don’t have to stay home with them and miss work. There are so many public health benefits that translate into real-world dollars because of the Clean Air Act.
EPA staff are currently trying to determine if TCEQ also may have allowed some facilities to be grandfathered illegally, exempting them entirely from any regulation, he said.
Bexar County officials and members of the Alamo Council of Governments recently passed resolutions against toughening federal air-quality rules (based on the suggestion of Metro Health that asthmatics in Texas were a tougher breed than asthmatics elsewhere), we have yet to see them step out on this related issue.
I wasn’t able reach any officials with TCEQ by press deadline on Tuesday, but we’ll be following up on the situation here at QueBlog.
Wild Animal Orphanage endured yet
another tough month, capped off with the euthanization of Bubba, the
beloved White Tiger. The start of May brought new management, with
husband-and-wife team Jamie and Michelle Cryer assuming the Director and
Chairman of the Board slots, respectively, after the board members fired Nicole Garcia as CEO in a messy parting of
ways that involved changed locks and accusations of secret meetings.
The Cryers also let several office personnel go in an effort to control
costs and redirect funds to animal care and feed. The new management
released a desperate press release May 2, asking for contributions to
help maintain animal care. Ironically, the press release sounded awfully
similar to one Garcia wanted to release in early April, but was
cautioned against releasing by then board member Sumner Matthes for fear
of bad publicity.
Unfortunately, the saddest, and most recent, story concerning WAO is the death of Bubba. We visited the exotic animal back in early May, and to our untrained eyes, the poor thing looked desperately thin and seemingly in pain with every step. Jamie Cryer told us Bubba arrived to WAO in compromised health, possibly due to poor diet and care under early owners of the tiger. After two veterinarians independently recommended euthanizing Bubba, he was put down last Friday. Though the final culprit was suspected to be lymphoma, the Wild Animal Orphanage had a necropsy performed and the results are pending.
This comes on the heels of more personnel shake-ups within the organization. In mid-May longtime board member Matthes, and his wife Elise, who joined the board to fill Garcia's slot, left their positions. Three new members, including Suzanne Straw, a member of SeaWorld's Zoological team, joined and the web site lists one position still open. Samuel Sherwood, a "management specialist," as community relations director Robert Mitchell calls him, came in several weeks ago and left last week. Mitchell, who was recruited by Sherwood, said only "[Sherwood's] focus was to get things back in order and set up a management system to get everything under control. We're still doing that, just without him." Mitchell, a part-time employee with military public relations training (from 30 years ago) said he would stay because "I don't want to leave these people in a lurch." Currently, there is no full time veterinarian on staff. Animal medical care beyond what can be provided by the five animal care technicians can do is provided by two volunteer vets, according to Mitchell.
We asked Mitchell if WAO had plans to replace Jamie Cryer, 39, as director, one of the more controversial staff members at WAO, though he is working without a salary. In early May, when we asked Cryer himself how long he planned to stay, he indicated his position is temporary. Mitchell said as of now, there are no plans to replace Cryer. Garcia and former board member Kristina Brunning frequently point out Jamie Cryer's past criminal record (several non-violent misdemeanors from 1991-92, when Cryer was between 21 and 22 years old), temper, and his more recent $3,500 fine levied by the Department of Transportation last fall, when Cryer worked as an animal transporter for WAO, which the Orphanage must pay off in full by July 3. Then there are some semi-coherent concerns that Wild Animal Orphanage refused to return animal transport cages after receiving two tigers in them. We're more concerned with yet another husband-and-wife team assuming operational responsibility after the Asvestas did such a disastrous job previously.
Despite all the hustle and bustle in the people department, things in the financial department still appear stagnant. Mitchell told us that donations were at the same level they were just after Cryer stepped in as director and that the Orphanage is "still in the hole," though he did not have exact data. Tour scheduling, a primary source of income, has been reduced by two hours per day, and we're told the Orphanage was not open for at least Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend. To help prop up the organization during what Mitchell calls "a little bit of turbulence," Mitchell is helping to plan a benefit concert for July 11 at Floore's Country Store in Helotes, featuring the John Colvin Band, Wolfpak, Halfway Legal, Ashly Dixon, Dan Searcy & Cedar Fever and the Jimmy Cribb Band, plus a silent auction. In the meatime, we'll be very interested to see the results of the next USDA inspection, expected to be performed this week or early next week, to get a better sense of how the Orphanage is being run on the level where it really matters, the animals.
Queque ventured to one of VIA's three public meetings on the ballyhooed bus rapid transit systemto be launched between
the Medical Center and the Westside down Fredericksburg Road, and came
away impressed, just not with the whole "rapid" claim. The Thursday
afternoon meeting at the Wonderland of the Americas (previously
Crossroads Mall) was well attended by types who ride buses, and are
available to discuss them at 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, i.e. senior
citizens. Despite a large presence from VIA
and URS engineering staff, the unveiling
of the environmental assessment of the BRT plan failed to wow the old
timers, even with VIA CEO Keith Parker's enthusiastic pitch that the BRT
is "the most significant public transportation investment we've ever
made." This BRT system would replace the current 91 route, which is
already a limited stop line. The time the new BRT would save commuters traveling
from the South Texas Medical Transit Center to the Westside
Multimodal Transit Center is 10-12 minutes said Arturo Herrera, VIA's strategic
planner. Not exactly awe-inspiring, but probably much appreciated by
daily bus commuters.
At one time, VIA had grander plans for a faster BRT accomplished by dedicated bus lanes, but a combination of non-existent TXDOT funding (what a surprise) and public fear of what that might do to normal traffic squelched the notion. The current plan contends with buses operating in mixed traffic by providing service every 10 minutes from 5:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (with not-as-frequent service planned until 11:00 p.m.), smartcard fare entrances at each bus door, and a special transit signal buses running late may engage to extend or cause green lights. How much money would we pay for such traffic light control in our personal car? Too much, SONY/Garmin/TonTon, (are you listening?). We would pay way, way too much for that kind of power. These developments provide the added speed for BRT buses, though folks attending the meeting pointed out they would still be hampered with Fredericksburg's typical rush hour congestion. We heard two different claims from a URS rep and a VIA rep as to whether a dedicated lane would have made future light rail more or less possible. URS said a dedicated lane might have made it easier to retrofit for light rail. Herrera said not having a dedicated lane actually "left their options open," for a light rail future. Both said Fred Road would need a complete overhaul to accommodate those commuter trains.
That's not to say the $57 million price tag, 80 percent of which comes courtesy of federal funding and 20 percent through local sales tax, is for naught. In fact, it makes possible the Westside Multimodal Transit Center, which would not only service BRT and regular buses, but also sits pretty for future West-East streetcar service through downtown, Amtrak and/or the fabled Austin-San Antonio commuter rail service on the nearby Union Pacific rail lines. VIA also hopes to work with Greyhound and taxi services to get their services near the Westside station as well. The BRT has plans to extend from the Medical Center Transit Center up to UTSA's 1604 campus, though only every third bus stopping at Med Center would travel that northern route, which makes that commute seem almost bearable (almost, even with the free wireless internet onboard.) BRT buses are 50 percent longer than the current counterparts, and VIA is currently considering investing in models with overhead bins and comfy seats. And are we naive to hope that the station monitors will report accurately down to the minute how long the wait is for the next bus? We've never experienced 100 percent success with this technology in the other cities that feature it for subways, but San Antonio can dream, can't she?
The BRT also includes admirable nods to our brave new green world. The South Texas Transit center will meet LEED certifications (Westside is exempt due to historical preservation concerns) and stations may be powered by CPS windtricity and/or solar programs, the buses will run on diesel/electric hybrid, and our biker friends will be happy to see bike racks and lockers at the transit stations. VIA is still evaluating where and how to install onboard bike racks, but that's a definite consideration. The new BRT buses also allegedly cut their regular counterpart's noise pollution significantly.
We did hear one good suggestion from public commenters at the meeting, (not to say we didn't appreciate them, but mostly they were asking either for clarification or named Jack Finger), and that was to consider a slight route variation to incorporate service to the county's largest employer, USAA. Representatives did not respond to this suggestion publicly, but we discovered such a route was one of three alternatives considered by VIA, and tossed out because apparently, the route could serve South Texas Medical Center or USAA but not both. We put a call in to Herrera's office for further clarification and will update when we find out. UPDATE: Herrera says that the extension route to UTSA's 1604 campus will have a stop near the USAA headquarters pedestrian entrance.
This BRT plan is not yet a done deal, though it's moving ever closer. Interested citizens still have time to issue public comments before the final environmental analysis is issued. View the current draft here, and submit comments via the link on that page by June 10. Below I've posted a pdf of the proposed route and a sign detailing the Westside Multi Modal Transit Center (VIA refers to it as WSMMTC, BTW). If all goes as planned, the route could be up and running con stations by late 2012.
While I sometimes find myself at odds with the conclusions that Wired writers and editors reach on energy matters (Have you got something truly massive? Lots of blinky lights? With an impossibly long-lived waste stream? They’re probably for it.), I frequently find myself in stride with Scientific American.
Another case in point reached my mailbox this week in the magazine's collection of shorts, “12 EVENTS That Will Change Everything,” in which a cast of writers and editors list the most “dramatic new events” that could shake up the human reality this century. Included in the bunch are human cloning, hidden dimensions, ET, and a nuclear weapon “exchange” (and by that we don’t mean you take mine and I take yours).
There is also a simplistic “likelihood” scale intended to suggest whether the possibilities are considered a sure thing, a long shot, or somewhere between the poles.
Among the long shots is nuclear fusion.
Some of our readers may remember our days of rampant nuke obsessing, circa 2009. In a series of articles, we laid out a less-than-flattering portrait of the fuel chain of nuclear power: from mining contamination to the problem of an “eternal” waste stream.
One UT researcher, Swadesh Mahajan, stood up for a hybrid fusion-fission reactor as a possible waste solution; others, like one old-school Hanford nuke man who jumped to solar in the 1970s, scoffed.
I wrote at the time:
"The Legislature is a Patsy for
That's County Judge Nelson Wolff in yesterday's Bexar County Commissioners Court expressing his frustration with flimsy state law that allows for messes to develop like the one currently found in Ventura Heights, an unincorporated subdivision near Converse. In response to resident after resident pleading during public commentary for help to fix roads pockmarked with giant potholes and foot-wide curb erosion, Judge Wolff said the Texas Legislature prevented counties from truly holding developers accountable for shoddy infrastructure, but strongly suggested the commissioner's court find a new solution to the residents' plight, which he considered a matter of public safety.
In the case of Ventura Heights, the developer, Obra Homes, failed to build the subdivision's roads in compliance with county specifications and went out of business before finishing required maintenance to bring the roads under the County's jurisdiction. The gaps between driveways and road, lane-wide potholes and crumbling curbs cause residents to swerve like Grand Theft Auto players and refrain from using their own driveways. Two residents told the Commissioners Court that the shabby roads also hampered bus service from Judson ISD and police response time. Janet Ahmad, president of Homeowners for Better Builders, said she's seen this type of damage frequently in other unincorporated subdivisions since she began investigating it in 2000. Ahmad helped organize Ventura Heights resident speakers at Commissioners Court, many of whom were female or minority homeowners.
Initially, San Antonio Express-News reported that Bexar County would front the $1.3 million to repair the two most damaged roads, placing $7,731.84 liens on each of Ventura Heights' 170 homes, to be paid back when the home sells. But after hearing residents, many of whom bought their homes for between $80,000-$110,000 since 2003, Judge Wolff stated a change of course was needed. "That won’t work," he told us today by phone, echoing comments he made in Commissioners Court. "This is only within two streets in this neighborhood," thus many neighbors would likely be unwilling to agree to such a lien, to say nothing of those who bought their homes along the rutted roads with no inkling of the damage to come.
While an editorial in the Express-News encouraged Ventura Heights to vote for the lien proposal after their paper reported on the story in early May, and not "stick taxpayers with subdivision costs," it seems the bad roads make it more difficult for Ventura Heights residents to receive the same quality of local services they pay for their own taxes. With this inequality only growing, and a limited amount of authority and funding available, county commissioners batted around alternative ideas, to be further discussed with Ventura Heights homeowners in an ad-hoc meeting Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson will convene next Thursday.
"What you saw yesterday was an exercise in spontaneity that public officials are confronted with from time to time," said Adkisson today. While he and the rest of the court take this issue of subpar streets more seriously than they ever have -- on April 20 they passed a requirement for developers to post an 18-month warranty bond for 10 percent of the cost to build the subdivision roads -- they are wary of opening what Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo called "a Pandora's box" among the 122 units throughout Bexar County experiencing similar problems. "We cannot make decisions in a vacuum that are not considerate of the big picture," said Adkisson, and the big picture is that the county doesn't have the millions of dollars needed to fix problems caused by developers who cut and run. Elizondo suggested authorizing the County attorney's office to review whether the County could bring a class action lawsuit against the developer under Texas' deceptive trade practices consumer protection act, which includes passing off goods and services for those of another as a punishable deceptive act, which Adkisson said he's also very supportive of investigating, as is Wolff. "We need to go after somebody on this," said Wolff, "how are [the homeowners] to know who's responsible for the streets?"In the meantime, Adkisson suggests potential buyers considering a home in an unincorporated subdivision contact the county's infrastructure services department. "They may be able to get some inside information."
Otherwise, County Commissioners claim they're "hamstrung" by the Legislature in terms of their regulation capabilities. "We go to them every year for permit and zoning authority," said Wolff. "Every year they turn us down and terrible tragedies like this happen." With campaign donors like Bob Perry continuously filling state congressional coffers on both sides of the aisles, don't look for legislators to change their tune next session, either.
Contrary to popular opinion, reporting isn’t all about crime, death, disease, and botched Botox. News manipulators celebrate the sunny news as much as the next disenfranchised heartbroken whelp. Like when AGE Refining didn’t blow up half of South San Antonio? We cheered hearty cheers in the Current news room during that smoker and thought how good it is to live in a city not Houston. You know, where the chemical fires are fewer and father between.
Things got even more happy this week when we heard from the Texas Parks & Wildlife about you water folk. It turns out the number of Texans who accidentally gargled their outboard propellers or looped a Granny knot around their necks is down again after a bloody 2008.
Two years ago, there were a total of 272 boating accidents, resulting in 175 injuries and 62 deaths. Last year, by comparison, there were a mere 207 accidents, 139 injuries, and 38 deaths among boaters. "We don't know for sure what caused the decrease in boating deaths, but we do think two contributing factors are saturation law enforcement and educational outreach," said Game Warden Maj. Jeff Parrish, TPW’s marine safety chief, in a prepared release.
If you’ve had lots of water cops getting tangled in your 12-pound test this year, expect that to continue as Parks folks work to keep the number of soggy dead low this year. However, things were not so rosy in the oil patch and chicken shacks, according to OSHA workplace fatality statistics.
Included below are some of the more “colorful” fatalities recorded in the first three months of 2010. Consider them object lessons in paying attention when operating 1) high above the ground, 2) under heavy stuff, and 3) with things marked "deadly."
We hope someone lined up a Levatol
I.V. for State Board of Education member Rick Agosto when he finally
returned to San Antonio from this week’s epic meetings on the social
studies standards for Texas public schools.
Despite Agosto’s rapidly rising condemnations (and pulse), on Friday evening, the SBOE passed the document that earned Agosto’s board the ridicule of the nation and the scorn of several education experts. The final Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards contained more than 400 amendments from the original document crafted by educator work groups last summer and fall. Previously decried by teachers as "bloated" and a "laundry list," more than 100 of those amendments were added just on Thursday.
Agosto, who is not seeking reelection to his seat in November, explosively turned himself into the loudest opposition of additional amendments. Thursday evening, after a failed vote to re-instate labor leader Dolores Huerta into third-grade citizenship, several other new names were suggested.
"I'm very uncomfortable with us just grabbing names and putting them in on a personal basis. We have experts giving us these names, with information and explanations," Agosto said. Later in the evening he told the Board to stick Jefferson Davis's inaugural address, which board member Don McLeroy proposed be studied alongside Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, "where the sun doesn't shine.
"The intent of the experts was to analyze Abraham Lincoln, not compare him to Jefferson Davis. We're changing this TEK, we're adding Jefferson Davis, because we like him?" asked Agosto incredulously.
If the length of the social-studies TEKS were the only concern, it's likely the front few rows and the media box wouldn't have been packed to the gills. But the excessive amendments began when conservative ex-SBOE chairman DonMcLeroy (who still serves, though not as chair) began trying to correct a perceived liberal bias in the text books. That lead to other staunchly conservative members Terri Leo, Cynthia Dunbar, Barbara Cargill , David Bradley and Ken Mercer (who represents parts of San Antonio and the Hill Country) issuing their own amendments to alter language, insert key people and remove others from the social-studies standards used to create textbooks and state standardized tests for the next decade.
Moderate members Patricia Hardy, Geraldine Miller, and Bob Craig and more liberal members Agosto, Mary Helen Berlanga , Lawrence Allen, and Mavis Knight then began issuing amendments to amendments to try to insert their own views or reconfigure the new TEK to resemble what it once was under the work group TEKS . A somewhat taciturn Ken Mercer explained near the end of Friday's meeting that work groups originally had recommended the removal of Veterans Day, Christmas, and the Liberty Bell from their draft of TEKS , which apparently sparked his and other's proactive approach. That was in the same speech where he compared all members of the media to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, for creating "the big lie" that the Board wished to erase Thomas Jefferson from social-studies standards, and "repeating and repeating and repeating it."
Mercer's reference stems from one particular TEK in which Jefferson's name was removed from a list of Enlightenment thinkers. Though Jefferson appeared in grades 5, 8, and U.S. Government, the perception was that his removal from Enlightenment thinkers list was tantamount to removing him altogether. In an attempt to reintroduce Jefferson to that particular list, Bob Craig issued an amendment Friday afternoon and unintentionally touched off Agosto's biggest meltdown.
"That Thomas Jefferson discussion is the perfect example of what's wrong with this board," Agosto said when we caught up with him during a brief break. As has become standard on this Board, Craig introduced a new amendment handwritten on notebook paper that would reinsert the word "enlightenment" and Thomas Jefferson into a standard that read (after the infamous change during the last board meeting), "explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone." McLeroy pointed out that several of those names (added last session after the removal of Thomas Jefferson) were not Enlightenment thinkers. Dunbar pointed out that neither was Blackstone, and spoke passionately about keeping Calvin in as he was a philosophical founder of America in her opinion.
Mercer made an attempt to include James Madison in the new list as well for his work on the Federalist Papers. Craig motioned that perhaps Aquinas and Calvin could be included in another section somewhere else, which failed. A motion to strike the newly inserted Madison from the language carried. Allen pointed out that currently the amended standard now was too vague. "You have to have an objective in the standards. It has to have a verb that goes somewhere. What writing, his writing to his mama?" Allen asked. Craig amended his language to include "explain political philosophies such as," to try to address Allen's concerns.
"First we took out 'Enlightenment' and Jefferson," ranted Agosto outside the meeting room, "then we added language so we could put in John Calvin. Now Thomas Jefferson doesn't fit so we have to change the meaning again. What is going on here?"
At the end of the day Friday, after hearing testimony until midnight on Wednesday from more than 160 people, most of whom opposed the TEKS as amended by the board, after arguing until after midnight Thursday on the finer points of Barack Obama vs. Barack Hussein Obama in the textbooks as the nation's first black president, and what role slavery played in the Civil War, on Friday the board passed, in parcels, social-studies standards containing many of the most conservative TEKS (learning in detail about the conservative resurgence in the '80s and '90s in high school U.S. history, various examples extolling the virtues of free-markets compared to communism or command economies) but containing some wins for those concerned about religious freedom and minority representation (language was reinserted regarding the importance of the separation of church and state, including Hector P. Garcia as a civil-rights leader), though in a smaller proportion. The votes went down on party lines, 9-5, with Miller absent and Craig siding with Democrats. But not before Agosto made his grandest gesture yet. "I don't know what this thing is!" he shouted, waving the latest TEKS document around. Hoisting his wastebasket onto his desk, he dropped the document in. "This thing belongs in the trash!"
Now, the state, and possibly the nation, wait until the new board, minus a few of its most conservative members, meets and the legislature reconvenes in January, to decide if they share Agosto's opinion, too.
The success of the online White House garden campaign that helped fill the Obama’s new digs with healthy veggies and consequently forge inroads for new rows across the nation’s urban landscape has inspired a Texas-centric outgrowth.
If some of the names and organizations sound familiar, they should. Those presidential pesterers, Kitchen Gardener’s International, sprouted from Maine-based Eat the View, which had cross-pollinated two years back with San Antonio garden-culture blogging diva Pamela Price (of “Urban Garden Revolution” fame, our feature on the Alamo City renegades fighting for food-justice fight in one of the nation’s fattest cities).
Now Price and her soil-nurturing clique at Dig for Texas have set their sights on Rick Perry and Bill White (and the crowd of MSM unmentionables, the so-called “minor” candidates as listed by Wikipedia) — whoever will eventually re-inhabit the firebombed Texas Governor’s Mansion — to get an Aggie-certified, public-school-tour-friendly Guv Garden going after the November election.
The petition’s purpose, as presented on the group’s Facebook page:
Not only does he look very Elvis on occasion, but Jigar Shah is too nice to dwell too long about his being right as well.
Solar costs are crashing, Obamabucks are hurriedly enhancing solar energy storage options, and it would seem Jigar Shaw has returned to San Antonio triumphant.â€¨â€¨
San Antonians at 2009's Solar San Antonio luncheon sniffed at the upstart solar evangelist when he offered sun energy as a white-hot force ready to dominate the market. More than one CPS staffer we caught doing the eye-roll. By and large, folks here saw Shah, for all his success, as a bit â€” how would Express-News columnist Scott Stroud put it? â€” "wild-eyed."â€¨
â€¨"I guess I wasn't as crazy as they thought I was," he says to me during our brief huddle at the back of the Pearl Brewery Stable at this year's Solar lunch. "What a difference a year made. â€¦ The confidence level that we're seeing in energy efficiency, smart grids, and storage technology have gone up tremendously."
â€¨â€¨He's trying out, I later come to see, bits of speech on me the way a comedian might before a show (the way Emo Phillips broke my sister's heart many years ago in Oberlin, Ohio, I might add). "The real issue we have in Texas is if they want to lead," he continues. "Texas could be an energy state, no just an oil and gas state."
â€¨â€¨A Shah fan interrupts our casual exchange to suggest that a renewable portfolio standard for non-wind renewable energy sources (proposed but failed last legislative session) is on the way for sure.
If lawmakers are tempted by second thoughts, they may want to seriously consider Shah's next claim (also repeated during his address at the lunch honoring Solar San Antonio founder Bill Sinkin [right] for not only surviving this city all these 97 years but for being the "old dog that taught us new tricks," as Mayor Julian Castro put it, by embracing solar a decade ago).
Shah said the renewable-energy revolution represents the "greatest wealth opportunity of our generation." â€¨â€¨He says he's moved past simply terming the technological changes in foment as "opportunities" (a "blue-collar term") and has started dropping "wealth" whenever he can. Non-polluting technologies are about more than turning blue collars green, it seems; they are today's hot stock option. Or they will be.
â€¨â€¨He tells me CPS Energy, in all their many changes these past 12 months, is "on track." It may have helped we publicly drove out some old blood and demanded renewable considerations be given top priority. And yet, he says, now it is time for the City's utilities to get together and work with City and higher-ed visionaries on creating the workforce that will ensure our transformation into a clean-tech Mecca is one that not only lifts all boats but positions the city as a leader in the country. "That plan is not in place yet," he says.â€¨â€¨
Scanning the room, I can see faces here today beginning those conversations. I know we're not far off.
As I prepare to crash another way-above-my-paygrade social function at the Pearl Brewery, hopefully pinching my collar into faux starchiness and double-sniffing my gingivitis, I can’t help but harken back to all those Pearl lunches gone by. It will be strange, I think, not to see several key CPS Energy personnel on stage or at least near the front round of tables.
Why, it seems like only yesterday that blue-lipped former Public Information Officer Bob McCullough was castigating me outside the Pearl Stables in front of former Acting GM Steve Bartley as former veep of nuclear development Bob Temple crouched behind some bushes waving his hands like a choir conductor.
Did I really believe my coverage of CPS had been fair and balanced? McCullough demanded. My response that it had been fair, though not balanced, inspired disbelieving guffaws. It seemed lost on all present that news coverage need not cleave to false dichotomies that give equal weight to decidedly unequal arguments in the name of false "balance."
Surely, there will be some déjŕ vu involved today, as solar titan Jigar Shah, I think that’s what I called him last year, addresses us at another Solar San Antonio luncheon. (I signed up as soon as I heard birthday cake may be involved.)
But I’m expecting a lot less head shaking and eye rolling at the utility’s table this year. After all, CPS is preparing to roll out Solartricity for the business community. And efforts are underway to replicate the rooftop solar universe Shah has popularized elsewhere. It is, truly, a new day in San Antonio.
Worried that those who have left us would not be here to see our progress, I pulled out the old where-are-they-now file to track them down. I was delighted that Bob Temple has landed on his feet, cashing in his considerable nuclear legal talents for a seat with Haynes and Boone, LLP.
"Bob's emphasis on nuclear development and transactions, combined with his commercial and business acumen, is a real asset for our clients," said Buddy Clark, partner and chair of Haynes and Boone's Energy and Power Practice Group. I wonder if they called Mayor Julián Castro for a reference?
And Steve Bartley wasn’t too difficult to catch up with. The youngster appears to have trimmed his hair and returned to school, apparently in Arkansas, where he has joined the drum squad for the Razorbacks. His specialty is simplistically complex five-minute drum solos inspired, one school paper quoted him as saying, by “the rise and fall of industrial magisterium.” He always was a brainy one, that Steve.
Enjoy the magic and mystery of Bartley’s brave new work:
The more things change...the more they stay the same in the imminent
collective bargaining agreement between the San Antonio Police Officers
Association and the City. We're currently reviewing the final agreement
forwarded to us by both the SAPOA and the City. The previous contract
expired last October, but its 10-year evergreen clause was put into
effect as the City and SAPOA negotiated over sticky wickets like health
benefits and complaint procedures. Mike Helle, president of SAPOA said
members of his association were voting on the contract as we spoke on
the phone this afternoon. When asked if his members would approve the
final draft of the contract, posted to the SAPOA members-only website
on April 27, he replied "most definitely." SAPOA votes are to be
tallied Wednesday. If approved, the contract goes before City Council
the following day during their A Session meeting. The projected cost of
the five-year contract (it ends on September 30, 2014, and includes a
start date of last Oct. 1) is $62.9 million, or over $12 million per year.
Here's the major changes: It appears the position of "Commander" (it was a position between Captain and Deputy Chief) has been eliminated, and an extra Deputy Chief position added. An extra shift from 5:00 p.m. - 3:00 a.m. has been added to complement outgoing B-shifts (1:30 - 9:30 p.m.) and incoming C-shifts (10:30-6:30 a.m.). The new D-shift will allocate 226 positions.
Perhaps due to the lengthy contract renegotiation process, officers received no across-the-board wage increases in 2009, but the contract does provide a 2% increase this coming October, with 3% increases each additional year the contract covers, unless the Firefighters Association negotiates for a pay raise of greater than 2.2%, which the SAPOA would agree to as well. That's consistent with wage increases under the previous contract. To the envy of teens everywhere a departmental clothing allowance is set to rise exponentially over the next four years. Under the old contract there was a $480 annual clothing allowance; this year it's set for $720, and effective October 1, 2013, it will be $1,440.00. Maybe they know something we don't about the textile industry. Vacation time is slightly sweeter than in the past, amounting to one extra day vacay for officers with more than one year of service. Hiring guidelines for police cadets are encapsulated in the new contract, whereas there was not mention of them in the previous version. And we can all breathe a little easier now, the new contract institutionalizes an agreed to zero-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol use while on duty and/or operating a police vehicle. As for the health benefits, it appears that very few changes were made in the end. Office visits for serious mental health issues are treated now as for any other serious illness, whereas they were previously limited to 60 per year. The premium is still $0 with deductibles for individuals at $250 and $500 for families, both in-network rates.
Of note to followers of 2008's Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report, which made several recommendations regarding both the complaint procedure against SAPD officers and the make-up of the Citizen Action Advisory Board in order to enhance community-police relations, is the new formation of the Board. There will now be seven appointees to the board, which hears citizen complaints against officers and recommends disciplinary action to the chief, from a pool of 14. That's an increase of four sitting members of a pool of eight under the previous contract. Moreover the so-called "veto" power the CAAB had over members is now at least contractually absent. The process for selecting CAAB members will now go through the City Manager's office, where it once was hashed out between the City Council and SAPOA. Previously, the contract guaranteed that SAPOA had the opportunity to remove half of the list's candidates before appointments were made. Now they can provide input on candidates but hold no official entitlement to strike candidates from the list. Also, when complainants go before this Board, they are now contractually allowed to bring in an "observer" for support. Next week, I'll delve deeper into what the contract and the department does and doesn't do to address SAPD's recent (or should we say 'ongoing'?) history with creeps, car wrecks, and fatal shootings.
Okay. I’m not here to explain magnets for the inestimable Insane Clown Posse, though some have tried (and failed — though electrostatic force comes close!). But I gotta wonder at Shaggy’s bustin' on scientists for doing their thing ("Ya'll motherfuckers lyin' and gettin me pissed!"). I mean, I get that science expels magic and all that, but what's wrong with trying to understand the order and the chaos at work around us? Isn't that a potential cause for celebration of as high an order as this "Miracles" video itself? [See ICP's brain-numbing number if you’ve missed it. To recover, we recommend you click immediately on SNL’s spoof.]
Somewhere in all this mess is a meme for our day. It’s not a good one, either. Something about not asking questions and not thinking too hard. Trusting God with the moon and stars (and leaving the politics to the politicians?). Thankfully, ICP don’t represent the norm when it comes to understanding science. But they’re close.
A recent poll found that only half of us know how many days it takes the Earth to revolve around the Sun or roughly how much of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, for instance. The kind of stuff you learn in grade school.
Other studies have been more generous, suggesting the science literacy in the country is on the upswing. Up from the gutter. So choose a half-full glass if you’d like. (Or test yourself!)
I’m the sort of dork that gets into this stuff, “fucking magnets” and whatnot, especially when studies are showing that those millions of really miserable people (perhaps you know some?) have cause to be optimistic for once. I’m talking about shifts in the world of brain therapies.
Last week, I hung out with some researchers at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and came back with this video about research on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and its application in the treatment of depression…
Only a week ago, Councilman Justin Rodriguez’s proposed expansion of the City’s smoking ordinance — to include pretty much all interior spaces where bonhomie is practiced — seemed a foreordained success: The Mayor endorsed the idea at a press conference designed to put the lead in the remaining council members’ pencils, where the Smoke-Free San Antonio Coalition rolled out a poll that showed not only solid support for a broader smoking ban, but that five out of eight respondents would be more likely to vote for a city council member who supported the proposed ordinance, compared to the mere 21 percent who would be less likely to do so.
Among those likely in the latter category: Jim Hasslocher of locally beloved chain Jim’s, three locations of which still allow smoking, along with the bar at the Hasslocher-owned Magic Time Machine.
“Sometimes government is too intrusive into people’s lives,” said Hasslocher, a former city councilman who says he worked on the City’s first smoking ordinance in the ’80s. What’s next? he asked. “Let’s not sell liquor in bars, and put everybody out of business.”
Proponents of the expanded ban, including District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez, point to the health of employees who work in smoky watering holes and eateries, but Hasslocher says thanks in part to the influence of the current ordinance, there are now many nonsmoking establishments in which to work. Alternatively, he adds, “you don’t make people work smoking sections if they don’t want to work the smoking section.”
Lobbyist Ken Brown of Brown & Ortiz, which represents R.J. Reynolds and the San Antonio Mixed Beverage Association claims: “If they pass the ordinance, they won’t have to worry, because there won’t be as many employees.” Brown questions the Mayor and Rodriguez’s assertion that because the last ordinance, enacted in 2003, didn’t ruin small-business owners, this one won’t have a negative impact, either. That law, says Brown, left proprietors options, from segregated smoking sections to filtering systems, and exempted venues that are irretrievably stained with nicotine in our collective imagination: bowling alleys, pool halls … and VFW clubs. “Really, they can fight for our country, but they can’t get together and smoke?” Brown asks. They’d still be free to smoke at home, of course, a cold comfort that, “sounds like ‘let them eat cake.’”
Curious whether our vets were really on fire about the topic, the QueQue stopped for a beer last week at historic Post 76, which now attracts architects and hipsters to its newly redone riverbanks along with its motorcycle and blue-collar contingents, and where ashtrays are readily available in the smoking-permitted bar and front room. Only one gentleman was actually taking advantage of the liberty, but he said he’d be inclined to just drink at home if he couldn’t light up with his longneck. A Vietnam vet disagreed: He’d quit long ago because of the impact it could have on others’ health, he said. The fact that he’d fought for his country “doesn’t give me the right to hurt you,” he added.
At the other end of the bar, a mountain of a man in a Harley vest said his grandmother long ago told him he’d pay for his own sins. “I’ll do it till they put me out,” he said. The bartender likes to smoke in the evening, and was similarly unenthused and worried that it would cost her business and tips. But Post manager Luis Gomez, doesn’t believe the expanded ban would affect the VFW, because last year they invested in air purifiers.
It’s exactly that sort of investment District 10 Councilman John Clamp says the proposed new law would penalize. Like most of the ban opponents the QueQue spoke with, Clamp would rather see a statewide ban, which the Texas Restaurant Association voted to support in 2009. Along with the specter of vets forced to smoke in solitary isolation, opponents’ dreams are haunted by the image of an Alamo Heights bar and restaurant district pumped up by fugitives from SA’s smoke-free hospitality industry.
Clamp says the current ordinance is working just fine, because there are now many nonsmoking bars and restaurants to choose from. But more importantly, he doesn’t think it’s government’s job to protect us from every risk.
“I don’t smoke, I don’t like smoking, I have family members who have died from smoking,” he said. “I’ll agree 100 percent that smoking’s bad, but more important to me is losing our personal freedoms.”
He predicts that more Council dissent will materialize in the upcoming weeks. “There’s a strong sentiment that we’re moving too fast,” he said. “And there’s also strong dissension that we should not be doing this.”
San Antonio’s hottest new hotelier is at peace with the pending ordinance, even though she’s now proprietrix of one of the city’s former favorite smoking bars (per a poll you can take to the bank: the Current’s annual Best of San Antonio readers’ choice awards). “Before we made the decision, we did a lot of polling of people who loved the bar,” said Liz Lambert, who also operates properties in Marfa and smoke-free Austin. The people who no longer went to the basement club because of the smoke “pretty much outweighed” those who said it was key to their patronage. Another key factor in her decision to cut the indoor smoking: the $40,000 it would take to replace the nonfunctioning filtration system and word on the street that SA was likely to go smoke-free in the near future, anyway. Because cigars are so much a part of the Havana’s history and identity, Lambert plans to continue selling stogies onsite, which can be smoked in the designated areas outside.
“When Austin was going smoke-free, I had mixed feelings about it, especially little dives like the Continental Club” Lambert said. “But honestly, I don’t think anyone has missed it.”
Should you care to weigh in on this topic, and learn more about the details, drop in on Wednesday's Governance Committee meeting: 1pm in the City Hall Media Briefing Room.
That's right folks, by Friday eve we should know whether the pleas of civil rights activists, education specialists, and legislators fell on deaf ears or not
at the Texas State Board of
Education. Beyond evolution, beyond Bible electives, it's the social studies
TEKS (short for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the minimum
standards for what goes in Texas textbooks and on standardized testing)
that have captured the attention of the nation. While civil rights
activists, including many representatives from San Antonio, sounded
alarms about various exclusions of Hispanic and African-American
historical figures and the inclusion of some pro-capitalist (oops, I
mean 'free-enterprise') patriarchy supporters, we could practically hear
educators grinding their teeth over the 90 pages of social studies
standards for elementary, middle and high school students, which some
believe are too bloated and will lead to more teaching to the test. For
example, 6th grade social studies teachers may soon scramble to ensure
they're covering: (9) (B) identify and differentiate among free
enterprise, socialist, and communist economies in various contemporary
societies, including the benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system;
(C) understand the morals and ethics in maintaining a functional free
enterprise system and; (D) understand the poor record of collectivist,
non-free market economic systems to deliver improved economic
development over numerous contemporary and historical societies. Wow.
That's a pretty ambitious lesson plan considering many adults don't
truly understand what socialism is, and several billion educated adults
in the world are still apparently deluded as to their non-free market
economies' poor records. And it's but one of 23 TEKS (with two to five
subsections each) that must be covered in the span of one school year.
On top of these concerns, several state legislators are miffed to learn
the SBOE standard operating procedures come nowhere near the meticulous
and oversight-heavy safeguards they must contend with when recommending
legislation. The ACLU of Texas recently jumped into the fray, issuing a 20-page report on how procedural weaknesses at the SBOE lend
themselves to manipulation by board members looking to push a
particular ideology into objective education standards.
It's doubtful these concerns will register in a different course of action other than the expected passage of the Social Studies TEKS, which is recommended by Texas Education Agency Robert Scott. However, more than 170 people have signed up to speak during public comments on Wednesday and various news outlets report that even more amendments may be added to the TEKS during the meeting. To view the fun times at the Capitol for yourself, hike over to the William B. Travis building, 1701 N. Congress, Austin, room 104-1 Weds.-Fri. or check out the live web cast on the TEA web site.
The long awaited debate between Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chair (and San Antonio representative) Trey Martinez Fischer and Tea Party supporter Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) is on again. To get a brief on the debate, check our previous coverage. The short version is, one state representative is all for an immigration bill like Arizona's, one is not. Guess which one is which.
This time, the debate is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Dallas' KRLD 1080 radio station with host Scott Braddock. You can listen via the internet.
On Thursday, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance approving the funding for the kennels at Brooks City-Base that we reported on last month.
Last time we heard about it, the proposal to lease pre-existing kennel
space at Brooks City-Base was ping-ponging between being touted by
Animal Care Services Director Gary Hendel, being dismissed as "pie in
the sky" by ACS spokeswoman Lisa Norwood, being listed on the City
Council agenda and being pulled a day before the meeting. This time it
was back on, and with the hearty support of Assistant City Manager T.C.
Broadnax, four present (of nine total) ACS advisory board members, and
the present council members. Before the council, ACS advisory board
vice chairman Randy Murdock said, "this will change the future of
Animal Care Services." The Brooks City-Base space will provide 150 more
kennels, Assistant City Manager T.C. Broadnax told council, that could
mean an additional intake of 10,000-12,000 more stray animals annually.
With this new space comes the authorization to hire nine additional ACS
staff members, a shot in the arm to ACS' anemic staff of 28. Costs to
upgrade the kennels will run ACS approximately $125,000, allowing them
to reallocate funds from the $500,000 originally provided in the FY
2010 budget to build a mere 50 kennels from scratch on ACS' existing
property. The remaining $470,494 will join an additional $403,000 from
a City Hall Annex project and $500,000 from Plaza des Armas renovations
of reallocated funds approved by Council plus the existing balance of
$427,000 for a total of $1.8 million to fund a new adoption and
education center at 201 Tuleta, near Brackenridge Park. That locale may
sound familiar. It's the address of the old ACS building, subject of
2004's Express-News pound expose that led to the No Kill 2012
initiative. Broadnax said the City tore down the old facility a year
and a half ago to "erase bad memories." In its place, ACS hopes to
erect a shiny, new, prominently "no-kill" adoption facility on the more
than four acres, and hopes the city has its back in defending the
parcel from Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Zoo, who are eyeing
the prime real estate for more park space or parking spaces,
That's the good news, and it should be comforting to relatively-new ACS director Gary Hendel that all the City Council members stood behind this new vision. Now for the bad news. Everyone, Broadnax, Murdock, even Dr. Laura McKieran, committee chair of the Animal No Kill initiative's consortium of partners, understands that an increased intake in animals will lead to increased kill rates in the short term. Even with the extra space and extra ACS staff, "We don’t have the time or resources to take these animals and turn them into good animals," said Murdock, meaning animals that aren't picked up by their owners or can't find homes through ACS' adoption programs, private rescue groups or foster facilities within 72 hours will still likely be euthanized. With just two and a half years left on the No Kill 2012 goal, it seems unlikely 2009's 70% euthanasia rate will drop that dramatically. For one, the rehabilitated Brooks City-Base kennels will open much more quickly than the adoption center. For another, the Brooks City-Base provides 100 more kennels than the 50 adoption site kennels, and so the math, as long as ACS remains full, and rescue groups overextended, still paints a grim deficit in adopting out animals rather than killing them. "It's a step backwards," said John Bachman, member of local animal rights group Voice for Animals, after the City Council vote. "I'm not sure extra kennels will do anything to solve stray [overpopulation.]" Bachman whole-heartedly supports the new adoption center, he told council, but would prefer the money dedicated to Brooks City-Base kennels (about 1.2 million for two years of operation) go to spay and neuter programs to try to curb the stray reproduction rates.
And then there's the Brooks City-Base space itself. Though the lease agreement includes a provision that, "except in extreme emergency in the case of an individual dog, tenant shall not kill dogs on the premises," it also requires "no public access," something which troubles animal advocate Kelly Walls, who works with San Antonio's Homeward Bound/Great Dane dog rescue. In her written testimony to City Council, Walls stated, "a no-public access facility does not foster organizational transparency," and suggested that just because animals can't be euthanized at Brooks City-Base, it did not mean they wouldn't be transported to ACS' kill facility later. Walls, who says her group and other rescuers routinely do "death row walks" at the main facility, wonder how they will have access to pets at Brooks City Base. QueQue related plans for an updated web site set to roll out before Brooks City-Base opens, but Walls seemed skeptical that the classification system and photographs of animals picked up by ACS could replace experienced rescuers examining dogs in person. "We have no way of knowing what's going to go down," she said flatly over the weekend.
For an issue that many council members regard as a question of public safety, they seemed unruffled by Bachman's and Walls' assertions. District 2 Councilmember Ivy Taylor said in her opinion, it's more humane for ACS to pick up and potentially euthanize stray animals than it is for Solid Waste to pick up dead strays who couldn't fend for themselves.
If you're a concerned San Antonio citizen, wondering how we'll ever reach No Kill, here's some ways to get involved. First of all, build a dang fence for your outdoor-loving pooch. In an interview with San Antonio Area Foundation, Dr. McKieran estimated that many, if not most, animals picked up by ACS have owners that have simply allowed them to roam free. And for heaven's sake, get your pets spayed or neutered. Dr. McKieran estimated that San Antonio needs to be performing 100,000 spays and neuters a year to get ahead of the pet reproduction population (Bachman places that number more at 120,000-150,000). Right now vets and low-cost spay/neuter clinics complete about 60,000 annually. Look into trap, neuter and release program led by the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition for stray kitties, and if you're extremely kind-hearted, become an ACS Guardian Angel, providing a temporary shelter for adoptable animals that make it past the 72 hour mark yet still can't find a home or appropriate rescue program. To become more involved in ACS, check out their web site or attend Wednesday's advisory board meeting, where ACS will present their recommendations for revisions to the Chapter 5 ordinances that govern the city's approach to animals.
Every incipient strongman needs a crisis, and newly elected Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Dan Ramos walked into a ready-made SNAFU when he was sworn in May 4: The disappearance last fall of at least a quarter-million in 2008 primary-election funds owed the County. His response to the economic and political fallout has been to take the reins, rules be damned.
Last Tuesday’s confab should have doubled as a County Executive Committee meeting, where Executive Council members and a new secretary could be appointed. But Ramos abruptly adjourned the meeting with an ayes-only vote, and encouraged everyone to head to the Cadillac Bar, where gubernatorial candidate Bill White was expected. Longtime Party member and Precinct Chair Ian Straus said written notice of the meeting was not sent to members, so you could make an argument that it wasn’t an official gathering, but the Executive Council appointments had been on Ramos’s agenda. “When people pointed that out, he said he’d hold another meeting another time,” Straus said. The CEC has already voted to hold a meeting the first Tuesday of June, but they rely on Ramos to set the location and send out the notice.
In the ensuing week, Ramos has informed the Budget and Finance Committee that he doesn’t recognize its authority, and told the QueQue that he’s looking into the status of the Executive Council, which recommends Budget and Finance Committee members to the CEC. “At this point, I don’t know how legal [the Executive Council] is,” Ramos said. “There’s some people that claim to be the Executive Council, but I don’t see any provisions for that in the rules of the party.”
The Banking & Finance Committee is one of the few party mechanisms that exercises direct control over the Chair’s actions, by setting a budget that he’s required to follow. Committee members D’Mitri Kosub and Chris Forbrich were particularly alarmed when Ramos removed the party’s Secretary and Treasurer from the operating account May 6, making him the only person with direct access to or knowledge of the party’s finances.
“Whether or not he’s living within the budget, we have no way of knowing,” Kosub said.
Ramos told the QueQue that due to the “relaxed policy of the Texas Democratic Party,” he is empowered to “recommend” individuals for more than 400 vacant precinct-chair seats. But other CEC members say Ramos has asserted that he can appoint them, and there has been back-and-forth between the Bexar County and state parties about the scope of Ramos’s authority. Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, confirmed that TDP’s political director sent an email May 6 to Ramos clarifying that the CEC is the only entity that can appoint precinct chairs to fill vacancies between elections.
Political consultant and organizer Gina Castańeda says Ramos is just a little rough around the edges, but that his priorities are in the right place. “We’re going to come back to our grassroots leaders, which are our precinct chairs,” she said. “They’re the heart of the party.” Ramos confirmed that Castańeda will be in charge of running the Party’s campaigns, which they plan to bring under one roof at their new far Southwest-side headquarters by cutting out the independent consultants -- whose MO, Castaneda says, is “How much can I make off the party?” -- and bringing the various Democratic clubs under its wing. “The Party was being actually torn to pieces,” Castańeda said.
In the wake of their successful runoff defeat of former Party Chair Carla Vela — who wasn’t deterred from a run at the County Clerk’s office by the scandal she left Ramos — several local clubs, including the Northwest Bexar Democrats, are working to run their own coordinated campaign for the upcoming general election. Chair Jacob Middleton says his club already has $50,000 in the bank for the election campaign, and is installing additional lines for phone-banking at their offices. They plan to campaign for candidates such as Congressman Ciro Rodriguez “as hard as we can.”
“The environment is not necessarily very favorable for Democrats,” he said, “so we need to work harder and smarter.”
Christian Archer, the man behind our two most recent mayors’ victory parades, is part of the coordinated-campaign movement. He says it’s too early to talk about long-term plans, but they do plan to raise money and share resources. “We’re just making sure it’s a coordinated effort and that every nickel spent is spent wisely,” he said.
County Judge Nelson Wolff was one of several Democratic elected officials who pledged last fall to raise money to replace the missing primary funds, but the offer was put on hold when Ramos unexpectedly beat longtime Henry Cisneros ally Choco Meza. Wolff says his concerns right now are GOTV for the general election, and making sure that the parties hold a joint primary next year. “Everything fell apart after Choco lost,” Wolff said. “There’s no confidence there now.”
But Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, who donated $8,000 under interim Chair Roberto Flores to retire some of the Party’s outstanding debt (including a five-figure judgment for back-due rent), is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Ramos has been in office a mere week, he said. “Not only that, you’re inheriting quite a mess.” He said he expects Ramos to call a meeting soon with elected officials and other interested individuals to report on the Party’s financial status and his get-out-the-vote strategy.
The financial picture at the moment is not so bright. The Party’s project budget through June shows an almost $10,000 shortfall, and interim Chair Flores submitted a final bill for that 2008 primary to the state in late April. That total is $376,844, 25 percent of which will be covered by the state. The County will bill the Party for the remainder. “Anecdotally we know the money’s missing,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said, “but we haven’t sent them a bill yet.” (Flores and Cheryl Novak “should be commended,” she added. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”)
And if the Party can’t pay? By law, Callanen can’t refuse to hold a primary, even for a deadbeat party, and the Bexar Dems wouldn’t be alone in their overdue status. Since the post Bush v. Gore electronic-voting mandate, she said, counties have become the go-to shop for primaries, but the money still flows through the parties. “I do know just from going to conferences, that larger counties are often left holding the bag,” she said. “Counties are not statutorily allowed to lend money, but that’s in essence what’s happening.”
On the way to becoming the largest offshore disaster in history, the BP Deepwater spill has all eyes on the Gulf as the first globs of oil have begun to wash ashore. Public calls for an offshore drilling moratorium have not only gone unanswered, federal regulators have continued to dish out dozens of environmental waivers to offshore drilling companies.
While an estimated 210,000 gallons of toxic crude now spill into the host waters of the nation’s most prolific fishery each day, the well-televised horror known as BP's Deepwater is not the end of our petro problems. Every year on our northern flank an estimated billion gallons of liquid wastes leak out of containment ponds across the Canadian tar sands.
Now the product of that nightmare is headed to Texas.
In what would be one of the North America’s largest pipeline networks, TransCanada's proposed 36-inch Keystone pipeline is expected to cross the U.S. Midwest atop the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer and 91 streams on the way to Port Arthur and Houston.
Creating liquid fuels from the tar sands involves massive strip mining operations. It takes the removal of four tons of sand and overlaying rock to produce each barrel of oil. Each barrel of crude further requires massive amounts of natural gas and water to separate the bitumen, a process that emits up to four times the amount of greenhouse gases of more traditional oil extraction processes.
Assuming the gathering complaints of cancer clusters and territorial lawsuits by indigenous groups don’t slow the Keystone, Texans should be watching the pipeline, which could enter the state early next year.
“They have applied that they would use thinner pipe than standard and operate the pipe under a higher pressure than standard,” said Kate Colarulli, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels program. “The pipeline and how the pipeline is built is very concerning, and I think it’s very important particularly for those landowners. But from my perspective what’s even more concerning is what’s in those pipelines.”
After the heavy bitumen is mixed down into synthetic crude for transport, the product remains far heavier and dirtier (ie. more heavy metals, more sulfur, more nitrogen oxide) than typical crude oil. “A leakage from this, from tar sands, is going to have a bigger impact than leakage from regular oil,” Colarulli said.
Texans know something about busted pipes. Since January 1, 2009, roughly 253,000 gallons of crude oil have been spilled across the state in five separate events reported to the National Response Center.
“It’s sort of flying under the radar right now, sort of one of those unreported environmental problems,” Colarulli said. And yet four public meetings are being held from Beaumont to Tyler this month, starting on the May 17.
Want to see where the pipeline would go?
Wondering where to speak your mind, according to the Federal Register:
There were big shifts at the Wild Animal Orphanage last weekend, but will it help the beleaguered animal sanctuary move in the right direction? We reported on the hot mess that was the Wild Animal Orphanage last fall,
when founding couple Ron and Carol Asvestas were ousted by their own
daughter, Nicole Asvestas Garcia, following a laundry list of animal
deaths that some (including Garcia) alleged were suspicious. The board
then elected Garcia, 28, as Chief Executive Officer based on her
previous full-time employment at WAO.
"It was a big risk," said board member Michelle Cryer, "that was temporary, pending every 30 days."
Late last week, Garcia was notified via email that she was fired by the board, though at the time she was also one of its three members, along with Sumner Matthes and Cryer, both longtime board members. Jamie Cryer, Michelle's husband and an experienced animal rescuer, was named acting director. He proudly affirms that he literally "changed the locks on her," in order to protect office documents and equipment.
But Garcia wasn't the only one to go. The board, which filled Garcia's spot with Matthes' wife Elise, axed nine of the 17 employees, mainly office staff. "I didn’t know anything about it, I was surprised," said Charlie Shamlin, the head of maintenance hired by Garcia last October, who was let go last weekend. "I knew there was some grumbling, but that’s everywhere," he said.
While showing us the Leslie Road tour facility "to [prove] the animals are still being cared for," Cryer said he would keep one maintenance staff person and intended to help with maintenance himself. However, Shamlin told us maintenance, which also addresses any requests from USDA inspectors, was a busy full-time job for him. "I had more work than I could do."
The abrupt terminations were in response to the dire financial straits in which WAO now finds itself. According to Cryer, WAO is at least $100,000 in the hole. Former board member Kristina Brunner puts that figure closer to $150,000. Michelle Cryer claims as a board member she never received any financial information from Garcia, and when she and her husband finally saw the books, they discovered much of the budget went to payroll instead of animal care for the more than 700 rescued wild animals on two sites in Northwest San Antonio. Just standing in the WAO offices on Thursday, we heard the fall-out of a bloated staff. "Who is she?" someone wondered looking at a staff sheet. "She was a Nicole hire. She came here after her day job. I think she worked in the gift shop?" someone else answered.
"They were doing things backwards," said Cryer, "people came first and animals second." Cryer plans to put the savings from the firings toward animal food, at least a $15,000 per month expense.
Jenny Spellman, an animal care specialist at WAO, says the animals currently get red meat every other day, supplemented with chicken for big cats and dog food for wolves and bears. The several primates get "monkey chow" with as much produce as WAO can provide. She hopes additional money will go toward "enrichment" activities for the animals currently kept in modest wire enclosures and additional pools to keep animals cool in summer.
The new board retained the existing animal care staff and veterinarian, Dr. Ariana Finkelstein. Spellman, for one, agrees with the staff change, "it's going to make our jobs a lot easier, they're getting things handled in a lot more efficient ways." Garcia thinks the board will be in for a surprise when they try to divide the work of nine employees among the Cryers and the Mattheses, who live in Florida. The WAO mailing list goes out to aproximately 20,000 people and is a primary tool for fundraising the organization's $1 million-plus income, in addition to events, tours and the constant maintenance needed to keep up the animal enclosures and habitats. The Cryers say that several thousand dollars from donors have come in during the past week alone. "We tried just a little bit," said Cryer. "The people before us, they didn't try at all."
That phrase, "people before us," or "prior management" (as Garcia refers to her parents) is a phrase heard frequently at Wild Animal Orphanage. Both Garcia and the Cryers agree that the Asvestas put their sanctuary in a troubling financial position that isn't easily remedied. Garcia said she was working on fundraising events but, "We were so far behind from prior management and things hitting us that we didn’t know about." Those things included an unpaid payroll tax and USDA-required maintenance including tree removal and a new perimeter fence. Cryer bluntly says the Asvestes "thieved everything you could think of out of here."
Self-described as retired, Cryer, 39, says he'll work for free as acting director on a temporary basis until "we get past the shitstorm." Garcia isn't so sure the board will be able to turn things around. Both Matthes and Cryer were board members during the Asvestes' tricky reign, and both Garcia and former board member Kristina Brunner find the Cryers' participation in WAO troubling. Garcia had at least one angry run-in with Cryer when he worked as an animal transporter for WAO. The Current received a forwarded email from a SMatthes account to Nicole and two other WAO stakeholders dated Oct. 30, 2009, recommending that Cryer be fired as a WAO volunteer and that, "it is time to ask Michelle Cryer to resign from the BOD and stop any further association with the WAO. It is obvious that she is not willing to work with us on our reorganization and change," said the e-mail.
In a phone conversation with the Current a few days later, Matthes said "I have heard nothing but positive things on Nicole since she’s taking over the operation as CEO. I have been in touch with her on a daily basis to determine if there are any real problems." The Matthes could not be reached for comment, but, assuming the email is valid, we're interested to see what changed their minds. The accusations levied against Garcia and her response are eerily reminiscent to those reported just six months ago when it was the Asvestases on the chopping block. Her biggest beef is that two-person board meeting could not have had a quorum to fire her, exactly the same argument her mother used when claiming only three board members moved to remove her and her husband. In her last email to the board, sent just two hours before she received notice that she was fired as CEO, Garcia wrote "you may recall last year we all had a long discussion that family members should not hold board positions at the same time because of the conflict of interest and appearance which was apparent under prior management."
For now, the Cryers are pleased with a recent (as in last week) USDA inspection and plan to implement a financial plan. Meanwhile, Garcia says "I’m going to be starting a new life and watching the animals from the outside."
This month, a looming billboard message courtesy of PETA confronts visitors to SeaWorld and San
Antonians commuting nearby. The signage near Loop 410 and Old Pearsall
Road asserts "Whales and Dolphins Want Out: Don't support captive animal
shows." That's roughly the same message that four experts (three
scientists and one preservation society head) urged congress to consider
during last week's subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife
Oversight hearing entitled "Marine Mammals in Captivity: What Constitutes Meaningful Public Education?"
Last month, Jeffrey Wright wrote a probing cover story on the ethics of displaying marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins and orca whales for an adoring public. Prompted by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during an orca show at SeaWorld's Orlando facility, Wright questioned the quality of the public education that SeaWorld has maintained is one of its core missions, and the theme park's legal reason for holding and breeding once-wild species for captivity. This captivity results not only in trainers' deaths (there have been three other such fatalities), but, as Wright documents, the deaths of dozens of whales and dolphins due to host of nasty illnesses.
Madeleine Z. Bordallo, chairwoman of the subcommittee hearing and delegate from Guam, also noted Brancheau's horrific drowning in her opening statements and stated "despite what many people may think, orcas, dolphins and seals are wild and potentially dangerous animals. These factors must be considered when developing the standards to evaluate and guide the implementation of education and conservation programs at public display facilities." Bordallo also seemed frustrated that the 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act required organizations taking in marine mammals for public display to have a public education or conservation mission and yet, "the [regulating] Agency apparently has no process for ongoing evaluation of education and conservation programs at public display facilities to ensure that they are meeting the professional standards that the industry has established."
The hearing was evenly split between witness testimony from advocates for SeaWorld-style education, including the Association of Zoo and Aquaria's senior vice president of conservation and education, Paul Boyle, and the previously mentioned experts, including Humane Society Internationals Naomi Rose, a specialist in killer whale biology, and Louie Psihoyos, the Executive Director of Oceanic Preservation Society and director of The Cove (Wright interviewed both Rose and a representative from OPS). The subcommittee also seemed split between members who introduced themselves with a variation of "there's an [aquarium, animal theme park, etc...] in my district and my young children just love it!" and the more skeptical members like Ms. Bordallo and Dale Killdee of Michigan, who bluntly asked, "what are the reasons for captivity of marine animals?" According to the pro- side (which downplayed the obvious MASSIVE PROFITS argument), the informal exposure to these marine animals help Joe Public realize the value in conserving oceanic environments, animals held in captivity are "safer" in that they won't have a run-in with a Bumblebee Tuna boat, and their performing shows help fund scientific research and conservation efforts that ultimately benefit marine mammals the world over. According to the con- side, there's no definitive evidence SeaWorld visitors learn anything meaningful while watching marine animals perform, their performances have little relationship to their natural behavior ("Never once have I seen a dolphin...moonwalk," in the wild testified Psihoyos.), and any of the educational benefit must be weighed against conclusive evidence that animals in captivity often die well before their natural longevity.
Should congress decide to change anything based on these hearings, they may require the National Marine and Fisheries Service, the agency tasked with issuing permits allowing public display facilities to house marine mammals, to regulate more thoroughly the educational aspect of locations like SeaWorld. Or they could change the law which allows captive marine mammals to be counted under the Animal Welfare Act, an adjustment that occurred in 1994, and pass a more strict law.
"Just the fact that the hearing was held..was a very big deal," said Rose by phone yesterday. "I can assure you SeaWorld did not want to hold it. In the past, anything that's happened in Congress has happened at the instigation of the public display industry... This is the first time that this was not true." Also reached by phone yesterday, Psihoyos added, "it seemed like everybody was pro-captivity at the beginning. I think by the end of the three hour hearing, they had come around at least to entertaining our point of view."
How much fun can you have with a head of (locally grown) cabbage, right? Makes more sense if you've read (or only grazed) this week's cover story.
Dang! We were looking
forward to seeing State
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and State Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)
on CNN this
morning, just as we had looked forward to it yesterday and the day
before, but we were notified minutes after their scheduled appearance on
Harris that it wasn't happening, again.
The two were set to debate immigration, a discussion presumably prompted by Riddle's public pondering of an Arizona-like bill for Texas, and we're sad to have missed what would surely have been a lively debate. Martinez Fischer chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and most recently made the QueQue for presiding over MALC's hearings on the State Board of Education last week. Riddle is a past president of the Texas Tea Party of Republican Women and frequently speaks at Tea Party events. She's proud of her quotable, non-PC nature, like this recent soundbyte reported by Julian Aguilar at the Texas Tribune:
"According to Riddle, Arizona-styled immigration in Texas could be a tough sell because 'when you have people that are used to entitlements, then they like the entitlements and they want the entitlements to keep coming.'"
Unfortunately, after being re-scheduled twice, a Riddle spokesperson said her own straight talk express hit a scheduling snafu, as after tentatively confirming for today, Riddle remembered she had a morning meeting. According to Riddle spokesperson Jon English, "I think we're always open to having a debate...we've been getting a lot of calls for a lot of appearances and we try to accommodate as many as we can."
We weren't the only ones disappointed. "I felt like I had been stood up at the prom," said Martinez Fischer in a statement, who no doubt had some choice words for his opponent. For some reason, though Riddle's office claims they contacted CNN with the schedule conflict yesterday, Martinez Fischer was notified only after he had driven to Austin and been mic'd and made-up for CNN, about ten minutes prior to this morning's scheduled air time, said his spokesperson, Christina Gomez.
After the reconciliation of squabbling nuke-power partners NRG Energy and City-owned CPS Energy in mid-February, the utilities agreed to part ways ― to a degree.
By cutting its share from 40 percent to 7 percent, San Antonio was able to stop the million-per-day payments into the planned construction of two new reactors in Matagorda County. The spoonful of sugar NRG swallowed accepting the deal included an offer by Mayor Julián Castro to use his position to actively lobby on the project's behalf.
For his part, Castro has kept his word, but hasn't broken his back laboring under any promotional placards.
An open records request made by the Current shows that Castro included an hour-long meeting with Jonathan Silver, executive director of the loan guarantee program at the U.S. Department of Energy, in his February trip to Washington, D.C, during which he met President Obama and the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. The Silver sit down was secured by CPS Energy staff days after the NRG-CPS settlement announced on February 17.
In discussion points for the meeting (lifted from an email from a CPS employee to the mayor's chief of staff on February 19), we read:
A public hearing near the site of what could become a national (if not international) nuclear waste dump in West Texas has been canceled by the still-unfunded Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission. The cancellation came after the agency was overwhelmed with comments on a proposal to start laying out the terms to open the current Texas-Vermont disposal agreement to waste generators beyond the two states.
Those comments ― mostly against the agency's plans ― have included an urging to delay action from consultants to the Vermont Legislature. Texas has agreed to accept the New England state's low-level waste from its lone (leaking) nuclear plant, but any agreements outside that arrangement must be made on a case-by-case basis and pass a majority vote of the TLLRWCC Comissioners.
Yesterday, 15 Texas lawmakers delivered a scolding rebuke to the agency, stating that the agency had failed to consider the economic impact on the state should the privately operated Waste Control Specialists site leak ― leaving the liability (and cost) of clean-up to the state. The legislators also voiced concern about transporting wastes that remain “lethal for tens of thousands of years” by rail and truck across the state.
In summarizing their viewpoint, the lawmakers, which include San Antonio Representative Mike Villarreal, state:
We just posted on the Mexican American Legislative Caucus hearing
regarding the State Board of Education last week. Sitting through a
grueling nine hours straight of testimony, it seemed almost everyone
(with the exception of one late-comer) had their say. But not to the
state GOP's ears. Last Thursday they issued a press release belittling a
process they said "had no legal power," in which "the usual assortment
of leftwing [sic] interest groups...got their moment in the sun to talk
up leftwing anti-SBOE talking points." Yes, you Republican-appointed
academic, you are a leftwinger. Yes, you Republican SBOE candidate, you are a
leftwinger. Yes, Amy Jo Baker, retired San Antonio ISD teacher who
defended outgoing Republican SBOE former Chairman Don McLeroy's
preference to teach American Exceptionalism, you, dear, are a
leftwinger. We, unlike the Texas GOP, won't speculate on the 20 or so
other speakers' political affiliations.
MALC acknowledges that currently its make-up is 100% Democrat, however that's
definitely due to the fact that there simply aren't any Republican and
Mexican-American state representatives currently elected in the
state of Texas. According to MALC director of operations Christina
Gomez, her organization asked SBOE chairwoman Gail Lowe, a conservative
Republican, twice to attend the hearings. In its press release, the
Texas GOP said they "badgered her."
The rest of their press release is rather catty, characterizing the hearing, also sponsored by the Legislative Study Group, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and the Senate Hispanic Caucus, as "pretend," and "a dress-up party," but the part that caught our attention was the Texas GOP's assertion that MALC had no right to hold their hearing at the state Capitol and party spokesperson Bryan Preston's allegation that "it may be an unethical and illegal use of state resources." Whoa, really? According to Gomez, "MALC is an official legislative policy caucus and as such has all the rights and privleges as any other legislative caucus." She said as long as her boss, MALC Chairman and State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer*, has been at the caucus, they've frequently held interim hearings. We're calling the Texas Ethics Commission first thing tomorrow, but they generally don't speak on these issues unless a formal complaint has been filed and they've issued an opinion.
UPDATE: An attorney at Texas Ethics Commission told us that their rules don't specifically govern this type of legislative caucus activity. We turned to the House Rules of the 81st Legislative Session. In HR 3 Article 6, section 6.02, subsection C it states "A caucus may use the meeting rooms of the Capitol and Capitol extension to conduct meetings of the caucus membership or to host public forums on matters of interest to the caucus."
* Maybe you saw him on CNN debating Senator Debbie Riddle about immigration earlier today? Maybe you didn't. Due to the Times Square bomb story, Martinez Fischer's debate about immigration with State Rep. Debbie Riddle has been postponed until Weds. May 5, at 10:45 a.m., barring any terrorist acts, oil rig explosions, Sandra Bullock baby sightings or Ke$ha/The Simpsons collaborations.
Here's the full text of the Republican Party of Texas press release, followed by MALC's response:
Apr 29, 2010
How Much Did MALC`s Pretend Hearings Cost Texas Taxpayers?
AUSTIN - The Mexican American Legislative Caucus held what it described as a "Special Hearing on State Board of Education" all day Wednesday, April 28. This "hearing" had no legal power, as the MALC has no legal standing to conduct hearings. MALC is not a state House or Senate Committee. It is a political caucus.
MALC tried to badger State Board of Education Chairman Gail Low into attending the spectacle, even though as a political caucus, MALC has no power to hold hearings whatsoever.
During MALC's all-day hearing, politics repeatedly dominated. The "hearing" featured a grandstanding political speech by Michael Soto, the Democratic Party's nominee for SBOE Place 3. The usual assortment of leftwing interest groups, from the Texas Freedom Network to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), got their moment in the sun to talk up leftwing anti-SBOE talking points.
It became clear that MALC's liberal agenda is to abolish the elected State Board of Education, and replace it with unelected bureaucrats. The Texas Democrats evidently agree with that agenda, since they have been cheerleading MALC's dress-up party from the sidelines.
And at least one state employee was used throughout the day in the "hearing" itself.
"If MALC wants to get in touch with their inner children, play dress up and have a pretend committee hearing, I'm sure they can rent a community center somewhere and have themselves a ball," said Republican Party of Texas spokesman Bryan Preston. "But holding a blatantly political pep rally on the Texas taxpayer's dime may be a little more serious. It may be an unethical and illegal use of state resources."
At issue is whether MALC's pretend hearings run afoul of HR3 from the 81st legislative session, which the members themselves set forth and governs how political caucus groups can and cannot use state resources.
1. Why is MALC - which accepts donations from nonmembers and special interest groups - holding a mock hearing in the state capitol?
2. Why did they use state staffers?
3. Were other state resources and personnel used to facilitate their pretend hearing in any way?
4. Did any of the state Representatives who attended claim per diem for April 28th, 2010?
5. What is MALC's agenda, and why was its pretend hearing so politically one-sided?
6. Why did a hearing supposedly about education standards veer off into irrelevant topics like the controversial Arizona immigration law? And why were Democrat SBOE candidates allowed to give stump speeches and bash our state's elected SBOE?
Contact: Christina Gomez, Director of Operations
Wrong-Wing of the Texas GOP misses the mark on the
Once again, the extreme right-wing faction of the Republican
Party fails to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the
State Board of Education. Rather than be part of the solution, the GOP has
decided to hurl baseless insults aimed at distracting Texans from the
real problems facing the SBOE.
We were among the many reporters and stakeholders packed into a small hearing room at the state Capitol last Wednesday to hear testimony on the State Board of Education from a host of witnesses before the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. While the nation scoffs at our great state as a whole for allowing our SBOE to become a stomping ground (con dinosaurs!) of ideologues, we in San Antonio can at least say, 'hey, we tried.'
San Antonio-based state representatives Trey Martinez Fischer (MALC chair), David Leibowitz and Ruth Jones McClendon all attended, and San Antonio academics, activists, advocates, and teachers occupied 12 of the 28 testimony slots, during the nine hours-long hearing partially proposed as a reaction to the SBOE ending public testimony before many of these same stakeholders had a chance to speak before them.
Many of the speakers, like LULAC president Rosa Rosales, came to vent about the treatment minorities received in the social studies standards now being slated for official recommendation in May. In the ideological rope-pull that passes for crafting educational standards during SBOE meetings, several media outlets shocked the nation by reporting the Board passed amendments removing Thomas Jefferson from a list of enlightenment thinkers, amping up the importance of the Conservative movement, and most egregiously to us here, removing Tejano Alamo defenders. "Now, we're here in 2010 and we're still fighting for inclusion," mourned Rosales. Later in the hearings, Manuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the Mexican American School Board Association, choked up when recalling the only Hispanic heroes he learned about in school were Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and feared, like Rosales, that the standards rolled back decades of equality.
However, other testimonies, including that of Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott, challenged the notion that the conservative bloc of seven on the 15-member board actively whitewashed history. Commissioner Scott noted that Jefferson had never been included in the Enlightenment thinker section of Texasďż˝ social studies standards, and was included elsewhere in the standards. He noted most states "even Virginia, home of Monticello" didn't put Jefferson on this list.
The SBOE's true crime according to many professors and teachers isn't in the deletions, but the additions. In fact, many deletions corrected repetition in the bloated standards. Currently, the proposed revisions for high school social studies fill 77 pages, complete with strike-throughs marked for deletion. Dr. Francisco de la Teja, a Texas State professor who served as an expert reviewer for the social studies, warned of "the impossibly large set of standards," that could cause even more teaching to the test as these standards dictate not only what must be in the textbook, but also on the state's standardized tests. Many of these standards come not at the behest of the expert panels, and we use 'expert' very lightly, but as amendments submitted after the panels' conclusion. We wrote last week of one such amendment, discovered by Democratic SBOE District 3 (that's us) candidate Michael Soto, written by former SBOE chairman Don McLeroy, who lifted it from a UCLA graduate student and (shudder) wikipedia.org. Meanwhile, a number of professional educators complained they felt their input was ignored.
To the more than 23 members present at the MALC hearing, (all Democrats right now, but, ostensibly a bi-partisan caucus), the amendment process smacked of the arrogance they heard testimony on all day long. And if there's one thing legislators can't stand, it's anyone but themselves acting like know-it-alls. "This process needs fixing, bud," State Rep. Leibowitz advised Commissioner Scott, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
Particularly annoying to the lawmakers was the lack of a single SBOE member present to explain their actions. The Eastside's Ruth Jones McClendon attended hearings long enough to ask Commissioner Scott for the whereabouts of SBOE chairwoman Gail Lowe, a member of the conservative bloc. "Many of my questions should be directed to her," she said. "Because this is so important to the people of Texas, maybe she's in the audience somewhere?" asked McLendon, elegantly arching an eyebrow. No dice.
After the hearings, we spoke with Martinez Fischer, who admitted MALC's attention to the SBOE came initially, "because we were fearful of the Latino representation...once we were there we were very surprised to learn a little of the process," which was described by one witness as "flying by the seat of their pants."
Though the legislature will not convene until January, Martinez Fischer sounded confident of change once SBOE elections occur (we heard from candidates Soto and a sensible, apparently moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, both with strong odds to win in November). Even if the new board decides not to override the textbooks, he believes with enough MALC members, fellow Democrats and fiscally-conservative GOP legislators he can build a consensus strong enough to challenge the SBOE's investment of $800 million (of tax-payer dollars) in textbooks, and restraining the Board to an oversight-only position. "We never intended politicians to write curriculum," said Martinez Fischer.
The Alamo Colleges trustees’ debate was an evening of contrasts. Last Wednesday brought together all but one of the candidates running for two positions on the Board of Trustees. The usual suspects were represented—a former city councilman, a professor, a lawyer—but an uninformed onlooker might have been surprised to see two faces amongst them almost untouched by age. David Alan Rodriquez and Tyler Ingraham are students running for ACCD’s Board of Trustees, a novelty in San Antonio.
An audience member summed up the disconnect when she asked Tyler Ingraham what assets or liabilities his age brought to his candidacy. “Well, it’s a liability for myself,” he joked. “I almost killed myself shaving this morning.”
When I asked him a similar question, he responded like this: “[If I were elected], I’d be the only person who’d been to a community college in the last 25 years… There’s plenty of other perspectives already represented on the board. There’s people who are professors, who are administrators, local business owners, secondary school teachers.” But no students. Unlike some college systems, ACCD has never had a student on the board (the University of Texas system, for example, reserves a spot for a student on its equivalent Board of Regents, as does the Texas A&M system).
Tyler hopes to change that. Tyler Ingraham is 22, a political science major at St. Mary’s University and a transfer student from San Antonio College. His mother is a high school teacher, and he cites her upbringing as a strong influence on his decision to run. But the real catalyst came when his friend and campaign manager Rob Pohl wrote an article on the district for the Current (an article that can be found here).
“So he did all this research,” Ingraham explained, “and we talked about it, and he kept sending me stuff, and it just became apparent that there were severe issues here.” Issues like the vote of no confidence in Dr. Leslie, current Chancellor of the Board who courted controversy last year when he attempted to move the board to a single accreditation scheme. There’s also the little issue of money: The state recently cut the community college budget by 5%.
Ingraham isn’t alone in his concern for the school’s future. He is one of four candidates running for the District 1 seat, and his competition is steep. Joe Alderete, former city councilman and seasoned politician, is the most well-known face in the election. He’s joined by Thomas Hoy, a former SAC administrator, and Rowland Martin, an adjunct professor at SAC. The combined experience of Ingraham’s opposition is likely greater than Ingraham’s age, but he’s not concerned by that. “A senator, or a representative, is not considered successful ‘cause they’re a poly math and a genius and they’ve got it all figured out. They’re considered successful because they listen well.”
On the other end of the stage sat David Rodriquez, a man of passion, his responses in the debate characterized by speed and energy. He’s somewhat unconventional; at one point in the debate he flustered the timekeeper by going back and elaborating on a previous answer. Rodriquez is 31, also a political science major, currently studying at SAC. His decision to run was, in a large part, due to a certain frustration he felt at current board policies. “I actually went to the current board and spoke. I just felt there was [sic] too many questions but not enough answers. And when you go to people, either people don’t know or that’s just how it is and they try to shut you up with that. So I felt, do what everybody says, get out there and make a difference.”
Rodriquez places a large emphasis on interpersonal interaction, both in his vision for the board—“I think they could be more communicative and more aggressive as to hearing what the comments, concerns and questions are”—and in his campaign strategy. Working with a very low budget, David has reached out to the community for support. “It’s not just asking for your vote… I want to give my voters a chance to know me. I even put my personal phone number [on youtube], so they can call me with their comments, questions, and concerns. So you know when you go to that poll, you want to vote for David Rodriquez—that’s absolutely your head choice.”
Although currently working as a DJ to pay his way through school (call him DJ Caliente on weekends), he has 12 years of experience in retail, an experience that shapes the way he conceptualizes his potential role as a trustee. “When you’re a manager,” he said, “you’re the middleman. You’re taking a lot from all angles. You’ve got to get in there and get results.” Being a trustee, he explained to me, is similar; you have to balance needs of students, faculty, and staff with the desires of the community-at-large and the demands of the state. Create effective means of communication between these different interests, he says, and you’re one step closer to creating an effective institution. “And I think that’s when you’ll start to see those low numbers turn into positive high ones. And we can show Texas that we need those five million dollars back, and even more.”
The District 7 position is currently held by Blakely Latham Fernandez, a lawyer who’s running for reelection as an incumbent. Fernandez herself has only held the job for six months, taking over after her predecessor Charles Connor retired. David may have his work cut out for him. After meeting with Fernandez, Richard Knight, treasurer for Tyler’s campaign, dropped out of the District 7 race and gave her his endorsement. When asked about Fernandez, Rodriquez focused on his identity as a normal citizen and a student. “Nothing against my opponent, I think she’s awesome, but I think she’s corporate. And a school system isn’t corporate. It isn’t a luxury business. It’s an institution of higher learning.”
The third candidate in the District 7 race is David A. Whitley, who missed the debate, he told me, due to an unfortunate bout of the flu. Whitley is also a student, going to SAC for a general liberal arts degree, but his perspective is slightly different than the other two student voices in this election. 38 years old, Whitley is the manager of San Antonio Air Conditioning, a job he’s done for 13 years. “I think the combination of my business skills—budgeting skills, things that go into the board—and my love for education and being [sic] presently apart of the system is a good fit,” he said, explaining why he chose to run.
“I mean, it’s basically a business,” Whitley said about the community college system, a theme he would hit on more than once during the interview. “We have to take in revenue. We have to make more than we spend. And the larger surplus we have the better job we can do.” In keeping with his status as a nontraditional student, he emphasized their centrality to the future of ACCD: “I think that it’s important to embrace the fact that there are a lot of students past that normal age. They have children, they have full time jobs. Working on accommodating those people, and marketing to those people… I think that’s the backbone of raising our revenue and giving us more money in the budget to do things we want to do”
Whitley is unique among the three student candidates as the only one who supports single accreditation. “If we could eliminate some of the administrative costs by bringing it together as one unit, centralizing that administrative cost, perhaps we could then, if not lower tuition, at least keep it where it is,” he said.
Like Rodriquez, Whitley counted his status as a student as the greatest advantage he has over Fernandez. There’s a tendency to lose perspective the higher up in the ladder you go, he pointed out. “I would imagine, the higher up you get in the education system, the more removed you are from the interpersonal actions between students and teachers, and you lose sight of it.”
No one can deny that ACCD is facing a myriad of challenges—a declining number of full-time professors, a low graduation rate, and an ever-tightening budget that has led to consistent tuition increases. Being a student is challenging and finding time amongst classes and studying to be involved is even harder, but all three student candidates seek to find a balance between their dual roles as student and citizen. “No one’s going to fix our problems for us,” Ingraham said in our interview. “And so, the earlier all of us pull our heads out of our asses the better. We need to be engaged, we need to be out there, we need to be taking part in political life.”
The elections for Districts 1 and 7 will be held on May 8th. For more information on Ingraham, Rodriquez, and Whitley, visit www.runtylerrun.com , www.youtube.com/trustd7 , and tinyurl.com/248tnff , respectively. See http://www.bexar.org/elections/20100508EVMap.pdf for voting locations.
Early last week, in the latest chapter of what is
becoming a sprawling San Antonio epic, we visited New Orleans to see
how the International Women's Day March and Coalition would fare
against the City of San Antonio in their fight to the death over the repeal of parade
ordinance fees, an argument taken up last Tuesday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, headquartered in the Big Easy.
These pivotal discussions, acted out live in a 40 minute oral argument in front of a three judge panel, sought to determine whether to remand back to district court the lawsuit alleging the City violated San Antonians' First and 14th amendment rights by charging would-be parade holders for the use of public streets. To the plaintiffs, the argument is a Dickensian classic about the rich and powerful maneuvering the levers of government at the expense of the poor and weak. To the defendants, it's an unsubstantiated yarn meant to further the unrealistic goal of allowing unfettered parading and demonstrating on the City's strained tab. Either way, don't be surprised if there's a few more pages left before the conclusion.
The International Women's Day and Coalition supporters arrived in New Orleans the Sunday prior to oral arguments via a cushy charter bus, ostensibly to drum up community support for their plight. That wasn't too difficult since among the wounds plaguing post-Katrina New Orleans was a surprising leap in "escort fees" charged by New Orleans Police Department to that city's beloved Second Line processions. Between 2005 and 2006, the police presence fees assessed to these public parades shot up from $1,200 to $3,790, claimed the ultimately successful ACLU lawsuit brought against the City of New Orleans in late 2006. Three years ago, almost to the day of this oral argument, a federal judge found in favor of the ACLU, and reduced the fee to just above its 2005 level. "That's a parallel," said Wendy O'Neill, a New Orleans resident and social justice activist with the Safe Streets, Strong Communities. O'Neill's organization and several others joined with the International Women's Day March for a community talk and press conference.
With that morale boost, attorney Amy Kastely, a St. Mary's University Law professor recruited by the plaintiffs, made her first presentation before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Devoted court watchers noted that the plaintiffs scored a coup with Clinton-appointee Judge Fortunato Benavides leading the panel, who has previously opined in favor of the little guy in well-known cases Texas Democratic Party v. Benkiser and Burdine v. Johnson. Indeed, the Hidalgo County native further excited the plaintiffs, represented not only by Kastely but also at least 25 well-wishers from San Antonio and New Orleans in the audience, by honing in on one of their least favorite characters, Judge Fred Biery. As close readers will remember, San Antonio district judge Biery dissolved the preliminary injunction halting the City's ordinance and new fees, originally put in place by Judge Xavier Rodriguez, who later recused himself. Biery also granted the City's motion for summary judgment, effectively throwing out the International Women's Day March's lawsuit. On March 31, 2009, Biery wrote of the preliminary injunction, "the Court has thoroughly reviewed the record before it and finds the constitutional defects that lead to the issuance of the preliminary injunction in this case no longer exist," on the basis that the City had amended its original parade ordinance to attempt to check the discretion given to the San Antonio Police Department regarding how much to charge parade and demonstration organizers for traffic control and clean-up costs. On June 30, 2009, in a scant three pages, Biery dismissed the lawsuit entirely, with a jaunty "plaintiffs are advised to apply for permits early in order to avoid last minute egg beater pleadings." In both, he referred extensively to Rodriguez's initial grant of the injunction and the City's remedial efforts, but stopped short of addressing the original complaint.
Were Biery's orders conclusive enough to drop the Free Speech issues at hand? That's what Benavides wondered: "We don’t have an opinion from the district judge," said Benavides, baffled. "We have kind of an interesting order where [Biery] grants the summary judgment based on the arguments that were presented before him. Does that mean that he’s found all the arguments that the city made persuasive?" A summary judgment can only be issued if the judge determines there is no "genuine issue of material fact," according to the federal rules of civil procedure. Benavides and his fellow panel judges, Leslie Southwick, appointed by George W. Bush, and Carl Stewart, another of the three Clinton appointees to that court, seemed skeptical Biery's motion satisfied that requirement. "It might have been burdensome for both sides to defend or attack a judgment that I'm not too sure why it occurred," said Benavides before also pondering how one can use an order granting a preliminary injunction to justify a motion dissolving the injunction.
Should the case get remanded based on this procedural gripe alone, the City may find itself defending the government speech argument that has been its primary reasoning behind why waiving fees for popular events the Martin Luther King Day March, Dies y Seiz parade and Veteran's Day parade, but implementing them for most other "first amendment events," is not content-based discrimination. The City's argument, consistently and succinctly put forth by City attorney Deborah Klein, claims that a government entity can "engage in and support speech of its own without triggering a requirement to fund other speech." However, all three of the panel judges questioned the appropriateness of applying that reasoning to events which are only supported by the City insofar as it waives parade fees. "Those three events have cultural and historical significance to us, that is clearly governmet speech," said Klein. "It's a government-approved parade, but how is that actual speech?" asked Benavides, noting that generally government speech cases involve a measure of government control. "You may support the idea, but you're not controlling that message. You have a whole bunch of voices in that. You don't control the signs they can wave, there's not a common slogan that the City tells them how to do," Benavides said, with Southwick and Stewart echoing his line of questions.
That doesn't mean the writing is on the wall for the parade ordinance, however. When Benavides abruptly asked Klein, "Let's assume this court has a dim view of the government speech argument, how do you defend this case notwithstanding that?" Klein delivered her zinger: "there's no evidence of an event being barred." It's true, there's not a case of a group applying for a parade permit and being rejected, partially because the injunction motion to hold up the ordinance was filed just a day after the ordinance was crafted. Klein also maintains that the changes the injunction order originally recommended helped the City to develop a standard operating procedure encouraging the police department to work with event holders in getting their fees down to a manageable sum and refraining from invoicing an organizing group until after their event is held. After the oral arguments, responding to a question from a La Voz de Esperanza reporter, Klein even seemed to suggest there would be no punitive action if a parade ordinance fee was never paid. "A speech event can occur and not a dime be paid," Klein told the panel judges. Marisa Gonzalez, a longtime participant in the International Women's Day March, remained skeptical. First, she says, their marching route is chosen based on what they believe will be the most visible to pedestrians, so alternative, cheaper routes may not achieve that goal, as she claimed the alternatives presented to 2010's International Women's Day planning committee did not (they wanted to march the wrong way down a one-way street, requiring more police traffic control). Secondly, if it's not totally necessary to pay for a parade ordinance, why charge at all? "Putting a price on something, that essentially tells me that it is not free," she said.
At this point, QueQue can see both sides of the argument and expect to hear more of them, if not at district court, then through a Supreme Court appeal. Naturally, we dislike chilling effects, but what the First Amendment guarantees is speech that's free as in freedom, not free as in no-cost. Just think what would happen with the Second Amendment if the no-cost logic was applied.
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