BREAKING: Recall election, SWU, and racial tensions in Hondo
Tomorrow's election will determine fate of 'Real Change' candidates.
The small group of protesters grew to about 40 individuals as downtown
Hondo closed for the day. Demonstrators armed themselves with signs
reading “Vote No on the Recall”. They yelled, “Raza si, recall no."
Other chants included, “We won the election fair and square” and the
traditional Latin American slogan “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido”
(The people united will never be divided).
Several members at
the gathering months ago expressed anger over a recall election
threatening to unseat three Mexican-American city council members in
The group chanted outside city hall for
about 30 minutes until 6 p.m., when a meeting concerning the recall
commenced. Inside, the debate grew heated and tempers flared. Mainly
Mexican-American except for a few individuals, the citizens speaking
passionately defended the three council members targeted for recall.
Most of the citizens that spoke at the public meeting said they did not
understand the reasons for the recall.
have brothers who want to occupy the positions,” asserted Isabel Luna,
a longtime community activist. “By paying people with two or three
beers or a plate of barbecue, they’ve been able to buy signatures for
their recall petition,” she said.
“Gringos have always run this town. They’re used to running things,” said Maria Rodriguez, another protester.
Luna and other protesters recalled the Hondo walkout of 1974, when
Hispanic parents pulled their children out of school to protest unfair
treatment in a wave of allegations that included physical abuse and
singling out Hispanic children for excessive punishment.
one point, local attorney Clyde Haake confronted Hondo mayor Jim Danner
directly about the recall, asking him to explain the accusations in the
“As I recall, they were fairly generic,” said Danner.
“You should know, you signed it!” yelled an individual from the back of the room, and the meeting hall burst into laughter.
As the meeting wore on, the language become more barbed, and racial tension was clearly evident.
“Raza should stick together and not stab each other in the back,” said Luna. “We look beautiful because we're united.”
losers can't stand that they don't have power. They are angry that
their own personal interests aren't being fulfilled,” said Che Lopez,
the son of one of the targeted council members and employee of
Southwest Workers Union.
the undersigned qualified voters of the City of Hondo, Texas, hereby
demand that the question of removing Virginia Gonzales (Place 3), Lucio
Torrez (Place 4), and Chavel Lopez (Place 5) from teh City Council be
submitted to a vote of the qualified voters of the City of Hondo based
upon the following grounds: Failure to meet their fiduciary duties by
taking actions that placed the City of Hondo's financial stability at
At 8,000 souls nestled amid mesquite forests, Hondo is
your typical South Texas town. The population is mainly
Mexican-American and has been for much of the town’s history. Old brick
buildings line the city’s downtown streets and the local AM radio
station belts out country western dance tunes all day.
Not much changes
in Hondo. However, just beneath the
surface, unrest is brewing. For almost a year, a political battle to
determine the future of Hondo has been fought in city hall, in the
media, and on the streets of this community.
Change is a
common word in Hondo these days. Whether they view it positively or
negatively, all factions can agree that a fundamental shift in
governance is taking place in the town. The seeds of this political
firestorm were sown in May 2008, when three new council members were
elected. This was the vote that brought Chavel Lopez, Lucio Torrez, and
Virginia Gonzales, considered progressive by some and radical by
others, to power.
Running on the “Real Change Campaign” platform, the
three promised comprehensive and effective social change for Hondo's
poorest residents. With three of the five council seats, the Real
Change Campaign found these promises could become reality.
The City of Hondo has had majority Mexican-American councils before.
However, few councils have upset the traditional balance or enacted as
many controversial laws as this one.
The three new council
members have a history of working within their communities. Chavel
Lopez, who holds city council seat number 5, is one of the founding
members of the Southwest Workers Union and the Hondo Empowerment
Council. Founded in 1988 in Hondo, SWU currently operates out of a
slightly run-down building on the fringe of downtown San Antonio, where
one can find pictures of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Daniel Ortega
adorning the office’s walls. The organization has worked on a number of
social and economic justice initiatives over the years, and took a
strong interest in the 2008 Hondo elections.
Dispatches on its
website tracked the election’s results, as well as alleged
irregularities such as Mexican-American voters being turned away from
the polls and early voting being discouraged. Current reports on the
group's website detail changes that the council has implemented. Some
of these changes include scrapping the city's step system of
maintaining employee salaries, which calculated salaries based on
tenure. Instead, all 93 city employees would now earn at least $12.21/
hour. According to the local newspaper, the Hondo Anvil-Herald
,this salary increase cost the city $145,000.
Other projects implemented by the council include a $75,000 city-wide
beautification program, $250,000 for street, curb, and drainage repair,
as well as a weatherization program aimed at making low-income
residents' homes more energy-efficient. One of the more controversial
actions included the cancellation of a proposed expansion of city hall
and the police department. The unfinished city annex, scaffolding still
clinging to its sides, can be seen behind the county courthouse, a
physical reminder of the sudden change in policy direction taken by the
However, the issue that caused the most contention
between the new council members and their opposition has been electric
rates. The city of Hondo buys its power from CPS Energy of San Antonio,
and sells the electricity to the town's residents.
After CPS announced
rate increases last year, residents' electric bills rose sharply. The
city re-negotiated their contract with CPS, which would have meant a
2-cent per kilowatt hour increase. According to a statement made by
Lopez during the February 11 city meeting, the council voted to raise
rates by a lower margin to provide relief for poorer residents.
“Residents were resorting to get loans to pay for their sky rocketing utility bill,” reads the statement. “This is not right.”
The city voted to increase electric rates by half a cent per kilowatt
hour, instead of the two cents per kilowatt hour hike originally
proposed by City Manager Robert Herrera.
They also abolished the fuel
adjustment tax, a surcharge included in the electric bill to pay for
fluctuating fuel costs. According to Lopez, the original two-cent
increase had been proposed by Herrera to ensure that the city would
have sufficient cash reserves. However, Lopez contends that with the
lower half-cent increase the city still collected $450,000 which was
used on street and curb repair as well as weatherization projects.
With an average income of $19,014, Hondo residents likely welcomed the
break in utility rates. But while the action may have granted relief to
Hondo citizens who can't afford higher bills, critics of the Real
Change council members believe there may have been alternatives to
abolishing the tax.
Bob Heyen is one of the main proponents
of the recall election. A successful realtor, Heyen grew up in Hondo
and has lived there most of his life. According to him, the recall
was motivated by the council's failure to meet its "fiduciary duties."
He expressed concern that the 2009 city budget was balanced using
certificates of obligation.
The money in these certificates was
borrowed from four banks and must be paid back over 20 years. According
to Heyen, the $726,000 loan could incur up to $300,000 in interest
payments over that period.
“They're putting the city's financial stability at risk,” he said.
According to Heyen, the budget could have been balanced by imposing the
2-cent per kilowatt hour rate increase, saying this would have raised
homeowners' electric bills by $6 to $20 per month.
supporters of the new council members of manufacturing racial tensions
in the community, insisting that when he was young, many of his friends
were Mexican and that there has been a strong cultural interchange in
Hondo over the years. According to Heyen, current racial tensions are
recent and have been exacerbated by political interests.
“They have been calling city employees who are Hispanic coconuts for simply doing their jobs,” said Heyen.
Of course, those who participated in the school walkout so many years ago, would beg to differ.
Heyen said that there were no irregularities in the collection of
signatures for the recall petition, something his critics have charged.
He mentioned a specific allegation published in El Grito , a
Hondo-based publication. The paper's writers, who publish anonymously,
accused him and two other men entering an older woman's home and
intimidating her into signing the petition.
“I have never been in anybody's home,” he said.
It is interesting to note, however, that in a town that is 60 percent
Hispanic, only a fraction of the names on it (roughly 81 of
638, or about 12.6 percent) are obviously Hispanic in origin.
Meanwhile, Chavel Lopez disputes the petition's premise, asserting Hondo's budget is balanced.
According to Lopez, the half-cent increase brought in $450,000 and the
money from the certificates of obligation has been spent on items
already outlined in those certificates, such as improvements to city
Lopez contends that the current council's actions represent a wiser use
of funds and that the cancelled expansion to city hall was being funded
with money from the city's water and electric departments. Lopez says
his council voted to return the money to those departments instead of
using it for the proposed expansion. When asked about the city's
monetery reserves, he said they were healthy.
has been another source of conflict between the council and its
critics. Heyen spoke of the benefits the airport has brought to Hondo,
with private aircraft stopping in greater numbers every year to refuel.
But local attorney Clyde Haak believes too much money has been funneled
towards the airport and insist on alternate revenue schemes for the
city. Referring to it as a 'sacred cow', Haak has publicly opposed
putting more money towards its expansion. The new council supported
Haak by putting him on the Airport Board.
The atmosphere in
town, according to Lopez, has grown tense in the weeks preceding the
election. And both sides continue to accuse the other of exploiting
race and racism in order to garner support they need.
(SA Current staff writer Greg Harman firstname.lastname@example.org contributed to this story.)
Posted by gharman on 5/8/2009 12:44:33 PM
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