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BREAKING: Recall election, SWU, and racial tensions in Hondo

Tomorrow's election will determine fate of 'Real Change' candidates.

Brian Thompson
bthompsoe@gmail.com

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 tomorrow's election.

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.

“[Recall proponents] 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.

At one point, local attorney Clyde Haake confronted Hondo mayor Jim Danner directly about the recall, asking him to explain the accusations in the recall petition.

“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.”

“The 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.

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"We, 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 risk."                                                                                                   — Recall Petition


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 council.

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.

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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.

He accused 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 parks.

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.

Hondo's airport 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 gharman@sacurrent.com contributed to this story.)


Posted by gharman on 5/8/2009 12:44:33 PM
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