Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Monday, March 28, 2016
Saturday, March 26, 2016
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/02/tribcast-a-live-autopsy-of-the-tx-primaries/.
Video: Protecting Houston Before the Next Big Storm
- by Ayan Mittra, The Texas Tribune
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/03/video-protecting-houston-before-the-next-big-storm/.
Can Mary Lou Bruner Rewrite Texas Textbooks?
- by Christopher Connelly, KERA, The Texas Tribune
The Texas State Board of Education doesn't hold the national sway it once did, so if the controversial East Texas grandmother is elected her impact might be marginal.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/25/bruner-state-board-of-education/.
Deal Struck to Move Forward With Vista Ridge Pipeline
- by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune
Last fall, the financially troubled Spanish company whose subsidiary contracted with San Antonio to build a massive water pipeline entered into the early phases of bankruptcy proceedings. Utility and city officials insisted that the Abengoa S.A.’s fiscal difficulties would not derail a project they say is key to the city’s long-term water security.
For now, it looks like they will be able to keep that promise by signing off on a near takeover of the 142-mile Vista Ridge pipeline by a different company, one that critics say has little experience with project financing.
The San Antonio Water System knew all along that Abengoa’s financial difficulties could upend the project, CEO Robert Puente now says. But the utility believes it wrote the Vista Ridge contract with enough safeguards to protect its interests.
This week, the Seville-based company’s subsidiary, Abengoa Vista Ridge, announced it had struck a deal to sell 80 percent of the project, and all its decision-making authority, to its primary construction contractor, Kansas City-based Garney Construction.
Abengoa would become a silent, 20 percent equity partner while Garney would take the lead on the design, construction and financing of the $884 million pipeline. It is supposed to deliver up to 16.3 billion gallons of water per year to San Antonio from a well field in Burleson County starting in 2020, expanding the city’s water supply by 20 percent.
The deal, which Puente says is subject to approval by the water system's board, had been in the works since early this year. In February, Abengoa Vista Ridge Director Pedro Almagro told the board that it was behind on payments to project vendors and was seeking an 80 percent equity partner to pick up that share of the $82 million it had agreed to pay into the project. (It planned to finance the remainder.)
About three months earlier, a debt-ridden Abengoa S.A. filed for creditor protection in Spain trying to avoid full-on bankruptcy. At the time, Puente emphasized that Abengoa Vista Ridge was “financially independent and legally separate from the holding company,” saying “that means the San Antonio Vista Ridge project will continue to move forward.”
But in an interview this week, Puente said the city-owned utility knew things could go south with Abengoa from the very beginning, so it included protections in its contract including a $2 million early termination fee. The utility had no way of knowing exactly how bad things were getting with the company, he said, because of laws prohibiting insider trading.
"The fact remains that when we walked in and reached an agreement with them, yes, we knew they ran a business model that was very risky, and that’s why we had a contract that would protect us from any kind of situation that would arise because of their potential financial problems and, in fact, that’s what happened,” he said. “It’s not fair to second guess, with 2016 eyes, what was happening in 2011, 2012, 2013 and ultimately 2014 when we signed this contract.”
Abengoa told the utility about the 80-20 contingency plan just after it filed for creditor protection, he said. Under Spanish law, it has four months — until March 28 — to reach an agreement with creditors.
Abengoa’s financial standing began eroding in summer 2014, around the same time the city council unanimously approved the SAWS-Abengoa contract. The vote followed a period of indecision that saw SAWS staff recommend against the project, then change its mind after Abengoa asked it to reconsider.
The company’s financial troubles are far from the only reason the Vista Ridge project has garnered such fierce opposition, however. Opponents have questioned whether the city really needs the water and whether the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer will physically be able to provide it. There’s also the possibility that the local groundwater conservation district will cut off the water if the pumping adversely impacts the aquifer or other users — a big fear for Burleson County landowners, who have protested the project.
The utility's response has centered on the terms of its contract with Abengoa Vista Ridge, which agreed to assume all risk so San Antonio ratepayers wouldn’t be on the hook for undelivered water. The average customer will, however, see water rates increase by 50 percent by 2020 to pay for debt service, which will total $3.4 billion over 30 years. SAWS will own the pipeline by 2050.
In taking over the project, Garney has agreed to assume the same risk, Puente and San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor have emphasized.
“Vista Ridge is, in fact, less risky now than it has ever been,” Taylor said Tuesday in her State of the City address.
“This agreement does not change the price of the water to be delivered or alter the risk profile of the existing contract,” she said in a statement to the Tribune, noting the utility will provide a “full briefing” on the change “well in advance of SAWS’ projected board consideration.”
Asked why the city initially didn't seek a more financially stable partner, Puente said no other companies responding to the original request for proposal wanted to assume the risk, or had secured rights to the water.
Ron Nirenberg, a councilman who has been critical of the pipeline project, said he can support the Garney takeover if ratepayers are protected. However, he also is pushing a resolution that would give council the final signoff on the deal rather than the utility's board.
“I’m cautiously supportive,” he said. “Abengoa has long caused me concerns for a number of reasons, but I think that we need to make sure that we bring it to council to determine the details.”
Puente said he is “very comfortable” with Garney taking control of the project because SAWS has worked extensively with the company for 20 years. The firm is involved in three utility projects, including building a 28-mile stretch of pipeline to deliver water from SAWS’ brackish groundwater desalination plant to the city.
But critics have been quick to point out that, despite Abengoa’s deteriorating financial status, it had far more experience with financing and other components of a large-scale project than Garney, whose main focus is construction.
“Maybe they’re capable, maybe they’re not. I don’t know,” said Amy Hardberger, an assistant professor of water law at St. Mary's University who has fiercely opposed the project. There are a lot of other things involved — like condemning land — and Hardberger said she wonders “if they’re in a position to be managing all those parts.”
Garney is a smaller firm than Abengoa — national rather than global — that brought in $610 million in total revenue in 2015, according its website.
But Puente said Garney is seeking help from companies with more experience and “all of the financial-type issues they are not necessarily familiar with.”
Garney President and CEO Mike Heitmann said in an emailed statement that “Garney has built a solid financial foundation with a $1.5 billion bonding capacity. The safety and security of the Vista Ridge Project will be backed by dual sureties with top rankings from insurance and credit rating agencies.”
Garney’s 80-percent equity stake — $65 million — “will be provided from Garney’s balance sheet," he said, while “the construction financing is being provided by a consortium of banks being led by Sumitomo (SMBC).”
The company plans to pursue a low-interest loan from the Texas Water Development Board that SAWS and Abengoa had applied for before the Garney deal was announced, Heitmann said.
Disclosure: The San Antonio Water System was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/26/takeover-end-vista-ridge-uncertainty/.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Hearing Probes Deportation of Criminal Immigrants
- by Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
In a slight deviation from what’s been common at the Texas Capitol this year, a Democratic senator pressed a Republican sheriff Wednesday on why her jail has released undocumented immigrants from custody.
Usually the Democrats play defense, but during a subcommittee hearing on border security, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, noted that Republican Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau’s jail has declined 11 requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates for possible deportation.
Citing a January Texas Tribune story, Garcia noted that Bexar County’s figure is a distant second to Travis County’s 72 in the number of detainers that weren’t honored, according to the data received. But Bexar’s number is higher than the figures for more than 30 other jails in Texas.
"Without getting into specifics on factual cases, just give me a couple of scenarios on when you would decline a detainer,” Garcia asked. “Maybe just a couple of examples.”
Pamerleau said she couldn’t comment on the number because she didn’t have the information in front of her.
“I don’t have the specifics on that,” she said.
Garcia, a progressive Democrat who opposes stricter state-based immigration enforcement, appeared to want to make two main points. One was to note that Bexar’s jail, run by a Republican, had let more inmates out than the Dallas County Jail, whose sheriff, Democrat Lupe Valdez, caused a statewide controversy last year when she said she would limit her cooperation with ICE.
But Garcia said she also wanted to drive the point home that the figures don’t always paint a complete picture.
“If we’re really going to look at both sides of the issue we need to look at all of it,” she said as she was leaving the Capitol. “I think the numbers are probably skewed, I think there is a lot of reason, probably something administrative why they do that. But if they are declining them I think it’s important for us to know why. I personally don’t believe anybody would decline just because they want to.”
Pamerleau declined to comment on the 11-inmate figure outside of the hearing room but did say that her department was behind technologically and upgrades could help streamline some issues in her jail.
“For Bexar County in particular, we’re still operating in what I call the '80s," she said. “We’ve got the resources to now bring the agency in terms of technology, into the 21st century.”
The exchange between Pamerleau and Garcia came after the sheriff testified that the federal government’s Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, has likely led to more criminal aliens being released.
Under PEP, which launched in November 2014, ICE determines whether an undocumented immigrant held in a county jail should be turned over to its custody for possible deportation. It is designed to use ICE’s limited resources to ferret out repeat offenders or what government officials have called “the worst of the worst.”
It replaced an earlier program, Secure Communities, which defined deportable immigrants in broader terms and was often criticized for targeting non-violent undocumented immigrants.
“The bottom line for us is that significantly fewer individuals are being detained today than just two years ago,” she said.
Pamerleau said that overall jail population dropped 10 percent from 2013 to 2015. But she said detainers dropped by 50 percent and cited what she called a “snapshot” of her jail’s population on Monday to put the new policy in perspective
On Monday we had 90 individuals that were on ICE detainers,” she said. “Fifty two percent of them had had previous serious criminal activity.”
During the hearing state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said that detainers are not honored because local jurisdictions might have policies that prevent them from enforcing immigration laws, referring to the controversial sanctuary city designation that’s drawn the ire of several Republicans.
“There may be a reason a detainer is not acted upon but it’s because there is some other legal action not simply willfully neglect of the sheriff,” he said.
Jackson County Sheriff Andy A.J. Louderback, the former president of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas, agreed with Pamerleau and said the PEP was hamstringing law enforcement. He said the committee only touched on a small portion of what’s wrong with the new system.
“Here’s what Texas sheriffs are concerned about: People are entering the country illegally and they are committing crimes. They are being deported or not being deported. They might be a priority or they might not be,” he said. “What was discussed in there today was only a small sample of exactly how many [criminal] charges are not going to be a priority. So if you want to drill down deeper, there are a lot of ways a person can commit a crime … and not become a priority.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/23/immigration-enforcement-and-bexar-county-jail-unde/.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Friday, March 11, 2016
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Answer Sheet White teacher: I thought I could reach my black and Latino students. Then one told me why I couldn’t.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Across Texas, Uber Puts Cities in Tough Spot
- by Madlin Mekelburg, The Texas Tribune
As Uber attempts to leverage its fast-growing popularity and bend cities to its will, three Texas cities face serious questions this week about their willingness to accommodate the app-based vehicle-for-hire company by changing local laws.
Citing "burdensome regulations," Uber ended service in Midland and Galveston on Monday. On Tuesday, Austin city officials debated how to move forward after a political action committee — largely funded by Uber and its top competitor, Lyft — submitted enough voter signatures to challenge a new ordinance the companies have argued will force them to leave that city as well.
Uber has grown exponentially in cities across Texas over the last year, prompting local officials to draft regulations on the company's drivers similar to those already in place for local taxis. Both Uber and Lyft have repeatedly pushed back, threatening to leave cities that do not loosen up on rules for vehicle-for-hire companies.
During a meeting Tuesday, the city of Austin validated more than 25,000 signatures on a petition to overturn an ordinance passed in December that would require drivers for both Uber and Lyft to pass fingerprint-based background checks. Both companies have threatened to pull out of Austin unless the ordinance is repealed, arguing that its own background checks are sufficient and that asking its drivers to get fingerprinted is overly burdensome.
With the signatures validated, the Austin City Council must either adopt the less-restrictive ordinance outlined in the petition or put the issue to voters. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the council will hear public testimony on the issue during its meeting Thursday but will not vote until Feb. 11.
"I don't like the position that we're in," Adler said, citing concerns that the council will be forced to choose one of two options instead of finding an "innovative" solution to the problem.
Councilwoman Delia Garza said she did not want the council to accept the less-restrictive ordinance on Ridesharing Works for Austin's petition, citing concerns that signatures were collected with signers being told, "your city council is trying to ban Uber."
“I have to speak to the broader issue of this company steamrolling through local cities and governments,” Garza said. “This has been a huge distraction, and I think we can do the easy thing or we can do the right thing. I think the right thing is to let the voters decide."
Uber's position in Austin is at odds with its policy in Houston, where vehicle-for-hire drivers must undergo a mandatory fingerprint-based background check. While Lyft withdrew from Houston largely over that issue, Uber has continued to operate.
Sarfraz Maredia, Uber's general manager over Houston, declined to say Tuesday why the company wouldn't accept the same policy in Austin.
"It has become clear that Houston is the outlier in how it has chosen to regulate," Maredia said. "The rest of our markets have focused on passing modern ride-sharing regulations. As a result, our expansion strategy in Texas has changed to focus on launching only in markets that are consistent with that policy."
While Uber's fate in Austin remains in limbo, the company was more firm with Galveston and Midland. On Monday, Uber abruptly ceased services in both cities, citing regulations passed by the cities' councils. Maredia said the company had collectively signed up about 1,000 active drivers in the two cities over the last year. Lyft does not currently operate in either city.
Midland officials, in particular, were baffled by Uber's decision. Sara Bustilloz, a city spokeswoman, said Midland's City Council passed an ordinance for vehicle-for-hire app drivers in December but agreed to make significant changes after Uber contacted them with a list of conditions for staying in the city.
In addition to asking for the ability to pick up passengers from the airport, Bustilloz said Uber wanted, “to create a streamlined process for licensing drivers because they didn’t want their drivers to have to come to our police department to get a license. They also wanted to eliminate the need for a secondary background check by our police department.”
The council met all of Uber's requests and allowed the company to send a master list of driver information to use for licensing, a process that Bustilloz said, "comes down to emailing an Excel spreadsheet."
“They have since indicated that that’s the part of the ordinance they don’t like, and they requested it,” Bustilloz said. “So we’re a little confused as far as that goes. If they’re going to say something will work for them and then later say it doesn’t, that makes it hard."
People in Midland who attempt to use the Uber app are now shown a message from the company criticizing the city council. The message, as displayed in a screenshot sent to The Texas Tribune by Bustilloz, says the company hopes to return to the city "under more modern regulations in the future."
Bustilloz said the city is confused about Uber's motivations, considering the compromises they made on their ordinances, and is unsure of its next steps.
"We do not have anything in our ordinance that another city does not have," she said. "If they’re able to operate in Dallas and Houston, I don’t see why they can’t operate here or why our ordinance isn’t good enough."
The company pulled its operations from Galveston days after its city council passed an ordinance calling for Uber drivers to apply for chauffeurs' licenses, as well as requiring vehicle-for-hire app firms themselves to apply for operators' licenses.
"More recently, we've seen Galveston pass regulations that are clear outliers from the national consensus," Maredia said, again citing Uber's new strategy to focus on cities that, "embrace the benefits of ride-sharing rather than rules that are protecting outdated, taxi-like regulations."
Galveston officials did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Disclosure: Uber and Lyft are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Steve Adler is a major donor and former board chairman of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/02/03/ride-share-giant-uber-puts-texas-cities-tough-spot/.
Juvenile Offenders Find Rehabilitation Through Work
- by Johnathan Silver, The Texas Tribune
BROWNWOOD – Texas juvenile justice officials think they might have found a solution to some of their incarcerated youths' behavior problems: putting them to work.
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has developed a pilot program to place young offenders in jobs if they have already earned a high school diploma or GED. Normally, youths have to keep up a 16-hour day that includes going to classes even if they have completed their required education.
But under the two-tier program Capstone Program, being tested throughout the system, some youths who excel in their rehabilitation can take jobs away from their facilities, while others still dealing with behavioral issues are given jobs at their facilities.
The program was developed through the agency's involvement in the Youth In Custody Certificate Program with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
The juvenile justice agency currently serves 1,713 youth, with 1,075 in five secure facilities, and the rest 140 halfway houses, contract care facilities or on parole.
So far seven youths have entered the jobs program: five with on-campus jobs at the Gainesville State School — such as working in the cafeteria, waxing and stripping floors and maintaining grounds — and two allowed to work off campus.
Miriam, 18, who recently left the juvenile justice system, found rehabilitation during her work at a local pet grooming business. "Bad choices," she said, landed her in the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, two-and-a-half years ago.
Youths who agree to interviews are discouraged from using their last names or discussing topics that might identify them, according to the juvenile justice agency. Miriam declined to give her last name or discuss what she did that landed her in the system. She said, though, she got mixed up with the wrong people and wasn't concerned that her actions affected others.
Ron Jackson has been a female facility for years, but also serves as the intake site for all youth when they first enter the juvenile justice system. Every youth ultimately placed in Ron Jackson has been adjudicated for a felony offense, according to the agency.
"I thought I would go in there, do time and get out," recalled Miriam, who said she refrained from interacting with others or showing emotions because she perceived it as weakness.
Then she participated in the Pairing Achievement With Service program, which pairs youths with shelter dogs which they care for until they become adoptable. Miriam said that experience helped her become empathetic and more responsible.
"You know they're getting a second chance," she said. "They're not just gonna get put down."
With her canine friends: "I didn't have to have my guard up with them."
That experience and good behavior helped her land a job while in the system at Ag-Mart, a pet food and grooming business in Brownwood, which has had a working relationship with the Ron Jackson complex. Miriam assisted with the close to 10 dogs a day dropped off by owners.
"I didn't realize that they know what they're doing. And I just thought back to all the things dogs have done," she said with a laughed. "People care for their dogs like they're their own children. I see it almost every day."
Youths in the program earn various incentives, including monetary ones, according to the juvenile justice department. The agency maintains their bank accounts while they are in the system and gives them the money when they leave.
The program helps youths gain practical work experience, increasing the chance's they'll become positive and contributing members of the communities they return to. That process also helps youth with their treatment, which typically emphasizes recognizing the errors and victimization that landed them in the system.
Miriam did well, said Holli Fenton, a dorm supervisor at the Ron Jackson facility, who oversees the PAWS program.
“For us to be part of that is wonderful because it’s a win-win,” she said. “You get to work with kids. You get to work with dogs. I like to get up. I like to come to work.”
The change in environment helped Miriam improve her social skills, groomer Christine Healer said.
"She's like 'why's everybody saying hi? I don't want to be everybody's friend,'" Healer recalled. "Now, she greets customers and says bye when they leave."
Healer said she was worried at first about working with someone in the juvenile justice system, but resolved to be a model mentor.
"She catches on very fast. She's very sweet," Healer said. "People wouldn't know she's in the system."
Healer said she learned from Miriam.
"She's made me see things like the different way people are," she said. "Not everybody knows how to interact with people. People can change. People are impacted by their environment."
Before she was discharged and returned to the Houston area, Miriam said she wanted to stick with working with animals. Healer said she hopes Miriam will be herself and let others learn from her.
“Don’t be bullied back into the environment that you were in,” Healer said. “She can do it.”
The department plans to expand the program, spokesman Jim Hurley said. It will end the pilot program this spring and begin the program, primarily the on-campus part, at three other facilities during the summer, he said.
Presently, female youth are being prepared for the on-campus component at the Ron Jackson facility. Employees there have said Miriam set an example for other youth in the system. And seeing Miriam succeed is a unique opportunity for staffers, said April Jameson, superintendent of the Ron Jackson complex.
“It just reinforces to the staff what they do is so important,” she said. “So staff are proud even if they don’t know her.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/05/juvenile-offenders-find-treatment-through-work/.
Change in Mexican Law Could Ease Texas Birth Certificate Fight
- by Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
An effort by the Mexican government to bolster the country's voter turnout abroad could also help some undocumented immigrants in Texas obtain birth certificates for their U.S.-citizen children.
Earlier this month, the Mexican Consulate in Austin began accepting applications from Mexican nationals who want to receive federal voter ID cards in Texas by mail. Before the change, Mexicans living outside the country could only apply for the ID in Mexico.
Because the voter ID card is also an acceptable secondary form of identification for parents trying to obtain birth certificates for their Texas-born children, it could help some who are mired in a months-long battle with the state.
The previous process to get the election card took too long and discouraged many potential voters, said Consul Carlos González Gutiérrez, who heads the Mexican Consulate General’s office in Austin. González said the ID is also used in Mexico as the primary document needed for other common activities.
“It’s the closest thing we have to a national ID card,” González said. “People use it for everything - to open a bank account, cash a check or for officials requests” to the government, he said.
In Texas, a parent must show one primary form of identification, like a driver’s license or valid passport or visa, in order to obtain a birth certificate for their child. They can also show two secondary documents, including a student ID, an expired primary document, a Medicare or Medicaid card, a private company ID or a Mexican voter ID card.
A spokesman with the Texas DSHS said that since 2013, the agency’s vital statistics unit has issued copies of birth certificates about 260 times where a Mexican voter ID was used as a form of secondary ID. That figure doesn’t include information from local registrars.
Last year, several undocumented immigrants from Central America and Mexico sued the Texas Department of State Health Services after being refused birth certificates for their children who were born on American soil.
The refusals came after the DSHS ordered county registrars to stop accepting Mexican consular IDs and Central American passports without current visas as valid forms of ID. Attorneys for the families said the change was made without warning and the consular IDs and passports were still accepted in some counties just months before the lawsuit was filed.
The state's directive left several parents who didn’t have other forms of identification unable to obtain birth certificates for their children, their attorneys argued. The families claim the state has violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by refusing to provide the documents.
The case is still pending and is scheduled for a jury trial later this year but Jennifer Harbury, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid representing some of the families, said the policy change could benefit some of her Mexican clients.
"It certainly opens the door to discussions" on how to solve the issue, she said.
González’s office is familiar with the lawsuit and opposes the state’s actions. When the Mexican government filed an amicus brief in support of the families last August, González gave a sworn affidavit attesting to the validity of the Mexican documents that were previously accepted.
But he said the change to Mexican voting law was in the works before the birth certificate controversy began and the two are not directly tied together.
“The decision to start issuing voter cards by the consular network, or to issue cards abroad, was a decision taken in May of 2014,” he said. “That’s when the reform was approved by Congress so this precedes the birth certificate controversy.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/02/25/change-mexican-voting-laws-could-help-some-familie/.
No State Help for Crystal City Council Meltdown
- by Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
CRYSTAL CITY — Standing outside the Zavala County courthouse this week, attorney Buck Wood said he’s observed more than his fair share of government dysfunction in Texas during some 45 years involved in ethics, school finance and election law.
“I often say I’ve seen it all,” the Austin-based lawyer said after arguing his latest case — a successful effort to force a recall election against the mayor and two councilmen in this relatively poor South Texas town.
But four of five city councilmen indicted on federal charges? “I haven’t seen anything close to it.”
Wood isn’t alone. Lawmakers, state officials and other local government experts say they can’t recall a crisis of government like what has struck Crystal City, which, in brighter days, was known for its prominent homages to Popeye and claim to being the world’s “Spinach Capital.”
In January, Councilman Marco Rodriguez was indicted on human smuggling charges. And last week, federal agents rounded up Mayor Ricardo Lopez, City Manager James Jonas (who is also the city attorney and city lobbyist), along with two current councilmen, a former councilman and gaming room operator Ngoc Tri Nguyen, who also goes by “Mr. T.” They are alleged to have operated a cash-for-votes scheme.
Since then, questions have swirled about whether — and how — the government in this town of roughly 7,500 will function in the coming months. But this much is clear, experts agree: The city must wade through the mess largely on its own.
“There’s no state agency that monitors this type of thing,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
As of Friday afternoon, only Councilman Roel Mata had resigned from office, according to media reports. His colleagues can remain in office until they are either convicted or recalled. And since they've bonded out of jail, they may attend council meetings.
Meanwhile, city officials say that department staffers will continue to deliver basic services.
Still, the town could spend significant time without enough council members to reach a quorum, depending on where the chips fall in a fast-moving situation. And if that happens, the city would have no way to take actions on its roughly $3 million annual budget or make new hires.
Residents should know more by Tuesday, when the council is next scheduled to meet. A key agenda item is setting a recall election for Rodriguez, the mayor and Councilman Rogelio Mata, the brother of former councilman Roel Mata.
The recall effort was launched months before the indictments rained down. On Tuesday, state District Judge Amado Abascal ordered the city clerk to verify more than 12,000 signatures on a recall petition after she had refused to do so for more than three months. On Thursday, she finally validated the petition.
But will enough councilmen — three — show up to hold a meeting? A few times in recent months, they’ve failed to gather a quorum.
Joel Barajas, the only councilman not facing the prospect of years in federal prison, said he plans to be there. But he’s not sure about his colleagues’ plans. “Sometimes I think they won’t show up, and the last two days, I think they will," he said Friday.
Jonas, the city manager, said he was hoping the councilmen would show, at least to vote on another agenda item giving voters a change to renew a street maintenance fund.
“I would hope that regardless of other concerns or other issues, that the business of the city would take precedence,” he told the Texas Tribune Friday.
Jonas declined to comment on charges he faces. The federal government accuses him of overseeing the alleged kickback scheme involving Nguyen and the others. He has pleaded not guilty.
But if the councilmen do show up, will they actually set a date for folks to vote on their recall? That’s also unclear. If they refuse, their opponents would take them to court.
If Crystal City voters oust the men from office, the city would spend at least some time with too few council members to meet, awaiting another election for replacements — however long that might take.
Though not particularly common, other Texas cities have navigated stretches without lawmakers. Mass recalls, Sandlin said, leave some Texas town without a quorum every few years.
“You just have to wait for the next election,” he said.
After voters in the Central Texas city of Killeen ousted five city councilors in 2011 following another’s resignation, for instance, its council couldn’t meet for six months. (Its city spokeswoman then and now did not return a message Friday seeking information about how the town managed.)
Two years before, Copperas Cove, just outside of Killeen, booted four members, leaving its council without enough bodies for four months.
Andrea Gardner, that town's city manager then and now, told the Killeen Daily Herald in 2011 that the town managed the rough patch by planning ahead when the vacancies looked imminent. She did not respond to a message Friday.
One Texas lawmaker says the Legislature might want to consider whether it could help local governments that descend into such turmoil — at least to ensure that bills get paid and services stay on.
“You hate to create state legislation by crisis — on one single incident — because that’s not always completely successful,” said Rep. Tracy King, whose district includes Crystal City. “But I absolutely think that the Legislature should look into creating some sort of mechanism to help communities that find themselves in this situation.”
If the Legislature does examine whether the state has a role in righting struggling towns like Crystal City, King acknowledged that any action could prove tricky in a state where questions about local control can spark fierce debates.
“Cities traditionally fight to maintain that autonomy, and they’re real happy about it until they have an implosion like this,” he said.
Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/02/13/crystal-city-left-alone-rebuild-troubled-governmen/.
Cruz Gains Momentum as Anti-Trump Candidate
- by Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Ted Cruz has gotten his groove back.
After underwhelming performances in a number of GOP nominating contests since the Iowa caucuses, the U.S. senator from Texas on Saturday night regained momentum with resounding victories in Kansas and Maine and narrow losses elsewhere. Saturday's results lent the most credibility yet to Cruz's argument that Republicans should rally behind him against billionaire Donald Trump.
"Today has been a very good day," a beaming Cruz said as he took the stage Saturday evening in Idaho, moments before he was projected to win his second contest of the day. "Apparently they just called that we won Maine," Cruz later announced, earning loud cheers at Boise State University — his presence there itself a sign of Cruz was already setting his sights on Idaho's Tuesday primary.
Speaking with reporters earlier Saturday evening elsewhere in Idaho, Cruz summed up his argument that his win-loss record makes him the standard-bearer of the anti-Trump coalition. "You can't beat something with nothing," he said, conjuring the one win Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio managed between them against Trump.
It was not just Saturday's results that had Cruz feeling good. That afternoon, Cruz easily won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of its kind in the country. Trump had skipped the conference earlier in the day to campaign in Kansas, where Cruz ended up walloping him anyway. Cruz captured 40 percent of the straw poll vote, while Rubio trailed him at 30 percent and Trump at 15 percent.
Between the election results and CPAC triumph, Cruz's campaign moved quickly to press its case that those looking to defeat Trump have only one option left in the GOP field. Bob Vander Plaats, a national co-chair of Cruz's campaign, called Saturday a "game-changer" for the Texas senator, making an appeal to the growing group of Republicans who have taken to Twitter to vow not to support Trump if he wins the nomination.
"Hashtag 'Never Trump' is not on the ballot," Vander Plaats said. "You need to get behind somebody."
By Sunday morning, even one of Cruz's most outspoken critics in the Senate — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — was calling Cruz the GOP's best bet to stop Trump. Graham said the two had spoken on the phone a couple of days ago after he first suggested the party may have to rally behind Cruz against Trump.
"To me it's clear Ted has made the best case so far that he can be the alternative to Trump," Graham said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." "At the end of the day, I know what I'm getting with Ted Cruz."
Cruz was expected to have a respectable showing Saturday night due to favorable conditions: Three out of four of the contests were caucuses and all were closed elections. But few expected him to win two states outright — let alone by wide margins — and the results served as a shot in the arm following a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina and a Super Tuesday showing that did not match the hype Cruz had created for himself six months ago.
Cruz's campaign was particularly pleased with its performance in Kansas, where Cruz won with a 25-point margin after internal numbers had suggested a much closer race. On Twitter, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe revealed Trump was leading the polling Monday with 31 percent, while Cruz and Rubio were behind him with 28 and 27 percent, respectively.
Cruz's campaign was expecting to finish a distant second in Louisiana and Maine. Kentucky, which Cruz did not even bother visiting in the lead-up to Saturday, "seemed likely out of reach," according to one campaign official who partly attributed the apparent late break to Cruz's performance Thursday at the Republican debate in Detroit.
Cruz ended up winning Maine by 13 points and trailing Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana by four points each. In Louisiana specifically, there were signs of a swing toward Cruz between early voting and Election Day.
"Clearly there’s a seismic shift in conservatives deciding to rally around our campaign in these final days," Cruz adviser Jason Miller said early Sunday morning.
Cruz's rivals rushed Saturday night to explain why this may be as good as it gets for the Texas senator. Rubio's campaign was first out of the gate, arguing that Cruz has shown he can only win his home state, a neighboring state (Oklahoma) and "small rural caucuses," which are far outnumbered by primaries in the coming contests.
"Marco has done well in primaries so far," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an appearance on Fox News. "We beat Ted Cruz in Virginia. We beat Ted Cruz in South Carolina. We beat Ted Cruz in Georgia, a state that Ted Cruz originally thought he might actually win. So we feel really good about the map moving forward."
Trump also predicted a rocky road ahead for Cruz as he called for the field to clear so the two can battle mano a mano.
"I would love to take on Ted one-on-one because that would be so much fun, because he can't win New York, he can't win Pennsylvania, he can't win California," Trump said. "I want Ted one-on-one, OK?"
Kasich's campaign, meanwhile, argued Cruz had not done enough to capitalize on a primary schedule that played to his strengths on the front end. The bottom line, according to a memo from Kasich strategist John Weaver: "Ted Cruz needed to get more delegates out of the southeast and caucus states than he was able to get, and his path is closing."
Yet Cruz's campaign came out of Saturday night more emboldened than ever about its path ahead, pointing out there are still many closed elections to be had and a slew of winner-take-all contests that could go a long way toward securing the nomination. Perhaps no primary is occupying the campaign's attention like Florida, where it sees an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch to Rubio.
After Rubio's poor performance Saturday night — he did not even meet the threshold to collect certain delegates in Kentucky and Louisiana — Cruz's campaign said there is still time for him to cut his losses.
“A savvy strategy would be — and I say this with all due respect to Marco Rubio — for Marco Rubio to say, 'I’m not going to lose my home state of Florida,' because that’s devastating for his future, and 'I’m going to get behind Ted Cruz who can beat Donald Trump and beat Donald Trump with Ted Cruz in Florida,'" Vander Plaats said.
Before Florida, however, Cruz has his work cut out for him. On Sunday, voters head to the polls in Puerto Rico, one of five U.S. territories where the Cruz campaign made a point of building support as far back as six months ago. Then on Tuesday, nearly as many delegates that were at stake Saturday are up for grabs in another four states: Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi. Cruz's campaign has zeroed in on Idaho, but expectations will also be elevated in Hawaii, one of two remaining caucus states, and Mississippi, one of the last states to vote in a part of the country with which Cruz has proclaimed he shares much in common.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/03/05/cruz-gets-his-groove-back-now/.