Friday, January 31, 2014

Will Brownsville, Texas, the "Poorest City in the United States," Really Give Lincoln Park to the University of Texas System? Part I

Lincoln Park
In its relationship with the University of Texas system, Brownsville, Texas, the poorest city in the United States, is always the giver.  The University of Texas system is the taker, eagerly gobbling up precious assets from this poorest of cities, based on a thinly veiled threat to pull their satellite campus out of town.  Brownsville's City Commission, including the mayor, are easily duped because they have no concept of negotiations, suffer from a regional inferiority complex and, in some cases, do not understand that their oath of office includes protecting, not squandering or giving away the assets of 200,000 of the country's hardest working taxpayers.  

First of all, make no mistake, the University of Texas was NEVER leaving Brownsville without a satellite campus.  That would have been a colossal public relations mistake. The UT Regents are not country bumpkins and are expanding their university, not shrinking it.  One of the richest universities in the world leaving the poorest city in the United States without its four year university? UT is not that dumb.  That would have been a public relations nightmare with the Brownsville Herald possibly being the only newspaper in the country not picking up on the story of how a university system with billions in its coffers robbed, raped and pillaged a 90% Hispanic community with the lowest per capita income in the country.(Don't forget that the current value of the Permanent University Fund of the University of Texas, just one of its funding sources, based on the investments from oil and other revenues from 2,000,000 acres of land, is worth $17 billion.)

Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez
In their bush league eagerness to "keep" a satellite of the UT system in town, Brownsville's City Commission foolishly offered to "donate" two parcels of land to the system totaling 76 acres.  This is evidently what the executive session item on the agenda of the coming February 4, 2014 City Commission meeting is all about.  I understand one of the parcels the city wants to "donate" to the UT system is Lincoln Park.  WTF? A sort of resolution was adopted, worded something to the effect that if the newest version of UT's Brownsville campus was located downtown, this donation of land would be consummated. 

Despite the City Commission's frantic mayor-driven purchases of numerous obviously unsuitable properties downtown, the UT regents decided to stay on the campuses they had always used.  There was no interest in Casa del Nylon or ten other loosely affiliated properties Tony and the commission bought.  So, now we have the issue of this resolution and land giveaway that will be considered February 4th in a scheduled 15 minute executive session.

More on this in the next couple of days.(We'll endeavor to discuss the impact that losing Lincoln Park would have on the city and some possible improprieties in how the agreement to do that was handled.)  
Below is the description given for the executive session on the agenda:      

A) Consultation with attorney pursuant to Texas Government Code 551.071 and 551.07(2) on a matter in which the duty of the attorney to the governmental body, under the Texas
Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of Texas, clearly conflicts with Texas Government Code, Chapter 551, and Texas Government Code 551.072, in the deliberation of real property, concerning possible exchange of property with the University of Texas at Brownsville and/or Texas Southmost College. (Mark Sossi – City Attorney – 15 min.)

(to be continued)

Are Brownsville's Young City Commissioners Growing Into the Job?

City Commissioner John Villarreal
For the second time in two City Commission meetings Commissioner John Villarreal has co-authored an agenda item designed to protect taxpayer assets and curb the spendthrift Mayor Tony Martinez from using city revenue streams as his own personal piggy bank.

After learning that Tony Martinez had been dipping into the $3,060,000 AEP Texas settlement funds without consulting the City Commission, Commissioner Villarreal, along with Commissioner Debbie Portillo, joined in putting an item on the agenda of the January 21, 2014 City Commission meeting to ascertain what monies Tony had spent and to put controls on the remaining balance: 
12. Consideration and ACTION to acknowledge the expenditures paid from the AEP lawsuit settlement proceeds and to approve an expenditure budget from the remaining proceeds.(Commissioners J. Villarreal/D. Portillo)

Commissioner Jessica Tetreau
Whether the offshoot of that agenda item will be either an executive session or a public workshop was not totally clear.  At the January 21st meeting, when the discussion among the commissioner began to implicate the mayor, Mayor Pro Tem Rose Gowen, acting as moderator in Martinez' absence, quickly called for a workshop on the item.  Commissioner Longoria suggested an executive session instead.  Later in the meeting, Commissioner Estela Chavez-Vasquez mentioned having both an executive session AND a workshop.(If this matter goes to a workshop, the mayor should get an earful.  There is no excuse for the mayor to lease/and or purchase and refurbish first one, then a second  location for a downtown office with all of the office space the city already owns.  It is simply an outrageous waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars simply spent to satisfy the mayor's whims.  In actuality, it is doubtful, either the newly named Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Office at 1101-A E. Washington or the now being remodeled second choice for mayoral office at 609-11 E. 11th Street will EVER be actual daily use offices.  To my knowledge, the BDRIO has been used for only one meeting since being leased October 8, 2013 and subsequently refurbished.  The map of Brownsville City Resacas fell off the wall about two weeks ago and has yet to be put back up.  The mayor, as we've reported, is frequently out of town, likely not to be available for constituent chit-chat at a downtown office.)

Now, as we just reported, Commissioner Villareal, this time in tandem with Commissioner Jessica Tetreau, is co-authoring another agenda item for the scheduled February 4th City Commission meeting to wrest control of city funds from Mayor Martinez, reaffirming the nature and legality of an actual city commission.  Here is the Villarreal/Tetreau authored agenda item for February 4:  
12. Consideration and ACTION on Resolution Number 2014-029, in support of the City Manager’s role as the Chief Executive Officer as authorized under the Brownsville City Charter, Article V, Section 20, and directing that no member or members of the city commission, acting in numbers less than a lawful quorum, may direct the city manager to take any action regarding the use of funds, without city commission members being informed of any transactions or the general business of the City at all times. (Commissioners J. Villarreal and J. Tetreau)

Commissioner Estela Chavez-Vasquez has also been assertive for the past year in questioning contracts presented for approval.  Along with Tetreau and former Commissioner Zamora, the silly Robert C. Luna, coming before the commission, expecting the usual rubber stamp, was frequently sent back to get his facts straight, as in the number of bids received, how many contractors bid, etc.  Eventually, Luna stopped making those presentations.

Commissioner Chavez-Vasquez
At the January 21st meeting, it was Chavez-Vasquez who questioned the $39,000 spent to move the Stillman House twice not coming before the commission.  While Commissioner Gowen and City Attorney Sossi both stated incorrectly that there was no way of knowing the building would have to be moved twice, thus making the two part move two separate contracts, the facts show otherwise.  City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez was quoted in the Brownsville Herald October 18, 2013: "When the house was first moved here, that location was always meant to be a temporary location,” he said. In other words, the city ALWAYS knew the Stillman House would be moved twice. If they did not have a final location in mind, the exact final cost of the two moves may have not been determined, but it would obviously exceed the $35,000 threshold.  Commissioner Chavez-Vasquez was correct.

Veteran City Commissioner Ricardo Longoria spoke up when the nearly passed tripling of downtown parking meter rates came up on the agenda in December.  He also expressed utter shock at the expenditures detailed in Finance Officer Pete Gonzalez' January 21 report of funds already spent from the AEP Texas settlement.  He obviously does not read this blog as much of that had been covered here in the last few months.

Commissioners Villarreal, Tetreau Place Agenda Item to Block Mayor's Out-of-Control, Unilateral Spending~Downtown Parking Meter Raise Not on Agenda

From the editor:  It appears Commissioners Villarreal and Tetreau have placed an item on the agenda for the February 4, 2014 City Commission meeting that will prevent the Mayor or City Commissioners from acting on their own without a quorum or informing the rest of the commission.  This seems aimed at Mayor Martinez, who has been like a bat out of hell in using taxpayer monies unilaterally without consulting or engaging the City Commission.  

Also, of interest, there is nothing on this meeting's agenda to raise downtown parking meter rates.

Below is the agenda item by Villarreal and Tetreau:

12. Consideration and ACTION on Resolution Number 2014-029, in support of the City
Manager’s role as the Chief Executive Officer as authorized under the Brownsville City Charter, Article V, Section 20, and directing that no member or members of the city commission, acting in numbers less than a lawful quorum, may direct the city manager to take any action regarding the use of funds, without city commission members being informed of any transactions or the general business of the City at all times. (Commissioners J. Villarreal and J. Tetreau)

Yolanda Begum, Candidate for Justice of the Peace, Place 2-2, Announces Loteria Saturday at 2 PM

Juan Montoya of "El Rrun Rrun" Blog Shames Tony Martinez, City Commission and City Attorney Mark Sossi

From the editor:  We submit the editorial below from Juan Montoya of El Rrun Rrun blog, detailing the incredible arrogance and lack of concern for the REAL needs of Brownsville citizens displayed by city government.  Mayor Martinez has demonstrated from the get-go of his administration that his primary function is to appease, satisfy and placate outgoing UTB President Juliet Garcia and the shadow governance of United Brownsville, namely Carlos Marin and Fred Rusteberg.  Please take notice of how Martinez gives, gives and gives to the ultra-rich UT system while playing consistent hardball with Texas Southmost College, the historic local educational entity.  

City Attorney Mark Sossi?  No city in the United States besides Brownsville likely would have hired him, given his history of stealing from his previous employer and the Texas Workforce.  Locals who guessed that hiring the City Attorney for private legal needs would be prudent,  have been bitterly disappointed and subsequently filed malpractice lawsuits against Sossi.  

As for the City Commission, they are young, inexperienced and have needed to grow up on the job, but it is way past time for them to get informed, involved and display the necessary intestinal fortitude to curb Martinez.



By Juan Montoya
While we continue to spend thousands of dollars to build Brownsville Mayor at least three new offices, pay his buddies millions for downtown buildings and real estate with future debt, continue to give away valuable properties to the oil-and-gas rich UT System, our poorest people who use mass transit have to wait for the bus like this.
We are even racking up a bill at $39,000 (and climbing) to move a shack someone said belonged to Charles Stillman, the biggest Robber Baron of them all.
We have paid tens of thousands to outside consultants and "experts" to tell us that we need better streets, better sidewalks, and other common sense things that the average municipality needs. And we continue to pay an ethics-challenged city contract attorney hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell the city commission how to get away with not following the law when it comes to freedom of speech at city meetings, how to dole out lucrative contracts without going out for proposals to politically-aligned cronies, and give away the people's hard-earned money ($25,000 a year) to a shadow organization known as United Brownsville that is accountable to no one.
They bring in technocrats who talk about making Brownsville another Austin, San Antonio or Houston.
I once read a book called "The Shame of Cities." They could have used the photo above for its cover.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ramiro Says About Adams Street As Part of Bike Trail: "I Don't Know Where That Came From," But Now We Do

City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez
As we've reported, concern was expressed at the city's Town Hall meeting 1/22/14 about the city using a grant to make a bike trail along one side of E. Adams Street, removing 50 metered parking spaces in the process.  That concern was not addressed at the Town Hall meeting by City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez, who moderated the meeting,  but neither was it discounted as a possibility. 

Our conversation this morning(1/30/14) with Mr. Gonzalez should alleviate some of the fears of downtown property owners with respect to losing the spaces on Adams Street as Gonzalez told us, when asked about putting a bike trail along Adams:  "I don't know where that came from. We're in the process of deciding where to make the connection, but it will not be along Adams Street." Gonzalez, after telling us that a Transportation Enhancement grant for $786,000 had been received to create the bike trail, added that no metered parking spaces would be removed for it.  The project he said would connect the Battlefield Hike and Bike Trail, that runs from Palo Alto Battlefield to Linear Park, with Fort Brown.  

Immediately after running the article about the Transportation Enhancement grant, we received an anonymous comment expressing cynicism: 

AnonymousJanuary 30, 2014 at 9:35 AM
"Guess what? They will do exactly the opposite, they are denying it just to keep the merchants calm"

Brownsville Metro Advisory Board Chairman,
Downtown Property Owner, Daniel Lenz
We also received a call from Brownsville Metro Advisory Board Chairman, Daniel Lenz, who stated that the concern that the bike trail would take parking spaces from Adams Street was not merely a rumor, but part of the Brownsville Metro Board's minutes for their meeting January 15, 2014. 

"Jim, it was definitely not a rumor.  Andrew Munoz, Assistant Director of Brownsville Metro, brought it up.  I don't remember exactly how it came up.  We were discussing parking rates for the downtown garage and Andrew mentioned this as a possibility.  I would suggest you call Andrew and he can tell you where this idea came from, what meeting he attended, etc."

Mr. Munoz did take our call and was very forthcoming.  I mentioned that downtown property owners were concerned about the possibility of losing parking spaces on Adams Street to a bike trail.  

Munoz, said that while he had not been involved in the discussions for the last six months, that, about a year ago he attended a citywide meeting of departments including Health, City Planning, Public Works, Traffic, etc. about connecting the Battlefield Hike & Bike Trail with Fort Brown.  He said a conceptual drawing and plan had to be finalized to submit the grant application.  His recollection is that Adams Street, Jefferson Street, E. 10th Street and E. 11th Street were mentioned.  He does not know exactly what streets were mentioned on the final draft.  He suggested I ask Ramiro Gonzalez for more detail, as he attended the meeting and was more closely involved in the grant request and its finalization.  

Munoz recalls, however, that it was the non-terminal side of Adams Street being considered.  When I asked him about the work completed around La Plaza Multi-Modal Bus Terminal, including the diagonal parking spaces for employees, Munoz stated:  "No, it would not have impacted that.  I believe we were thinking of the other side of Adams."

Piecing the two conversations together, it appears what was being considered was possibly a trail extending up from the end of the Battlefield Hike & Bike Trail at 7th & E. Harrison Street or Tyler to E. 10th Street, then up Adams Street, but, of course, that's conjecture on my part.  It does appear, though, based on Munoz' recollection, that Adams Street was definitely part of the conversation.  A conceptual drawing was including the proposed route was likely necessary to obtain the grant.  Grants are not issued for unspecified requests.  It must all be spelled out.

If another route, not indicating the removal of metered parking spaces, is now being considered, that will be a relief to downtown business owners, but this particular group has heard promises before.  

City Receives $786,000 Transportation Enhancement Grant to Connect Historic Battlefield/Linear Park Bike Trail to Fort Brown

According to Comprehensive City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez, the City of Brownsville has received a "Transportation Enhancement" Grant for $786,000 that will connect the Historic Battlefield Hike & Bike Trail that initiates at Linear Park and currently ends at the Palo Alto Battlefield with Fort Brown.

The good news for Brownville's downtown business owners is that it will NOT use the terminal side of E. Adams Street to make the connection.  That route, some taxpayers feared, would have eliminated 50 metered parking spaces in a city already concerned about downtown parking congestion.

City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez
"Yes, that rumor was out there, but that's not happening," stated Planner Gonzalez, in a phone conversation Thursday morning.  "I don't know where that came from.  We're in the process of deciding where to make the connection, but it will not be along Adams Street."

According to the website Brownsville Talk, discussing the proposed trail back in 2005, this connection may give the city the longest hike and bike trail in South Texas:

"In the near future near future, Brownsville will have the longest hike and bike trail in South Texas and maybe even San Antonio. Once it is completed and stretched linearly, I calculated about 9.1 miles long but doesn't include the section of the trail that UTB/TSC is going to build (called College Park) and the Paseo de la Resaca trail on the intersection of Paredes Line Rd that is already built that will eventually connect to the Brownsville hike & bike trail! Putting these together would equal to about 17 miles of hike and bike trail stretching from the Lincoln Park near UTB/TSC to the Palo Alto Historic National Battlefield Park near Los Fresnos."

The statement by Mr. Gonzalez, that no metered spaces will be removed to connect the Battlefield Hike & Bike Trail with Fort Brown also rules out Jefferson Street from receiving the striping and other accoutrements associated with a bike trail or lane.

Wednesday, January 22, the city held a Town Hall meeting on the ground floor of Market Square to discuss options to relieve parking congestion downtown.  Brownsville's City Commission had considered as an action item a proposal to triple downtown parking meter fees. Numerous downtown owners spoke out at the Town Hall meeting, with a clear majority opposed to the increase.  It was during that meeting that at least one downtown owner expressed concern over a rumor that 50 parking meters would be eliminated on the terminal side of Adams Street from E. 10th to International Blvd., but, according to Mr. Gonzalez, that rumor is unfounded.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Too Much Common Sense for the City of Brownsville

Ernie Hernandez. . . 25 Years of Promises Kept

Is Brownsville's Curbside Recycling Really A Pilot Program?

The website defines a pilot program as:  

"A pilot program, also called a feasibility study or experimental trial, is a small-scale, short-term experiment that helps an organization learn how a large-scale project might work in practice.

A good pilot program provides a platform for the organization to test logistics, prove value and reveal deficiencies before spending a significant amount of time, energy or money on a large-scale project. Typically, a pilot program begins with a proposal that lists the objectives of the pilot program and documents how the program will be carried out. The documentation should also provide a time-line for the pilot and metrics for how success will be determined."

Brownsville's Curbside Recycling Pilot Project is labeled on the United Brownsville website as a program/study, yet the reality may be that the program is being forced on taxpayers whether or not it proves feasible or successful.

Rose Timmer, Executive Director,
Healthy Communities of Brownsville, Inc.
Rose Timmer, Executive Director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, Inc., a non-profit gave a progress report for the pilot program for curbside recycling at the 1/21/14 City Commission meeting.

Timmer referred to the city's attempt at a recycling program in 2009, the actual pilot, as a "failure."  "We didn't follow up or educate properly," she said.

This time around, volunteers were invited to training sessions, involved in "role-play," taught how to approach citizens and given the objectives and rationale for the program.

During October and November of 2013, teams of block-walkers went into four distinct areas of the city to offer the service to 1,200 pre-selected homes.  Door hangers, letters to the homeowner and other materials were provided in English and Spanish.  According to Ms. Timmer, 447 of the 1,200 homeowners approached agreed to participate.  

During the initial trial run, January 6, 2014, the program has a participation rate, Timmer said, of 13%. That means that 58 homes in the four areas actually pushed their recycle bins to the curb. Compared to the 1,200 homeowners offered the program, the participation rate is actually 5%.

Timmer stated that the City of Brownsville spent $17,000 on 1300 recycle bins of which 8 were stolen
Rose Timmer holding recycle bin
(Brownsville Herald photo)
in the first week. Homeowners can get a replacement bin by filing a police report, then calling the city to request another bin, giving the number of the police report.

Following behind the Allied Waste truck picking up the contents of the recycle bins, Timmer was able to follow up on the program.  Noting that one homeowner with whom she had personally talked had not put her bin curbside, she knocked on her door.  The lady still had her bin, but felt that, with just three cans in it, it was not ready to take curbside.  Timmer assured her that the program was weekly, regardless of the contents, and the bin was brought curbside.

In another situation, a man had an extraordinary amount of aluminum cans towering over his bin. Timmer was concerned that the cans might be stolen by someone wanting to exchange them for money.

Curbside recycling block-walkers
"They actually were not stolen, but, that would have been OK," Timmer stated to the commission.  "As long as they're going to recycle them, that's OK."

So, the question is, with only 5% actual participation so far, is the goal to test this project's feasibility, practicality and acceptance by the citizens of Brownsville or will it be implemented come hell or high water because some in the city desire it so?

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Solution to Downtown Parking Congestion Is So Simple, Even a Caveman Could Solve It!

City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez, with the municipal Bible, "The High Cost of Free Parking" tucked safely under his arm, graciously received the glad-handers who approached him after the Town Hall meeting on the proposed parking meter raise.  "Everyone that came up to me after the town meeting was in favor of a parking meter rate increase," Ramiro gushed according to some bystanders.

If Ramiro actually made that statement it went against the grain of 18 or 20 downtown property owners and citizens who spoke at the meeting. When Brownsville Metro Advisory Board Chairman Daniel Lenz called for a show of hands of those against the meter rate increase, an obvious majority raised their hands.  When calling for the same show of hands for those supporting the increase, three well-dressed ladies sitting together on the back row and two or three others raised their hands.  It was not close Ramiro, but spin away!

I'm not certain how much of the public comment four late-arriving city commissioners heard, but one commissioner, Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa, stated that, based on the public comment, she was changing her position.  She was now against raising parking meter rates.  Did Jessica and Ramiro attend the same town hall meeting?

E. Jefferson Street's empty metered spaces
Monday at 11:45 AM
Anyway, after calling City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez Monday morning to ascertain where the city's metered parking lots were located, the lots he said would be available to accommodate downtown employees of city businesses and relieve the congestion downtown, we set out on a pictorial survey. All of the pictures were taken between 11:40 AM and 12:00 PM Monday, January 27th.  For those familiar with Brownsville's downtown, Monday is likely the busiest weekday with ropa segundas featuring their most recent shipments not yet shopped by downtown patrons.   

Our pictures show clearly that downtown Brownsville has no shortage of parking spaces.  On this relatively busy Monday, you could have easily parked three dozen school buses on metered streets downtown.  Adams Street was nearly barren, while Jefferson Street and St. Charles were empty.  The heavy traffic was all on Elizabeth and Washington Streets.  Interestingly, downtown business owner, Reynoldo Garza, Jr., stated exactly this at the Town Hall forum last Wednesday evening.  

The city's metered parking lots at 10th and Washington, 10th and Jefferson, on St. Francis across from City Plaza and another lot at 9th and St. Francis were also monitored.  Some were nearly full, while others were empty.  The top two floors of the unmetered(free) City Plaza parking garage had many empty spaces.

Top Floor of City Plaza Parking Deck
What does this all mean? It means tripling parking meter rates downtown is unnecessary and not even relevant.  If making downtown spaces available in the prime shopping areas downtown is the real, actual goal, a simple assignment of downtown workers to the available spaces just outside Elizabeth, Washington and Adams Streets is  the easy, common sense solution.  Or, as one anonymous city department head suggested, the top two floors of the City Plaza parking garage could be dedicated to downtown workers at a monthly fee of $20.00.  That would give them incentive to park there, saving them $40.00 per month and freeing up the primary downtown streets to shoppers.  

Another ironic thing.  Ramiro is antsy to garner enough revenue from the tripling of meter rates to buy fancy, credit card accessible meters, yet many, many downtown businesses do not accept credit cards. Sometimes that's called being "out of touch."

One downtown parking lot nearly always full is the lot at 10th and Washington across form the popular Casa Anyer used clothing store and one half block from the city commission building. Despite lots available for city employees, a number of city officials park in this metered space, displaying city I.D.'s on the dash of their vehicles so as not to be ticketed. 

The always full lot at 10th and Washington.  The Land Rover
Discovery in the foreground belongs to City Attorney Mark
Sossi who parks in the congested downtown, but places a
city I.D. on his dash to avoid being ticketed.  It would not
hurt Mark to walk a block or two to a designated city lot.

Free Parking for Mayor and City Commissioners.  These spaces
are used twice a month, but must remain empty the rest of the time.

More Specifics About Mayor Martinez' Squandering of AEP Texas Settlement Funds and the Turbulent City Commission Meeting 1/21/14

Mayor Tony Martinez
The disturbing revelation at the January 21, 2013 City Commission meeting that Mayor Tony Martinez had been dipping into the $3,060,000 settlement the city received from AEP Texas for personal whims has shocked many in the community.  Commissioners Villarreal and Portillo had placed an item on the agenda to get control of the remaining balance of that fund before it was liquidated by Martinez:

12. Consideration and ACTION to acknowledge the expenditures paid from the AEP lawsuit settlement proceeds and to approve an expenditure budget from the remaining proceeds.
(Commissioners J. Villarreal/D. Portillo)

City Finance Officer Pete Gonzalez stepped up to the podium after handing each commissioner a copy of a report on how the fund heretofore had been used.  Gonzalez reported that $393,142 of the settlement funds had been spent, leaving a fund balance of $2,666,858.  

The first item of contention was the movement of the historic Stillman House, initially for $25,000 from the King Ranch to the lot next to the Cueto Building, then subsequently to Linear Park for an additional $14,000.  Any expenditure over $35,000 legally must come before the City Commission for approval. The argument by City Manager Cabler, joined by Commissioner Rose Gowen and City Attorney Mark Sossi, was that these moves were two separate contracts.  

Commissioner Estela Chavez-Vasquez
Commissioner Estela Chavez-Vasquez viewed the expenditure as essentially one project split into two operations.  Actually, a case can be made for Vasquez' point of view because no effort was made to ever permanentize the building.  It remained for 11 months, unleveled, without foundation. Commissioner Rose Gowen, trying to reason with Chavez-Vasquez on the issue stated:  "We did not realize we were going to have to move it twice."  City Attorney Mark Sossi echoed that by saying moving the house again was "not contemplated."

Those statements by Gowen and Sossi directly conflict with what City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez told the Brownsville Herald as reported October 18, 2013: "When the house was first moved here, that location was always meant to be a temporary location,” he said.  In other words, the city ALWAYS knew the Stillman House would be moved twice.  If they did not have a final location in mind, the exact final cost of the two moves may have not been determined, but it would obviously exceed the $35,000 threshold.

Commissioner Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa
Two other expenditures were questioned by Commissioner Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa.  "What is the Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Office?" she asked.  Cabler went on to explain that this office would be used for meetings about downtown.  What he did not say, but this blog reported several months ago was that this office at 1101-A E. Washington was originally planned to be Mayor Martinez' downtown office.  A Public Information Request we received from the city showed that a lease was signed by the city to run from October 8, 2013 to October 7, 2014 at $500.00 per month.  $3,505.91 was paid out for materials to refurbish the office. That modest figure did not include labor.  As many as four City of Brownsville trucks could be seen outside the building for several weeks with many workers laboring feverishly. The furnishings were supplied by the mayor, except for the chairs which were from storage.  (The office is not used daily basis and is not open for public access.  At least one meeting has been held there, but in any event, even with a modest lease, it was a foolish waste of tax dollars considering the available space owned by the city.)

Once we initiated two Public Information Requests concerning the property, the mayor changed his mind and decided he wanted an office across the street on 11th.  That is likely not the way the city will spin it, but our request was about the mayor's office specifically concerning the property at 1101-A E. Washington and remember the city admitted the furnishings were supplied by the mayor.  He would have no reason to furnish a space he did not intend to use as his office.  

Commissioner Ricardo Longoria next directed his question to City Manager Cabler:  "Why are we renting downtown properties when we already have empty space, for example as in Pete's office.?" Longoria asked.  

City Manager Charlie Cabler
"That's a good question," Cabler responded, "and it was exactly my question to the mayor."  (As we've reported before, the city has a great deal of empty space without leasing or purchasing more.  City Plaza has available offices.  The entire second floor of Market Square is unoccupied, not to mention the 11 buildings the city purchased last year, including Casa del Nylon for a total of $3.5 million.)  This is where City Manager Cabler and/or Finance Director Pete Gonzalez should simply tell the mayor:  "No, mayor, we can't use settlement funds to rent or purchase property for office space when we already have a substantial amount of office space."  

Commissioner Tetreau-Kalifa asked another question while examining the report in her hand:  "What is this expenditure of $42,000 for a property at 609 E. 11th?"  Cabler answered that it was one of three properties purchased on 11th Street across from the Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Office.  He left the distinct impression they were purchased as a package, but that's not true.  The properties at 615 and 611 E. 11th were purchased for $42,000 and $41,000 respectively, in 2012, not with AEP settlement funds.  The property at 609 E. 11th was purchased this past year sometime after April 2013 when Gonzalez said the city received the settlement. 

So, now the city is refurbishing the properties at 609, 611 and 615 E. 11th for yet another location for Mayor Martinez' office, plus a downtown police substation.
Sign in the window at 611 E. 11th Street

At the City Commission meeting, several commissioners acted surprised at these developments, yet all of this has been reported in this blog. We get the impression of a mayor out of control and commissioners out of the loop.  Two officials who could rein in the mayor, City Manager Charlie Cabler and Finance Director Pete Gonzalez, have not done so.  It's been reported consistently by trusted contacts within the city that many of the city staff live in fear of termination.  If the City Manager or Finance Director were subjected to a termination hearing introduced by the mayor because they stood up to him, protecting taxpayer assets, that termination would not stick.  Brownsville needs a strong City Manager and Finance Director to rein in Mayor Martinez.  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ernie Hernandez, Jr. Vows to "Move Forward" with Campaign, Citing "Hundreds" of Calls of Support, Prayers, Blessings

Ernie Hernandez, Jr.
From the editor:  A few days ago longtime Cameron County politico, Ernie Hernandez, Jr., was indicted on 8 charges.  According to the Brownsville Herald a "grand jury indicted Hernandez earlier this week charging him with two counts of abuse of official capacity, one count of misuse of official information, two counts of tampering with a witness, one count of tampering with government records, one count obstruction or retaliation and one count of coercion of a public servant."

Questions that typically surface regarding a criminally indicted office holder: Will they continue to serve in the office, despite the criminal charges and, if they are seeking re-election, will they suspend their campaign?

Ernie Hernandez, Jr., utilizing online confidant, blogger Bobby Wightman-Cervantes, publisher of the BROWNSVILLE VOICE, answers both those questions in a public statement published on Mr. Wightman's blog. We reprint it below along with our comments in bold type:

"I want to thank all my friends and family for the hundreds of calls that I have received supporting me and asking me to continue our efforts to move forward with our campaign."  "Hundreds," Ernie, really?

"I have served our community for the past 25 years."  Ernie, you've served yourself by unethically profiting from vendor, printing, wrecker and even security contracts with the county, city and BISD.  Does a $25.00 bribe to police dispatchers for NOT answering the calls from other wrecker services, but referring the call to yours sound familiar? 

"I have been elected five times."  Yes, but by what means?  You were quoted in the Brownsville Herald, saying there was nothing wrong with the use of politiqueras.  The evidence clearly showed in the Ruben Pena trial that you stole the 2010 election.  Being elected fraudulently is not a reason to boast.

"The trust from the community has been my biggest reward."  Why then, have you, again and again, abused that trust?

"I am asking everyone to trust me once again."  B.B. King has this response:  "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me."

"The timing is very suspect with the primary less than forty days away."  I tend to agree.  The timing is very suspect.  Saenz should have sought an indictment his first week in office.  The evidence in the Pena trial was still valid, even though you allegedly used Sylvia Garza-Perez to send witnesses home before testifying.

"I am totally innocent of all these allegations and I will my have my day to clear myself in court." The citizens of Cameron County are eagerly anticipating that day.

"Cameron County politics is certainly NOT for the squeamish."  No one could rightfully accuse you of being squeamish, Ernie.  You have world class gall.

"Thank you for your continued, support, prayers and blessings. We move forward!"  Yes, hopefully we do.

Yolanda Begum, Candidate for Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2-2, Chicken Plate Fundraiser

Yolanda Begum for Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2-2. Campaign Event

Daniel Lenz Encourages the City of Brownsville to Embrace Democratic Principles

Daniel Lenz
Brownsville Citizens need to wake up and pay closer attention to what is transpiring within our City Government. Last I knew, our form of Government was a Democracy, but that is not the case with our current City Officials, it appears that we have a Dictatorship that has been festering for some time now by one or more City Officials. 

So here is the definition of what our City Government should be: “Democracy” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary 1 a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections I find it not surprising that many decisions made within our City are totally against the wishes of the majority of the Citizens, but equally find it amazing that we accept this as the norm. At some point this needs to change and it needs to change soon. Years ago, I was the Chairman of Rio del Sol Alliance, a homeowners association for a subdivision located near the Port of Brownsville. We formed this association when the City was annexing our subdivision into the City limits. This was a true Democracy, as the majority of the people made the decisions. 

However, if you wanted to have a say, you needed to show up for our town hall meetings. We had as many as 400 people attend our meetings, great participation. As the Chairman, I represented the people of our subdivision at City Commission meetings, and I did what they wanted me to do. 

I may not have agreed with all the positions they wanted, and certainly I had a chance to sell my views, but I always represented them on what the majority wanted. When will our current City Officials understand this form of Government? 

The people have the power here, and the Commission should do what the majority of the populous wants, whether they agree with it or not. If they are true leaders, then they will present their views and try to sell their views on any issue. 

But in the end, it should be the people’s decision! And one last message to our City Officials, STOP trying to pull the wool over our eyes because everything eventually gets exposed, and when it does you all will pay the price. The supreme power is vested in the people! I encourage all of our Citizens to become more involved on issues that affect our City and our well being. If you choose not to get involved, then there is no room to complain later. 

Daniel Lenz

Friday, January 24, 2014

Turmoil At City Commission Meeting 1/21/2014 As Commissioners Find Out Tony Has Been Using AEP Settlement Funds As a Slush Fund

From the editor:  Some of the city commissioners are just now discovering what we've been posting on this blog for several months; Mayor Tony Martinez is doing whatever damn well he pleases.  Some are just now learning about the mayor's downtown office, the Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Office, the interactive video display system, the broken elevator at El Tapiz building; all subjects we've covered on MMB.  As for the mayor, he does not care one wit about the what city commissioners think and much less individual taxpayers.  He's been footloose and fancy free with taxpayer money and since April 2013 he's been tapping into the $3,060,000 recovered from AEP Texas in a lawsuit, using it as his own personal slush fund.  Commissioners Villarreal and Portillo placed an item on the agenda at the January 21, 2014 City Commission meeting to appraise how those monies had been spent and try to seize control of the balance of that fund.  Below is the actual agenda item:
12. Consideration and ACTION to acknowledge the expenditures paid from the AEP lawsuit settlement proceeds and to approve an expenditure budget from the remaining proceeds.
(Commissioners J. Villarreal/D. Portillo)
Now, the video of the City Commission meeting discussion of that particular agenda item chaired by Mayor Pro-Tem Rose Gowen(video quality slightly less than normal as videotaped off a laptop):

Teresa Saldivar Sounds Off on City Management of Taxpayer Dollars!

Teresa Saldivar
"Considering what I heard at this past weeks meetings regarding the threshold and how quickly city staff was able to spend the three million dollar windfall from the AEP lawsuit and now this musical chairs of offices, it indicates the spending threshold of 35k is to much leeway for our city administration to manage wisely our city's money. The threshold needs to be dropped to fifteen hundred dollars. Any expenditure fifteen hundred or more, must go before the commission and the public for approval. What appears to be happening is a spend thrift of unwise decisions without any real or legitimate planning or strategy. 24k to move a house to one location and then another 14k to relocate it again indicates serious issues within our city administration. This town is broke like a worn out joke and they just keep wasting money while telling us a meter increase is required because there is no money. Well, if they would stop spending it like water flowing in the river, we would have money to do what is really necessary for our community's improvement."

Threshold for Capital expenditures start at $1600.00 + and require council and publics approval. There is no reason for any department to have the authority to spend up to 35k before the commissions and publics approval. That is a huge red flag.

Wednesday's Town Hall Meeting Gives Us a Glimpse of Participatory Democracy

At Brownville's City Commission meetings, the cameras and sound system that, up to that point, have been carefully recording every word uttered by the mayor, city commissioners, city attorneys and planners are turned off, just before the people who pay for everything, the taxpayers, are allowed to speak.  Brownsville TV, Channel 12, displays the above sign accompanied by instrumental guitar until the voters have had their say.

Does that seem like democracy, "people-rule," to you?  Of course, it is not.  It is, as they say in Arkansas, ass-backwards.  The words of the taxpayers, the voters, the people are the most important words spoken in a democracy and should never be banned.  

The Town Hall meeting Wednesday night on the proposed raising of downtown parking fees, held in the Market Square Conference Room, was an outstanding example of the reasoned influence citizens can have on public policy.  City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez spoke for 18 minutes, using materials he had read from books detailing how other parts of the country had handled their downtown parking situation, making a case for tripling parking fees downtown.

Then, the people spoke.  Outside of octogenarian Dagoberto Barrera, who gave a theatrical performance, not particularly relevant, all of the commenters contributed ideas, observations based on personal experience and thoughtful examination of the issue.  After all, this was not merely academic for them, but connected to, in most cases, the survival of their downtown businesses.  We understand two of the commissioners were there for a good part of the meeting and two others joined later.  It should be required viewing for the entire city commission and the mayor, because this city is woefully lacking in citizens who participate in government.  The City Commission's ban on the broadcast of public comment sends a clear message that citizen participation is not wanted.

Something touched on briefly at the Town Hall meeting by Robert Uresti is that city employees park free downtown.  It's very difficult for them to empathize with the employees of downtown businesses who have to feed the meters all day or risk a ticket.  The parking around city hall features several Mercedes, BMWs, Range Rover of city employees with their I.D. on the dash or rear view mirror. These salaried folk make 4 times what downtown city workers make, yet park free.  That's called being "out of touch."

While replaying video from the Town Hall meeting, something caught my eye.  Moderator Ramiro Gonzalez, in setting "ground rules" for the public commenters, promised to come back and summarize the meeting, incorporating the comments from the public into the entire presentation.  That didn't happen.  Could it be that the tone of the meeting didn't go as projected?  Just a thought.

The Case of the Missing $7,247 Video Display and the Moving Downtown Mayor's Office

Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Center
This past October we reported that the mayor was leasing space for a downtown office at 1101-A E. Washington St.  As many as four City of Brownsville trucks could be seen in front of the building with city workers feverishly working to remodel the space.  New commercial safety glass, a unisex bathroom and interior repairs were made.  The initial tip we received indicated plans to install an $8 grand video display system in the space.

We sent a Public Information Request to the city, soon learning that the city had leased the property, but that it was being furnished by the mayor.  As to the display system, we were told that the invoice was for $7,247, but remained unpaid.  The cost of remodeling was given as just under $4,000, which may have included materials, but certainly not labor.

We questioned why the mayor would need to lease another building with the city owning so much unoccupied space at City Plaza, the entire 2nd floor of Market Square and any one of eleven buildings the mayor and city commission purchased with tax dollars this past year.  Certainly, the home next to the Cueto Building, said to be headquarters for the fake entity United Brownsville, could have squeezed in an office for the mayor.  But, no, the mayor had his heart set on this particular office space.  As the song goes:  "What Lola wants, Lola gets."

$7,247 Interactive Video Display
But, sometime around the end of the year, the mayor changed his mind.  A sign was put up on both street entrances of what would have been the mayor's new office, declaring it the Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Center. Did we just get our facts wrong and this was the intended purpose for the leased space all along?  Not likely.  When we sent our original public information request to the city, we asked specifically about the mayor's new office.  We were not told our characterization was incorrect.  Remember, we were also told that the mayor was furnishing it personally.  The tables and other furniture were said to be his, while the chairs were some the city had on hand.  So, the office was definitely intended for the mayor.  But, what about the $7,247 video display screen?  Was it going to be returned or would the invoice be paid?

We sent in another Public Information Request to the city and waited.  Around the first of the year we learned from the City Secretary and the Finance Department that the invoice for the video display system had been paid on December 31, 2013.    Although frequently downtown, taking the opportunity to peer in to the newly leased office, we never caught a glimpse of the new video display screen. Then, we got another tip.  Someone said they had observed two men moving what appeared to be a large flat screen tv from the office at 1101-A E. Washington down 11th street on a cart.  The mystery screen had disappeared before we had even seen it.

Tony's Newest "New" Downtown Office
The rumors kept coming.  Tony had evidently changed his mind.  His planned new office had morphed into the Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Information Center and work had started across the street on 11th St. in three small cubicles the city purchased last year.  A sign on one of the windows cited construction of the mayor's "central downtown office" and a "police substation."  Still, there had been no sighting of the now paid for interactive video display screen.

It was at the Town Hall meeting this past Wednesday that someone whispered to me: "Jim, that screen behind Ramiro is the new video screen you've been writing about.  They tried to take it to the Planning Department in El Tapiz building, but the elevator is broken and so they left it here."

Interesting.  We did an article last month on the city's annexed El Tapiz building, which houses the Fire Department Administration, the Planning Department and MPO, not being A.D.A. compliant with the elevator not functioning.  That means that those with disabilities do not have access to those city departments.  The able-bodied use a service stairs to go to floors two and three.

So, taxpayers, our new video display screen has been located.  It is on the ground floor of the Market Square building.  The new mayor's office has become the headquarters for downtown revitalization and yet another location is being remodeled for Tony's "central" downtown office.  Confusing, isn't it?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ramiro Becomes an Easy Out, Succumbs to Downtown Pitching

City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez
Pinch-hitting for Mayor Tony Martinez at 2014's first town hall meeting, City Planner Ramiro Gonzalez hit a lazy pop fly that was caught in shallow left field at Market Square.  In choosing a baseball analogy, we decided not to say that Ramiro struck out.  That visual image is reserved for City Commissioner John Villarreal who whiffed on several levels at Wednesday evening's conclave of downtown parkers.

John won't understand this, but Wednesday was his moment. Downtown is in District 4, his district. The business owners speaking were his constituents.  He missed an opportunity to hit a home run off a t-ball setup by embracing this issue and listening to the people he pretends to represent.  He even distanced himself further from them when he said:  "Hi.  My name is John Villarreal.  I'm the City Commissioner for District 4.  Of course, I don't live downtown.  I live in West Brownsville."

Then, he went on to chastise, chide and reprimand those who came for not speaking up earlier, as in at
City Commissioner John Villarreal
the first reading of the agenda item to raise the downtown parking meter rates.  What likely went over John's head is the trickiness with which that agenda item was written, disguising its intent.

But Villarreal was not the only city official whose political skill set was exposed.  Forever lost on Mayor Martinez is that this so-called town hall meeting was a near perfect display of an uninhibited, rational public comment segment that could be included in the first class seats at city commission meetings had not Tony chosen to extend the anti-democratic Sossi/Ahumada ban on the broadcast of public comment.

But, with Mayor Tony AWOL and Commissioner John not up to the task,  town hall night belonged to Ramiro and his sidekick Roman McAllen.  The wooden chairs on the ground floor of the Market Square conference room fanned out at angles pointing toward the new interactive video screen just purchased by the city for $7,247.  Ramiro stood to one side of the expensive screen.  A microphone stand was set up in front of the seating, faced so speakers would face Ramiro with their back to the audience, giving the impression that citizens were petitioning the emperor.

Old Pasadena
During Mr. Gonzalez' presentation he read segments from a guidebook entitled "The High Cost of Free Parking" and compared Brownsville to the older sections of once-decaying Pasadena, California.  I anticipated at that point the "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" jumping from behind the screen, holding up three freshly minted quarters for the parking meter.  Towards the end of the presentation, the screen showed a quote from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, possibly a subliminal hint of non-violence to the audience.

As each commenter came forward with ideas, criticisms and personal experiences, City Planner II, Ramon McAllen, standing next to a 6 foot tall flip chart,  acknowledged each original idea with an off-Broadway-worthy "I noted that" gesture, swept around and wrote the words of wisdom on the chart.  It was an overly obvious gesture that citizen input was being recorded for serious later study as if everyone had forgotten that the agenda item nearly passed without any discussion at the last city commission meeting.

The Out-of-Towner
In the end, an uncreative idea met with several expressed creative options.  Any governing entities can simply raise fees, taxes or fines to get revenue, but the city used a rationale for the increases that could be fixed without such a dumb, insensitive, business-killing move.  If downtown workers, taking up parking spaces all day IS the problem, let them use one of the 4 or 5 ALREADY parking-spaced ready lots owned by the city.  Attorney Trey Mendez suggested downtown workers park free, thus freeing up downtown spaces and see what happens.  Daniel Lenz suggested waiting until the downtown parking garage is completed in November, then reassessing the parking situation.  Reynoldo Garza, Jr. suggested imposing a two hour limit on downtown parking and enforcing it.  All of these are common sense ideas not necessitating a tripling of fees, purchasing new meters or the mayor staying "out of town" until the issue is resolved.

Letty Perez-Garzoria, Ernesto Elizondo, Jr., Mr. Parra Speak at Town Hal...

George Ramirez, Attorney Trey Mendez, Daniel Lenz Share Ideas at Town Hall

Abraham Galonsky, Roberto Zamora, Attorney Dennis Sanchez Address the To...

Robert Uresti Blasts the City and the Planning Department at Town Hall

Mean Mister Brownsville Makes A Cameo Appearance at Town Hall Meeting followed by Dr. Gustavo Stern

Teresa Saldivar Addresses Town Hall Meeting

Realtor Larry Holtzman Addresses Town Hall on Proposed Parking Meter Fee...

The meeting was set up so speakers would face Planning Director Ramiro Gonzalez with their backs to the audience.  Later, that got adjusted as speakers naturally turned to face the group.

Dagoberto Barrera Praises the "Pros": "We're Behind You Brother!"

City Planner Ramiro Garza's Opening Power Point Promoting Downtown Parki...

Downtown Property Owners Share Their Concerns About Increased Parking Rates at Mayorless Town Hall Meeting

Market Square Conference Room
It was in some ways a clash of generations; thirty-something City Planners Ramiro Gonzalez and Roman McAllen with a carefully orchestrated power point documentary based on a municipal reference book,  "The High Cost of Free Parking," using the city's newest toy, a $7,247 video display system, coming face to face with older, but equally confident, property owners and citizens with handheld notes and life experience.  Gonzalez made the same points he had been making, that tripling the meter rates downtown would "turn" those parking spaces more rapidly, accommodating additional shoppers. The city's proposed approach to downtown employees "pumping quarters" all day to hold parking spaces was to send them to city-owned parking lots just a few blocks away for $60.00 per month.

The motive for tripling downtown meter rates was to create a revenue stream for the elusive "downtown revitalization," a concept the city has been unsuccessfully pursuing for four decades.    
City's new interactive video display system

Outside of the obligatory bombast from octogenarian Dagoberto Barrera and a spirited scolding from Robert Uresti, none of the 19 public commenters raised their voices.  

Larry Holtzman, downtown realtor and property owner, was willing to see the rate raised to 50 cents per hour, but wanted specified lots for downtown employees with clear signage directions.

Reynoldo Garza, Jr. opposed a "one size fits all approach," stating that some parking spots were more critical than others.  He said enforcing a two hour limit was a better option than raising the rate.

Robert Uresti said city planners had "mismanaged" downtown, city officials had placed heavy certificates of obligation on Brownsville taxpayers, raised utility rates with little to show for it.  He suggested the city planners "open their eyes" and tell the mayor to "wake up."

Larry Jokl stated that he owned an empty 6000 square foot building on Elizabeth and two empty buildings on Levee Street.  "Let's find tenants for our downtown buildings before we raise rates."

Attorney Dennis Sanchez said the forum had "sensitized" him to the actual situation of downtown merchants and employees.  "We did a study in 2011.  Everyone was on board then with raising rates, because all in the room were "lucky enough to have money. We need a more complete plan than simply raising rates."

Daniel Lenz, chairman of the Brownsville Metro Advisory Board and a downtown property owner, emphasized creating a "destination first," before raising fees.  He stated that the ground would be broken in March for the downtown parking garage with completion likely by Thanksgiving.  Lenz asked for a show of hands of those opposed to increased parking fees.  A clear majority seemed opposed, while primarily city staff favored the increased rate.

District 2 City Commissioner Tetreau
While the mayor made it clear he would be out of town for the event, 4 city commissioners showed up during the meeting with Commissioners Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa and John Villarreal addressing the citizens.

Tetreau thanked the citizens for their participation and stated her opposition to the meter rate  increase.

John Villarreal chided the audience for not showing up for the initial public comment at the first reading of the agenda item to raise the meter rates.  He said only one commenter showed up at the city commission meeting on December 10.  

What Villarreal neglected to mention was the ambiguous wording of that agenda item, a slick attempt to conceal the intent of the city to raise the rates.  Here is the original language for the first reading:

6. Public Hearing and ACTION on FIRST READING on Ordinance Number 2013-736-O to amend the City Code of Ordinances, Chapter 98 “Traffic and Vehicles”; ARTICLE V “Stopping, Standing, and Parking”, promulgating a new Division 6 “Parking Meters”, and adding Sections 98-382, 98-383, with Sections 98-384-98-410 to remain reserved, and dealing with related matters. (Ramiro Gonzalez – Planning)

During the forum, City Planner II, Roman McAllen, took copious notes on a standing flip-sheet, documenting the concerns.  As Robert Uresti noted in his speech:  "All of you commissioners were on the bandwagon.  If not for Commissioner Ricardo Longoria, this increase would have passed."


Self-Portrait by Josie del Castillo