bloggin' all things brownsville

Friday, May 30, 2008

Border Wall Vigil Sunday at Alice Wilson Memorial Park

Full-scale construction of the new border fencing has begun in San Diego/Tijuana, and is scheduled to begin in Hidalgo this July.

In response, a coalition of community-based organizations will hold a vigil at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Alice Wilson Memorial Park formerly known as Hope Park.

Vigils will also be held at Friendship Park in San Diego and Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park.

The vigil is called "From Friendship To Hope – Gathering for the Future of the U.S.-Mexico Border." These "Friendship to Hope" gatherings at either end of the 1900-mile border will serve as the vigils' symbolic anchors.

For more information, call Adrienne Evans at (432) 371-2725. The Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity & Action (CASA) is sponsoring the Brownsville vigil. Hope Park is located at E. 12th St. and E. St. Charles St.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sail the South Seas

A fellow blogger, and a friend I hope to someday meet, will soon embark on a nautical journey. His blog details the preparations he's making for a trip he's dreamed of taking for months, if not, years. I check the countdown he has posted to see how many days, hours, minutes and seconds are left to hit the seas. And, I grow more envious with each read as if I, too, am about to set sail. Today, I found a quote posted on his blog that changed my attitude altogether.

"I've always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can't afford it." What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security." And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone.
The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

-Sterling Hayden (1916-1986)

Why must I be envious? Why must we be envious of others when we can change the course of our own lives? We are behind the wheel of our own destiny, our own fate. Chalking up life's rough patches to karma is the cowardly, yet, smooth-sailing path to take.

Do something to change the monotonous course of your life and your surroundings if you are truly unhappy. No longer settle for content, but rather, create your own happiness.

We write, we bitch, we yell and we moan over many issues facing Brownsville. Corrupt politicians. The Border Wall. Crappy streets. The weedy lot next door. Sub-standard education. High utility rates. Blah. Blah. Blah. And when see the same travesties committed against us over and over, we relent to what's easy --accepting things the way they are, because they've alway been that way.

What gets me is when the same folks take part in the public comment period of just about every meeting -- UTB, the City of Brownsville, Cameron County Commissioners' Court, PUB -- and folks laugh or brand them "usual suspects." We should instead applaud them for having what it is the majority of us fail to discover within ourselves -- the courage to do something, anything, which is more than what the majority of us do, nothing.

If only all of us could be so bold as to leave behind our usual course and hold on tight for whatever bumpy ride may come so to arrive at the happiness we all truly desire.

And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone.The years thunder by. ... Before we know it the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice.

The battle we face is not with karma or fate, but with ourselves.

I know I'm ready to sail the South Seas.

Are you?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Multicultural Judge

I snapped this shot of the ever-so talented Judge Ben Neece at last night's 2nd Annual Noche de Peña held at Galleria 409 in downtown Brownsville. Fantastic music by local talent.

I don't remember the name of the instrument he's playing. Anyone?

Break Time

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cameron County Auditor Selected, Commissioners to Consider Litigation Against Red River Corp.

Interim Cameron County Auditor Martha Galarza will remove the interim from her title upon County Commissioners’ approval of the district judges' appointment.

Commissioners’ Court will likely rubber stamp the appointment at Tuesday’s 5 p.m. regular meeting.

Galarza was named interim county auditor after former auditor Robert Almon was suspended in April and later resigned his post earlier this month.

Almon had replaced former auditor Mark Yates who was indicted in September for failing to comply with the competitive bidding process. He was cleared of all charges this year after voluntarily entering a pre-trial diversion program offered to first-time offenders of non-violent crimes.

In other business, the Court will consider county-wide solid waste and brush collection services. However, in executive session, the Court will discuss litigation against Red River Corp. for possible breach of the solid waste collection contract.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Active Military Can Defer Property Taxes

I received an e-mail today from U.S. Air Force Capt. and pilot Jose Iraheta about a predicament he and his family found themselves in recently. He felt fellow troops should know what options are available when it comes to paying property taxes, otherwise, they may find themselves fighting to keep their homes.

Texas law allows for active military serving outside of the state to defer payment on property taxes until either they return to Texas or are discharged. Knowing the law, Iraheta filed the necessary paperwork where his family resides in Harris County.

However, he received notice that he was being sued while he was off fighting in the Middle East. He was told he owed $7,000 in back taxes including $3,000 in attorney fees and penalties. And, the county was ready to sell his home in a foreclosure sale to collect.

He acted quickly to bring the deferment to the county’s attention. The mistake was traced to the law firm of Linebarger, Goggan Blair and Sampson – the firm that collects unpaid taxes for Harris County, which by the way, collects for Cameron County, too, and other RGV taxing entities.

Fortunately, Iraheta's problem was resolved, but what I found interesting was that only 20 active military have taken advantage of the deferment in Harris County – a county with about a population of about 4 million people.

So, how many Valley military serving outside of Texas do you think are aware of this law? I don’t have an answer. Considering the mortgage crisis we are facing here, and folks rapidly losing their homes due to adjustable mortgages, I hope all county officials are doing what they can to get the word out.

Perhaps there’s a system in place here already. However, if Harris County didn’t have its ducks in a row, our ducks are likely zig-zaggin’ and headed for the North Pole.

For KHOU News’ story and video on Iraheta, click here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On the Texas Borderline, A Solid, if Invisible, Wall

A fantastic piece was published in today’s Washington Post. Its author, Michelle Garcia, is a South Texas native, and I feel those roots are what made her writing true to what many of us here feel about the border wall debate.

I encourage you to read it. Love it or hate it, please take the time to provide Garcia with some feedback through the essay’s comments section.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

On the Texas Borderline, A Solid, if Invisible, Wall

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Yolanda Villalobos Appointed to Regional Mobility Authority Board

Cameron County Commissioners’ Court voted at its Tuesday meeting to appoint Yolanda Villalobos to the Regional Mobility Authority Board for a two-year term.

The appointment was placed on the agenda by County Judge Carlos Cascos.

Yolanda Villalobos’ husband is District Attorney Armando Villalobos.

I don’t generally post on appointments, but this one piqued my interest since the District Attorney and Judge Cascos haven’t always seen eye to eye.

I'm pleased to see an intelligent woman appointed to the board, but the appointment is curious to say the least.

According to the RMA Web site, "the purpose of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority is to provide the area with an opportunity to significantly accelerate needed transportation projects and have a local entity in place that will make mobility decisions that will benefit the community, while enhancing the economic vitality and quality of life for the residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley."

Yolanda Villalobos' term ends Feb. 1, 2010.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

There has been much talk lately (and so soon) on who will be running for Cameron County judge. I know it's early for a poll, but it'll be here before you know it. I know Judge Cascos plans to run again, and former Brownsville Mayor Eddie Trevino plans to challenge him. However, I haven't heard definites from the others, only rumors. Apparently, it's not too early for the rrrun rrrun!

Remember, this is just an informal poll ... let us know why you're standing behind a particular candidate.

Vote Vote Vote!

If you want to just view results, be careful not to click on the "VOTE" button. Otherwise, you'll be voting for Carlos Cascos.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

BATB Letter to the Editor

Below is an e-mail I received for the blog.



May 20, 2008

To whom it may concern:

Interesting how Democrat supporters are not scrutinized for supporting presidential candidates that voted for the Secure Fence Act. What has Clinton and Obama done? At least Cornyn and Hutchison have been actively engaged in their attempts to try to amend the act by forcing DHS to communicate with local leaders and property owners. Early on in Judge Cascos’ administration, he went to Washington , D.C. to speak with Cornyn to propose a levee as an alternative to the fence. He even has the picture to prove it and it’s posted on his webpage! Thanks to those efforts Hidalgo County will have a levee/wall combo and Cameron County better hope that they are extended the same courtesy because if Hidalgo County fixes its levees the water will run downstream to Cameron County . Which leaves one question; Can Cameron County ’s levees handle that?

Mayor Ahumada’s ( Brownsville ) comments in the Rio Grande Guardian (May 15, 2008 Foster: Filing the border fence lawsuit was a last resort) regarding his disappointment that Cameron County did not join Texas Border Coalition’s lawsuit against the federal government are misguided. He alludes that Cameron County did not join the lawsuit because of a Republican County Judge and a Republican administration in Washington ??? What??? This is coming from a man that in the past ran as a Republican against Congressman Solomon Ortiz. Cameron County ’s predominantly Democrat County Commission did not support it. The Brownsville City Commission that is all Democrat did not support it. Hidalgo County’s all Democrat County Commission did not support it.. Republicans have crossed party lines regarding the fence issue because it is not a partisan issue but why do Democrats insist on making it one.


Valentina P. Bazan

Take Advantage of Sales Tax Holiday This Weekend for Energy-efficient Products

Going green can mean spending less green this weekend.

Texans can take advantage of a sales tax holiday when purchasing energy-efficient products. The sales tax holiday begins at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, May 24, and ends at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, May 26 (Memorial Day).

According to a prepared statement from the office of state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, House Democrats successfully fought during the 80th Legislature for positive environmental reforms, and this weekend will be the first time Texans can enjoy savings on Energy Star-qualified products.

“The purpose of the sales tax holiday is to encourage Texans to make smarter choices that can benefit you both now and in the future,” Lucio said. “Environmental issues hold a special place in my heart; please note that I will continue to give full consideration to all environmental issues during my work in the Legislature.”

Energy Star-designated appliances meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They significantly use less energy and water.

This weekend’s Sales Tax Holiday applies to the following Energy Star products:

-Air conditioners priced under $6,000 (room and central units)
-Clothes washers;
-Ceiling fans;
-Light bulbs (incandescent and fluorescent);
-Programmable thermostats; and
-Refrigerators priced under $2,000.

These are big, big saving, both economically and environmentally, so take advantage of the tax break this weekend.

For more information about the tax holiday, visit the Texas Comptroller’s Web site at

West Loop Project Public Meeting May 29

The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority will host a public meeting May 29 to discuss the proposed West Loop.

The meeting takes place from 6-8 p.m. at the UTB-TSC ITEC Campus, 301 Mexico Blvd.

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss and receive comments on the ongoing environmental study, the proposed alternatives and the design of the proposed West Loop project. This proposed transportation project would be located between the B&M Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border and the US 77/83 expressway, a distance of about eight miles.

The proposed facility would consist of a tolled four-lane controlled-access roadway with interchanges and connections at strategic locations, and grade separated intersections for limited street crossings in Brownsville.

The public meeting will be in an open-house format. Maps of the project area and other displays will be available for review and comment. Verbal or written comments may be presented at the meeting, or written comments may be mailed after the public meeting to Ms. Erika Salazar, C/O HNTB Corporation, 1805 Ruben Torres Sr. Blvd, Suite A-15, Brownsville, TX 78521. Comments may also be faxed to (956) 554-7509 or e-mailed to All coments received by June 9 will become part of the public meeting record.

For more information about this project, call CCRMA Coordinator Pete Sepulveda at (956) 982-5414.

Go Blue

Zipper, a BATB reader, submitted these photos taken last week of a Brownsville police officer assisting a woman with a flat tire. Kudos to the officer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cornyn Not Fenced Off: Cascos Offers Endorsement

Here's an excerpt from today's Houston Chronicle article, "Friendships Follow Tax Dollars." I especially like the last paragraph. Not many Valley folks (and bloggers) care to even exchange handshakes with Sen. Cornyn these days.

Cornyn not fenced off

The battle between Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic challenger Rick Noriega for South Texas votes continued with Cornyn's endorsement over the weekend by more than two dozen community leaders.

Many are Hispanic, most are elected officials and, according to Cornyn's campaign, most are Democrats.

One of the more prominent endorsers, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, is a Republican. And some others, including Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz and Mission Mayor Beto Salinas, have supported both Democrats and Republicans, including Perry.

Many belong to the Texas Border Coalition, which sued the federal government last week to block construction of a fence along the Mexican border, which Cornyn and most other senators voted to authorize.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jaguarundi Spotted ...

... not really ... just my dear friend, Eduardo Paz-Martinez. The blogger is back and his hit-and-run appearances are as elusive as the rarely spotted (and photographed) jaguarundi of these here parts. So, check out his blog now before it soon tires of its surroundings and disappears into the brushy, cacti-filled habitat we call the RGV blogosphere to find more unsuspecting prey.

I'm really enjoying his blog. Check it out.

DP-M Nation -- Nothing But Blue Skies ...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Border Patrol's Immigration Checks During Evacuations Continue to Cause Outrage

Below is an e-mail sent Thursday by the attorney for the City of McAllen to RGV Emergency Management officials over a recent hurricane evacuation mock exercise and Border Patrol's participation. Will Cameron County follow suit? I sure hope so. Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos is seeking a "compromise." The County sought a compromise with the border wall issue, to no avail. Now this? I'm a strong believer in compromises, but there comes a time to burn that white flag of complacency and roll up those sleeves.

Should we see a Category 4 or 5 hurricane come our way, there will be thousands of people evacuating. Not everyone adequately prepares, and necessary documentation will be left behind. There will be no doubt a bottleneck at our checkpoints and even more so now.

Brownsville Herald Editor Rachel Benavidez commented within a May 15 article about this topic:

"The issue here is that these screenings could act as a deterrent for people seeking safe shelter from an impending storm. While national security is as important as personal security -- perhaps even synonymous in our times -- the detrimental effects of these arguably necessary checks could be the cost of human lives. If the need to weed out undocumented immigrants is the rock, hurricane season may well prove to be the hard place."




In discussions with many of you over the past day or so, I think we are all equally concerned (maybe “outraged” is a better word?) by the Border Patrol’s actions and position on this matter. (I may be perhaps more so than some because I saw this happening first hand to some of the kind volunteers who participated in the exercise.) I am of the opinion that the B.P. and we as the organizers of the exercise, first and foremost, owe a formal apology to those folks who were subjected to this treatment during the exercise.

Second, I have mentioned to a couple of you that I am drafting a letter for my Mayor’s signature to the Border Patrol and Immigration (and perhaps D.H.S.) to express his concern over this situation, both as to the exercise and, more importantly, this policy as it would effect future actual events. That letter will be appropriately diplomatic, but never the less strong in its objection to this process and clear as to our opinion as to the “chilling” effect that this will have on our efforts to get people out of harm’s way. (It may also mention our doubts as to the BP’s ability to “evacuate” and/or shelter people they take into custody.)

Some of the EM’s have indicated that their elected officials would be interested in signing such a letter. If your elected officials would be interested in signing on to such a letter, (you will of course see a draft before committing), then please let me know by return email. (Unfortunately, due to a pending trip, I will not be able to have the actual draft to you until probably next Monday.)

In addition to the foregoing, let me add the following: the “position” taken by B.P. spokespersons in these reports (and on Channel 5 last night) is completely at odds with both what we personally told at the AAR about this situation and my understanding of our collective “plan.” (I was particularly upset with the spokesperson’s comment that he did not want to “be responsible for allowing a terrorist on the bus” with the other evacuees. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if there is a terrorist at the evacuation hub, aren’t they already responsible for letting them into the country in the first place?)

I believe I have fairly strongly expressed (on behalf of the City of McAllen and the MACC) our concern about this and request that it be reconsidered. Also, speaking strictly as the City Attorney for the City of McAllen, I will be recommending a policy that would prohibit these agencies from engaging in this behavior on City property without our express consent, which they will not have during an evacuation. (You may be interested to learn that they (B.P.) engaged in similar behavior at the UTPA graduation ceremony at the Convention Center last Saturday night. Our City staff had to have them removed from the facilities. Higher ups claimed the agents that did so were acting without their knowledge or authority.)

We all know how information “spreads” in the Valley, especially as regards immigration related matters and I fear they have already done significant damage to our efforts to encourage people to evacuate. I am having trouble imagining anything that will undermine our efforts more than this ill-conceived policy and “P.R.” stunt by the Border Patrol.

(I want to note that, in speaking with the actual agents at the event, they are not any more comfortable with this than we are. Therefore, I think this represents “official” B.P. policy and I don’t mean to speak ill, personally, of any of the individual agents.)

Kevin Pagan
City Attorney
City of McAllen, Texas

Friday, May 16, 2008

Quote of Interest: Ahumada on TBC Lawsuit and County's Failure to Join

An ANON submitted this comment on my Border Coalition post.


The following is an excerpt of comments made today by our Mayor in DC that came out in a story in the Rio Grande Guardian:

Ahumada was asked how disappointed he was that Cameron County commissioners declined to join the lawsuit. Commissioner John Wood tried to get a resolution to be debated but could not persuade any of his colleagues to bring the issue up.

“Well, you have a Republican County Judge (Carlos Cascos) and a Republican administration in Washington. I don't know if that's a factor, but I know the public is strongly against this border wall,” Ahumada said.

“I hope we will prevail in court. We really don't need a fence to secure the border we have a unique heritage and they should not try to force this down our throat. People really need to think very seriously about the implications of this border wall.”

PHOTO SOURCE: Rio Grande Guardian

Ordinance Amendment Concerning Agenda Preparation, Conduct and Public Comment at City Meetings on Next Agenda


The City Commission agenda for Tuesday's 6 p.m. agenda is out. For the full agenda, click here.

One item of interest sticks out for me:

Public Hearing and ACTION on FIRST READING of Ordinance Number 2008-1090-E to amend Ordinance Number 2007-1090-D of the City Code of Ordinances regarding the preparation of agendas, the conduct of City Commission meetings, public comment and dealing with related matters. (James R. Goza – City Attorney)

In other words, quit yer misbehavin', folks! There are several proposed changes to this ordinance. Here's what's highlighted in the agenda binder for "CONDUCT":

If any member of the City Commission makes comments of a personal nature, or in any other manner disrupts the orderly conduct of business, in the course of discussion or action on a given Agenda Item, any member of the City Commission may call the behavior to the attention of the disruptive member, who must cease said behavior. Should the City Commission member refuse to comply, the individual may be removed from the dais by a two-thirds (2/3rds) majority vote, upon motion and second, of the City Commission.

Other amendments to the ordinance are in bold and red:

1. Items to be placed on the agenda must include supporting information when presented for City Manager’s (or his designee’s) review and signature at the Agenda Review Meeting. One original (clipped), of each item, must be presented.
2. Regular City Commission meeting agendas shall be posted at City Hall by the Friday of the week before said meeting, by 5:00 p.m. The Agenda shall also be electronically posted on the City’s website by 6:00 p.m. Agenda/Meeting packets shall be delivered to Commissioners on Friday afternoon.
6. All new ordinances (except those dealing with bonds) shall be brought before the Commission twice, once for Public Hearing and First Reading, and the second time for Second and Final Reading. [City Charter]
8. An item titled “Public Comment” shall be included as a numbered item on the agenda which shall be listed after the Public Hearings Section of the Regular City Commission Meeting agenda, to provide a time for brief comment by the public regarding issues which are not included on the agenda for that meeting.

1. Matters that have been voted on by the City Commission shall not be placed on the agenda for reconsideration within six (6) months, unless a member of Commission on the prevailing side, or a Commission member appointed or elected to Commission since the matter was considered, makes a written request (E-mail or fax included) to reconsider the matter in question.
2. Matters voted on by the City Commission, which end in a tie vote, shall automatically be placed on each subsequent Commission agenda until a decision is made. The Mayor is authorized to break a tie vote.

Routine business that is brought before the City Commission may be considered under an agenda item called “Consent Agenda.” All items appearing under “Consent Agenda” shall be approved, adopted, accepted, etc., by one motion of the City Commission. If the consent agenda contains minutes of a meeting, which one or more commission members did not attend, an abstention will be recorded for each those members. The agenda will contain the names for those absent from each meeting in parentheses after the meeting date to officially record the absence. Specific consent agenda items may be set aside from the consent agenda by the Mayor, a Commission member, the City Manager or a member of the public for separate discussion and action.


a. Any person who wishes to address the City Commission must register with the City Secretary by 6:00 p.m., prior to the start of any regularly scheduled Commission meeting by submitting a completed “Public Comment” form. This form must be filled out completely in order to address the City Commission.
b. In accordance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Commission cannot take action on or discuss any subject brought up during “Public Comment”. However, the Mayor, or any Member of the City Commission, may add the issue to a future Commission agenda or refer it to the proper City Department for action. Commission members shall be allowed to briefly respond to comments when they deem it necessary, but not engage in a lengthy discussion.

Associations to Submit Old City Cemetery for Consideration as National Historic Site

The Brownsville Historic Association and the Historic Brownsville Museum Association meets at 6 p.m. today at the Alonzo Building to discuss the Texas Historical Commission application to designate the Old City Cemetery as a National Historic Site.

The public is invited to provide input. The Alonzo Building is located at 501 E. St. Charles St.

CALL TO ACTION! Save Affordable Birth Control

Below is an e-mail sent to BATB.



Good morning advocates and supporters!

I am directing you to a link to the federation Web site to help you learn more about the pill-pricing issue and how it's affecting thousands of women across the country. It also will allow you to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! As you scroll down, you will find a way to "contact your congressman". I encourage you to do so. It's easy and takes about 5 minutes. Thanks for your help!

Terri Lievanos
Director of Community Affairs
Planned Parenthood of Cameron & Willacy Co.
370 Old Port Isabel Rd.
Brownsville, TX 78521
(956) 546-4574 ext. 106
(956) 544-6033 fax

TBC Members to Discuss Border Wall Lawsuit at Washington, D.C., News Conference


Members of the Texas Border Coalition (TBC) will hold a news conference this morning in Washington, D.C. to discuss the filing of a federal lawsuit against U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff over the planned border wall in Texas.

The lawsuit will be filed today in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Attending the news conference are Eagle Pass Mayor and TBC Chairman Chad Foster; McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada; Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas; Dennis Nixon, president and CEO of International Bank of Commerce in Laredo and chairman of International Bancshares Corp.; Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president of International Bank of Commerce and TBC treasurer; and Los Angeles attorney Peter Schey, president and executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.

The Texas Border Coalition (TBC) is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect more than 6 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville. TBC is working closely with the state and federal government to educate, advocate, and secure funding for transportation, immigration and ports of entry, workforce and education and health care. For more information, visit the coalition Web site at

48 Hours to Broadcast Traci Rhode Case

I know The Herald has this already, but I thought I'd supplement it with the preview video and the accompanying CBS presss release. ~Melissa




From high school sweethearts to doting parents of three, Traci and Scott Rhode, seemed a devoted couple, even after 20 tumultuous years together. Then on October 15, 2003 the life they knew together ended when Scott suffered a gunshot wound to the head in the couples’ Brownsville, Texas home. And for Traci the ordeal was just beginning.

With Scott’s death, the couple’s picture perfect image was shattered. Traci described Scott as a troubled man, so possessive and paranoid she was cheating on him, that he moved the family several times. It was this dark side, she maintains, that led him to shoot himself.

Investigators believed differently. With Traci’s questionable relationship with a co-worker and Scott’s meeting with a divorce attorney, the case had all the ingredients of a classic murder plot – a love interest, a motive and the suspicious behavior of a pretty, young wife.

Was this a murder made to look like a suicide? To authorities it seemed as such and after a tireless two-year investigation, Traci was arrested in the death of her husband, which she says was a suicide being made by the prosecution to look like murder.

Brownsville was a community divided, some crying for mercy, others crying for blood. And Traci’s fate lay in the hands of the jurors, who were about to deliver a jaw dropping decision.

Harold Dow reports on 48 HOURS MYSTERY: "Point Blank," Saturday, May 17 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. This broadcast is produced by Liza Finley. Judy Tygard is the senior producer and Al Briganti is the executive editor. Susan Zirinsky is the executive producer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

TSC Board to Approve Resolution Honoring Zimmerman, Hear Report on Institute for Public Service

The Texas Southmost College Board of Trustees meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the UTB-TSC Gorgas Board Room.

For the full agenda, click here.

Agenda items of interest include:

Resolution honoring Ms. Dolly Zimmerman for her 13 years of service to the board.

Zimmerman was elected to a second term on the Board of Trustees in May 2002. She was first appointed to the Board in 1995 to fill a vacancy. She is Co-Chair of the Student Affairs Partnership Committee and a member of the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Committee. She attended Texas Southmost College.

Retired UTB-TSC Professor Rene Torres will replace her. He took the election with 3,951 votes against Petrita “Tita” Esparza Tamez’s 2,521.

Adoption of resolution naming the arts center orchestra pit the IBC Bank Orchestra Pit.

Elections update.

And on to the run-off between Adela Garza and Jaime Silva!

Report on new programs and Institute for Public Service.

What the heck is the Institute for Public Service? Isn’t that what the UTB-TSC Center for Civic Engagement is? Perhaps it will fall under Director Joseph Zavaletta. I believe in his hard work, and he needs all the help he can get to spread his department’s good will.

Monday, May 12, 2008

House Personnel Records War Continues

This "ghost workers" controversy is getting interesting with House members getting flooded with Open Records requests to uncover them all.

As Jessica Farrar, House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair, put it, it is her understanding "that the requests ask for records in your office’s possession."

In other words, PURGE PURGE PURGE those files!

Below is a memo that was e-mailed to me. The memo was distributed to House members today. It helped me to gain a better understanding of the fiasco.

Monday Memo
Vol. 80, No. 36, May 12, 2008

Jessica Farrar
House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair

Just The Facts

Last week, Larry Phillips and Tom Craddick announced that all House members are currently under investigation regarding employment practices, including employment compensation arrangements. Thanks to Mr. Phillips and Mr. Craddick, everyone’s Fall opponent will now be saying, “Rep. John Doe has been under investigation by the General Investigating Committee, the Texas Attorney General . . .”

Never mind that the investigation is now discredited and pretty well agreed to be unnecessary. You can call Tom Craddick and Larry Phillips when the mail pieces arrive in your district in October.

The Caucus staff has received many calls asking what exactly is going on. The House leadership has done nothing to advise most Members that they are under investigation since Craddick turned the issue over to General Investigating on April 7. Members were notified almost a month later by the Austin American-Statesman.

How Did We Get Here?

On May 2, the Austin American-Statesman reported that “House Speaker Tom Craddick said he has ordered the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee and the state attorney general to look into [employment] practices.”

Also on May 2, Chairman Tony Goolsby claimed in a letter that he had learned of employee compensation arrangements via an Austin American-Statesman story that same day. This same day, Chairman Larry Phillips stated that Craddick actually referred this matter to him on April 7, almost a full month before most Members read about the issue in the Statesman.

On May 3, the Austin American-Statesman then reported that “[a]ides to Craddick said he was unaware of the practice and ordered a full investigation immediately after it came to his attention.”

On May 6, Craddick’s spokesperson refused to acknowledge that Craddick’s office in fact receives copies of all Personnel Action Request forms. Alexis DeLee said that a Member’s questions about Mr. Craddick’s feigned surprise that House Members provide health insurance to on-call staff members did “not merit a response.”

On May 7, Craddick’s spokesperson made several statements that seem to contradict Craddick’s past positions, and those of Chairman Goolsby. DeLee admitted that Goolsby knew that a reporter was reviewing House payroll records in early April, and he was well aware of this issue before he claimed it had “come to [his] attention” on May 2.

Furthermore, DeLee confirmed last week Chairman Phillips’ claim that Craddick referred this issue to him on April 7. Yet Craddick and his office have repeatedly claimed to have no prior knowledge of House employment practices; Craddick even went so far as to refuse to admit that his office receives copies of all Personnel Action Request forms; a truly laughable denial, since until recently this was printed on all PAR forms: “Speaker – Green Copy.”

What Are The Governing Rules?

So now that we know how we got here, what is this really all about?

Some smart lawyers were asked to explain the various laws effecting House employment practices. Below is what employment lawyers have pointed out, but you should contact an attorney if you have any specific questions. This is not meant as a legal brief, but there are so many questions out there, it is important you have the benefit of the statute references.

1. Flexibility to Serve Our Constituents With House Administration Oversight. State law permits the House to use its appropriated funds for “all salaries, per diem, and other expenditures authorized by law.” Tex. Govt. Code § 301.029(b). Under the Housekeeping Resolution that we adopted in January 2007, “[a] member may employ, with funds from the member's operating budget, such staff as the member deems necessary.” Housekeeping Resolution, Tex. H.R. 2 § 4.04, 80th Leg., R.S. (2007).

Under Section 4.06 of the Housekeeping Resolution, a Member is responsible for determining work schedules for the Member’s employees. However, Section 3.04 requires Members’ employment practices and policies to follow general House policies and state law. If a Member’s employment practices or policies violate House policies, House Administration is required by Section 4.16(c) to tell the Member about the violation and give the Member an opportunity to remedy the situation. Finally, House Administration is ultimately responsible under Section 5.09(a) for authorizing all House expenditures.

These provisions are intended to provide the Members with maximum flexibility to organize their offices to provide the necessary and appropriate level of constituent and legislative services. Members can set their own policies, but House Administration must approve them. That is why we fill out “Personnel Action Request” forms — they are requests only — and are not effective until they are approved. And contrary to what Alexis DeLee says, a copy of every PAR is sent to the Speaker — it says so right on the PAR form.

You may have experienced times in the past when your PARs were refused. For example, I know of members who wanted to raise an employee’s salary for only one month. That request came back denied, as it was tantamount to giving a bonus, which are prohibited by the Texas Constitution, something some members are unaware of. This just shows that House Administration, acting through the House Business Office, looks at our PARs and either accepts or rejects them in accordance with House policies. This is how the rules are written, and also how the rules have been followed for as long as anyone can remember.

2. Flexibility to Get Maximum Value from Stretched Office Budgets. There are no minimum salaries that must be paid to a Member’s employees, employees may be placed on-call, and normal work rules do not apply to legislative employees.

First, under Section 654.011(a), Government Code, the state Position Classification Plan, which sets minimum salaries, does not apply to the Legislature. Similarly, Federal minimum wage laws do not apply to Members’ employees because of what is called the “personal staff exemption.” (This exemption does have some details that may, in some case, remove the exemption for certain employees in a Member’s office. You should consult a lawyer if you have specific questions or concerns.)

Second, under Attorney General’s Opinion LO 92-53 (1992), Members “may adopt a policy of providing compensation for time spent on standby or on call status without violating” the Constitutional prohibitions on extra compensation. This is pretty self-explanatory - you can pay someone for being on call or on standby. We all have employees (at least if we are attempting to do any meaningful constituent service we do) who go to community events (church anniversaries, Eagle Scout ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, etc, etc) for us. These events come and go and are heavy one week and light the next. There may be three or more simultaneous events across your district on July 4th, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, MLK Day, Labor Day, etc., and we try to have employees who can attend the events we cannot personally get to. The understanding is that the Attorney General has ruled that it is acceptable to pay someone for being on call to go to these events and conduct constituent service.

Finally, the provisions of Chapter 658, Government Code, which sets a 40-hour work week for state employees only applies to the executive and judicial branches. Because the Legislature is exempt from this provision, Members don’t have to pay people by the hour and evidently we can overwork them whenever we want (i.e., during sessions, holidays, etc.).

However, we must pay employees something, at least during a session. Under Ethics Commission Opinion No. 357 (1997), legislative caucuses were told that they could not accept a contribution of personal services during a legislative session without violating the contribution moratorium. So we can’t accept free personal services during session. In other words, we actually must pay people who are giving us personal services something during session or we are in violation.

3. Part-Time Employees Are Eligible for Health Insurance. Under Section 1551.003(11), Insurance Code, a part-time employee is any employee “designated” as working less than 40 hours per week. Under Section 1551.319, a “part-time employee receives the benefits of one-half of the amount of the state contribution [for health insurance premiums] received by a full-time employee.”

So, unlike what has been erroneously reported over and over, part-time employees are eligible for health insurance, they just have to pay ½ the cost (about $180/mo). Regardless of the employee’s status, all insurance premiums are paid out of the House contingent fund and not by any other agency. Whether it comes out of the House contingent fund, a Member’s operating account, or the employee’s paycheck is simply an accounting gimmick.

Even if insurance premiums were erroneously paid for an employee not eligible for the contribution, the House is not required to seek reimbursement of the erroneously paid premiums and may, in the exercise of reasonable discretion, forego requests for reimbursement. That’s what the Attorney General said in Opinion No. JC-0383 (2001). If there is a mistake in classification of employees (and approved by House Administration), reimbursement is optional, not mandatory.

4. Part-Time Employees Must Join the Retirement System. Under Sections 812.003(a) and (c), Government Code, all employees must join the Employees Retirement System of Texas, regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time. Every part-time tour guide, sergeant, Senate messenger, etc., is a member of ERS. So unlike what continues to be reported, part-time employees are not only eligible for Retirement, they must participate.

Under ERS rules, each “full or partial” month of employment counts as a full month of creditable service. 34 Tex. Admin. Code § 71.1 (2006) (Employees Ret. Sys. of Tex., Creditable Serv.). That means that if an employee works just one day a month, the employee gets a month’s worth of retirement credit. It has nothing to do with full- or part-time status — the ERS still deducts 6 percent of the monthly paycheck. Just listening to the anecdotal evidence, it is my understanding that many legislative employees never put in enough time to get any retirement benefits and close their accounts.

What Now?

Apparently the House Business Office will be inundated now, responding to mountains of open records requests over the coming months. Once that dust settles, and we all learn about every low paid full-time employee who has worked in the House or Senate for the last 10+ years, there will not be one extra dollar spent on public education, one extra child who was thrown off CHIP reinstated, gasoline will not be lower and we will still be faced with real problems of real Texans.

That Craddick has sunk to some Nixonian use of the House Business Office and the Legislative Council to try and dig up dirt on his opponents is a new low. Once again he has demonstrated no regard for the members of the House or the institution of the House. All that matters is his maintaining his tenuous hold on his “absolute power.”

Because of Tom Craddick every member of the Texas House is being investigated. Every member is being thrown under the proverbial bus because Craddick shot and missed three of his opponents.

A Note on Open Records Requests

All of us are receiving open records requests from outside requestors. My understanding is that the requests ask for records in your office’s possession. Please have your office take time to perform an adequate search of your records so that you can promptly comply with the Public Information Act timelines. If you have questions about the timelines or specifics on the format of a response, call Jeff Archer at the Legislative Counsel or Kevin Vickers in Rep. Dunnam’s office. Jeff is the best source. Kevin can also put you in touch with other offices who have responded to open records requests in the past, so you can get some general guidelines.

Imagine Brownsville Project Team

Hi folks,

When I met with Brian Godinez of the Imagine Brownsville comprehensive plan project weeks ago, many of the questions I took with me, that were submitted by readers of this blog, concerned the paid consultants/team members. Who's on the team? Who are the consultants? What are their qualifications.

Godinez assured me that such information would be provided on the Imagine Brownsville Web site, and he's kept his word.

For more information on the six-member team of consultants, click here.


PUB to Discuss Rate Study Presentation Today

The Brownsville Public Utilities Board meets at 4:30 p.m. today at the PUB Administration Building.

Not many items stick out for me, but for a closed-session item concerning a "rate study presentation."

Of course, if any action is taken, it must be disclosed (somewhat) in public session.

I questioned the need for a "study" to be in closed session, but PUB stipulates it to fall under Sec. 551.086 (Public Utility Competitive Matters).

For the full agenda, click here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Imagine Brownsville Public Workshop Wednesday

City of Brownsville and the Imagine Brownsville Task Force cordially invites all to attend, input and participate at the next Imagine Brownsville Comprehensive Plan Public Workshop.

Wednesday, May 14 – 6 p.m. at Brownsville Events Center

Purpose of the community workshop is three-fold:

a) Inform the community what has been developed so far with the comprehensive plan;

b) Initiate the land use design elements of the plan and review scenarios that provide the physical foundation for the development of our strategies; and,

c) Kickoff the strategy development phase relative to the objectives we’ve developed.

There will be more information forthcoming about the workshop and other news as we move closer to the May 14 workshop date.

Come share your thoughts and ideas. We are prepared to listen.

Brownsville Events Center
1 Events Center Blvd (Off of Paredes Line)
Brownsville, TX 78526
Ph: 956.554.0700

For more information, please contact the office of Planning and Community Development for the city of Brownsville at 956.548.6150.

This ... Is Me

This blog has been down for several days, but to me, it's felt like an eternity. I had needed some time for me, some time to re-charge, some time to re-assess a few things.

I've since realized that writing is a part of me, and taking a break from this blog meant I was essentially shutting down a part of me.

So, yes, I'm back. I won't be as productive as I used to be, but I do have a renewed vigilance. I've trimmed the gristle from the previous blog format, and I am left with poignant simplicity -- if that makes sense. Who knows, depending on my mood, it may change again. Still, it will be to my liking and reflective of my personality -- very much like that of the activist/writer photographed in this post, Louise Bryant (so I'm told).

I also like the pic that's part of my design. Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a diva, a writer and an activist all at the same time!

This, is me.



Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thank you for the many kind e-mails and phone calls. Everything's OK. I'm re-assessing priorities, and I have personal obligations that are very important to me.

The blog will have to come off the priority list for now.