Friday, May 22, 2015

The stuff of good exposes | Last Word

An article on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News’ business section Tuesday was headlined:

“Bid front-runner made campaign contributions.”

The story disclosed that three members of the Kowalski family gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the mayor and City Council members who would vote Thursday to award the family’s RK Group a contract worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the next 10 years.

The contract would renew the RK Group’s decades-long exclusive right to cater events at the city’s Convention Center.

The headline, together with its prominent placement, suggested an exposé.

And I love a good exposé. But the numbers disappoint.

It turned out San Antonio’s most successful caterer, Rosemary Kowalski, her son Greg and his wife Bekki, have given all of $11,000 and change to the mayor and council members – over a four-year period.

That’s less than a total of $3,000 a year.

The contributions included a total of $8,000 to four current members of City Council and $3,000 to Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Folks, in today’s political marketplace, any notion that less than $1,000 per council member can buy a quarter-of-a-billion contract is absurd.

Sure, this is a low-wage town, but even our $20-a-week council members don’t sell out that cheaply.

The fact is that the RK Group has over the years earned a great reputation for their ability to efficiently serve excellent and often very fancy meals to crowds ranging from the dozens to the thousands at the Convention Center.

A screening committee recently rated the RK Group considerably higher than a competing group, involving several local restaurateurs partnering with a 40,000-employee national firm called Centerplate.

As far as I can tell, Centerplate also has a good reputation.

Their clients include a number of convention centers and sports venues.

But if politicians have a local company that has been performing the job magnificently for decades, why would they take a chance on an outside firm, albeit with local partners?

That is what is driving the council’s decision to renew a contract that Rosemary Kowalski has held since 1971 – not the Kowalski family’s contributions.

In fact, you might wonder why, given the magnitude of the contract, the campaign contributions are so low.

Why would they be so cheap?

And why did they give to only five council members – less than the majority needed to win the contract?

The answer to the second question, according to a spokesman for the RK Group, is that the others didn’t ask.

Campaign contributions, at this level, are often closer to extortion than bribery.

The answer to the first question is that the contributions were so low because the city now has contribution limits of $1,000 per election cycle for the mayor and $500 for council members.

It wasn’t always that way.

Back in 2002, the tax-collection firm headed by the late Oliver Heard joined with the firm of Escamilla & Poneck to give then-Mayor Ed Garza $8,500 while being considered for a contract to collect overdue fines.

They gave amounts ranging from $1,000 to $3,250 to other council members.

Only later would we learn through federal indictments that a member of Heard’s firm had bribed two council members who didn’t get contributions.

The council voted for their firms, even though a staff analysis showed an offer from an Austin firm was much better for the city.

And, of course, there was the notorious 1988 police contract – the source of the current tensions between City Hall and the police union – signed when the union was the largest single contributor to the mayor and council.

Now those were the stuff of good exposes!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Taylor and Van De Putte in runoff | May 15, 2015

Last Saturday's election determined that San Antonio will be led by a woman, but the two contenders are women of contrasts. One is a consummate Latina politician who has spent 24 years in the Legislature. The other is a trained city planner, an African-American technocrat who has spent years in City Hall as a staffer, councilwoman and interim mayor. Both join us to talk about their plans.

Friday, May 8, 2015

15-year-old avoids murder conviction | Last Word

A jury in New Braunfels – hardly a liberal bastion -- this week added to evidence that Texas can be mature in the way we treat our children.

The case involved a horrible tragedy.

A 15-year-old boy was harassed by chemistry classmate Logan Davidson for two days. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

City struggles dealing with child abuse | May 1, 2015

Compared to other major cities in Texas, San Antonio fares badly in successfully dealing with child abuse. Nearly twice as many Bexar County families who have been cited and policed by Child Protective Services for child abuse are later returned to the system as in Dallas or Houston. Judge Peter Sakai is leading an effort to cut those numbers by making family courts more like drug courts.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The day San Antonio stood up to the feds | Last Word

Gov. Rick Perry ordered National Guard troops to the border to watch out for Mexican immigrants.

But this week Gov. Greg Abbott went him one better.

He ordered the National Guard to watch out for invading U.S. troops.

The order came in preparation for war-game exercises being planned by a number of U.S. military units for later this summer.

Called Operation Jade Helm 15, the exercises will involve 1,200 members of the military and take place across Texas and six other Western states.

The military says it is to “practice core special warfare tasks, which help protect the nation against foreign enemies.”

But some radio talk show hosts have been warning that the operation really will be in preparation for taking over the states and imposing martial law.

The Internet is lighting up with conspiracy theories, including statements that Walmart stores across the country are being renovated complete with interconnected tunnels for use by special forces for federal takeover.

On Monday more than 150 people turned out for a presentation by Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria of the U.S. Army Special Command to the Bastrop County Commissioners Court.

The crowd was not completely mollified.

“It’s the same thing that happened in Nazi Germany,” the Austin American-Statesman quoted resident Bob Wells as saying.

“You get the people used to the troops on the street, the appearance of uniformed troops and the militarization of the police. They’re gathering intelligence … and moving logistics in place for martial law.”

Others carried signs such as “No Gestapo in Bastrop.”

Wednesday, Gov. Abbott issued a letter to the National Guard commander directing the Guard to monitor the federal military exercises so that “Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed.”

This is not the first time exotic military exercises have met with resistance in Texas.

Seventeen years ago a black helicopter exercise that would drop special forces onto urban buildings was blocked by a mayor and police chief in – of all places – Military City USA.

That’s right, in 1998 San Antonio Mayor Howard Peak, with the backing of City Council and Police Chief Al Philippus, nixed a Delta Force exercise that would have had black helicopters flying low over East and West Side neighborhoods, dropping about 100 black-clad commandos onto selected rooftops.

One was to be the old Friedrich Building on the East Side.

The commandos would use explosives to enter buildings and possibly fire ceramic bullets as part of the exercise.

Peak was quoted in the Express-News as expressing concern for citizen safety.

“They ought to go out and look for a set in Hollywood or something,” he said.

The opposition wasn’t based on conspiracy theories.

An Express-News editorial summed it up, citing earlier exercises:

“Staging this urban counterterrorist training in heavily populated areas is insane. It's also dangerous, as reflected in $100,000 worth of property damage caused by an explosion in a similar training exercise in New Orleans and the stray bullet that found its way into an all-night restaurant in Miami.”

The editorial made another point:

“And why the East and West sides of town? That the Army would choose minority communities for such dangerous maneuvers is shameful at best and racist at worst. A certainty is that neither Alamo Heights nor the Greater Northwest were ever considered.”

Such rhetoric sounds almost quaint in these days of talk radio and internet paranoia.

But let the record show: San Antonio stood up to the Feds well before Abbott started suing them or ordering the National Guard to stand guard against them.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

When it’s against law to feed people | April 24, 2015

More than 30 cities across the nation have either passed or proposed ordinances banning the provision of food to street people in the past year. In San Antonio, it can mean a fine for high-class charity. Hear two perspectives from people who are well-versed on homeless issues.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Neil Bush's adventures in Asia | Last Word

The New York Times last week told a story from the early days of the first President Bush.

It had to do with a trip made by son Jeb Bush and his business partners to Nigeria.

They had gone to promote their flood and irrigation equipment, but the reception they got was worthy of a state visit.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Voters to decide city charter changes | April 17, 2015

It seems you can’t go a day in San Antonio without a mayoral debate. By the time people go to the polls, they should know enough to cast an intelligent vote. But there’s more to the May 9 election than a selection of the mayor and council members – there are some important proposed amendments to the city’s charter. Probably most important is a proposal to pay our elected officials more.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Whose taxes should we cut? | Last Word

Here’s a headline for you: Class warfare breaks out in Texas Legislature.

Okay, “warfare” may be a bit of a stretch.

Class skirmish might be better, only because the stakes aren’t very high.

And it’s not between Democrats and Republicans.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is Legislature waging war on cities? | April 10, 2015

Bills under serious consideration this year would take away the power of cities to regulate developers, payday lenders, frackers and ride-sharing companies. One bill would also impinge on the city's ability to generate revenue. Another would strip cities of their right to enact legislation without permission from the attorney general. Find out more on Texas Week.