Under Siege

City Council took away South Houston Mayor Cipriano Romano's keys. They took away his secretary. They told the 27-year-old he can't use the fax or copy machine after hours. Now they're ready to impeach him.

For most politicians, the scene would be a breeze-through photo op: "Mayor teaches local children how to read." But Cipriano Romero, the mayor of the city of South Houston, has invested more than that. Romero has been mentoring children in his city every week for the past five years. This week, he has a new student, Pablo. "Mucho gusto," says the mayor when he shakes Pablo's hand, then asks if the boy speaks Spanish. Pablo shakes his head shyly -- no. "Well, pleased to meet you," says the mayor.

The child of an electrician and a homemaker, Mayor Romero grew up in South Houston, an unsightly rectangle of beer joints, car dealerships and 15,000 not-very-rich people sandwiched between Houston and Pasadena. He still lives with his parents. Though he is only 27, he has a faintly bureaucratic air that makes him seem older. With his rotund face and trim beard, he looks like a prosperous merchant in a Velazquez painting. In conversation, he is guarded and formal, polite without quite being charming.

The mayor and Pablo get to work on an introductory survey, taking turns reading the questions out loud and writing answers. One question says, "My favorite person is ... " and Pablo writes, "my sister." The next question says, "People think I am ...." The mayor writes, "too serious."

After tutoring, the mayor goes to the South Houston Community Center to greet the senior citizens. Since the beginning of his term, the mayor has devoted a lot of attention to the center. He's introduced a food pantry and emergency assistance center, more than doubled the number of hours of adult education classes, invited in a crisis center for domestic violence victims, and started the first community-based Child Protective Services office in the state. South Houston, which has 30 reported cases of child abuse each month, now has its own case worker.

The mayor likes to think of himself as a reformer. He is the just the kind of young, smart politician a town with as beleaguered a political history as South Houston might want to embrace. As he moves through the senior citizen lunch room, stopping to talk at almost every table, the seniors put their domino games on hold. One man says that every week his church, the Centro Familiar Cristiano, prays for the mayor to overcome adversity. Another woman, beaming, boasts of how the mayor helped her secure an apartment.

Everything seems perfectly mayoral. The citizens care. The mayor cares.
But in reality, Mayor Romero is under siege, the victim of political persecution so hell-bent it makes Ken Starr look like the personification of blind justice and the Republicans' attempt to drive Clinton from office seem eminently fair. South Houston City Council has voted to appoint a "special prosecutor" to investigate Romero. And on November 13, he faces almost certain impeachment.

In news stories about South Houston, it's hard to tell whether the mayor is a buffoon among men or a man among buffoons. The mayor calls the council "political wimps" and "clowns." The council scolds the mayor for his "conduct" and "image." But the cartoonish hysteria of South Houston politics masks what appears to be misconduct, flagrant disregard for the law and a stubborn tendency toward the kind of bad policy that invites abuse. Furthermore, when the facts are considered as a whole, the mayor doesn't look like a buffoon. He looks like a man whose political survival may be South Houston's best chance for reform.

The city council has a long, long list of things they want the special prosecutor to investigate. One is that the mayor doesn't always do what they want him to do, particularly when they want him to pay large, unitemized invoices from the city engineer -- such as a recent one asking $24,000 for "engineering services." Another is that Romero fails to heed the council's "admonishments." Still another is that he takes city documents from the city secretary "without proper authorization," though it's not clear what authorization a mayor might need in order to obtain documents belonging to his city.

But the real reason that the city council wants to get rid of the mayor might be this: the mayor is trying to clean up South Houston. He and a handful of citizen supporters, many of whom are former office holders themselves, have amassed -- and turned over to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI -- what they say is considerable evidence of nepotism, bid rigging, overpayments, double billing, illegal contracts, untruthful representations to state agencies, secret meetings and other questionable practices.

Many of these practices revolve around a mostly silent yet powerful force in the city -- Ron W. Patrick, the city engineer. Though he rarely appears at council meetings and refused, on the advice of his lawyer, to speak directly to the Press for this article, Patrick has a hand in much of the goings-on of the City of South Houston, which like any other small town is chiefly concerned with elemental matters such as water, streets, sewers and bridges.

Patrick has been the city engineer for nearly a quarter century, and his father was the city engineer before him. Though he is a city officer, Patrick is not a salaried employee. Instead, his firm, R.W. Patrick & Associates, makes a percentage on every project he handles on the city's behalf. Because he's not on salary, Patrick has no financial incentive to rein in the city's capital projects, and in order to pay for those projects the city has taken on a gigantic burden of debt. Even councilmen who say they rely on Patrick for technical expertise admit that Patrick may not have the best interests of the city at heart. "I would say, probably, he has a business just like any other businessman," says councilman Johnny Tamayo. "I wouldn't try to characterize him as to where his heart is."

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