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.

When the Press asked, Sybert could not provide documentation to back up his claim, saying it was too long ago. Thiel says that $2.5 million was the total amount in the general fund. But before Romero took office, the general fund already had close to $2 million in it. "That could be misleading," Thiel admits.

For years, the city's auditors, and now Valderama, too, had urged the city to adopt more internal financial controls to prevent such disarray. But the council seemed to prefer chaos. Romero put Valderama's recommendations on the agenda eight times, he says, before the council even acted on the matter. "And then they got Barbara Bigham involved," he says. "Barbara Bigham doesn't know anything about accounting, admits it, never had a class in it, never practiced it. And they're letting her call the shots of what these procedures are going to be. And she's battling with a twenty-year-plus experienced accountant as to who signs the requisitions first." Valderama, frustrated, threatened to quit.

More recently, Romero has been accused of misrepresenting the city's plans to the board of the Harris-Galveston Coastal Subsidence District, thereby causing the board to reduce the city's water supply. But the board only voted to approve its own staff's recommendation: to reduce the water supply because of the city's failure to improve accountability.

While the mayor has concerned himself with financial controls and fiscal malfeasance, his opponents paint him as the perennial loser of the South Houston popularity contest, and point to his allegedly poor effect on "morale" as evidence of his incompetence. Before the last election, real estate agent Joyce Horton authored an unsigned election flier. In it, she complained chiefly of the mayor's lack of holiday spirit, citing the fact that city employees who wore costumes on Halloween were sent home to change. Not only that, but the mayor's Christmas party, Horton trumpeted, was a failure. "Approximately 10 percent of the employees showed ... the others had their Christmas dinner on their lunch hour." Another complaint: the mayor "canceled" the annual Easter egg hunt, but "a group of concerned citizens got busy and collected money, eggs and candy so the hunt could go on. The Mayor did not know until he appeared. Hahahaha ...."

Every move the mayor makes is accompanied by the same low-grade hysteria. The council reversed Romero's reprimand of three employees who returned from lunch an hour and a half late (they were attending Councilman Thiel's birthday party). Council took away the mayor's keys to all but his own office -- even the fax and copy machines are off-limits after hours. The mayor of South Houston no longer has a secretary. The council refused to ratify his appointments to the city's Beautification Committee, preferring to let their wives continue to serve. To top it all off, the council recently passed a resolution stripping the mayor of all powers not specifically granted to him by state law. Romero has asked the city attorney to compile a list of his remaining powers.

The council has also tried to ferret out the mayor's allies. One supporter, who was second in command over the senior citizen program, found his salary suddenly missing from the city's new budget. When the mayor gave a volunteer who painted murals in the community center's lobby and taught art classes the honorary title "ambassador of the arts," Councilman Thiel refused to recognize her in the city's newsletter because council had not ratified the appointment. The volunteer, Linda Kilpatrick, says she eventually left the community center because she was "blackballed" for working with the mayor. In still another case, a popular adult education teacher and South Houston resident, Rose Siller, wrote a letter in support of the mayor to some of her students. Siller taught citizenship and English classes through a partnership between the Harris County Department of Education and South Houston. The council voted to ask the education department to transfer her out of the city, and though her letter did not violate department policies, the department agreed. Otherwise, says spokesman Jimmy Wynn, the department feared South Houston might scrap the entire program.

Although the mayor's opponents paint him as an unfeeling Grinch, Romero has a ready explanation for even his most minor policy decisions. The real reason he "canceled" the Easter egg hunt, for example, is that the "hunt" consisted of sprinkling candy on the ground and then shouting, "GO!" The candy, he says, was gone in seconds. "I saw that a lot of kids were crying and very shy and didn't want to go out there," the mayor says. By the time the Easter Bunny arrived, no one was interested. So he instituted a policy whereby the Easter Bunny would hand out candy to the kids instead.

The chance to make such reforms is what drew Romero into city politics to begin with. Romero caught the political bug when he went to Washington, D.C., for an internship during college. On his return, he got involved in the fight to save South Houston's cottonwood trees, which the council had outlawed as a public nuisance. That's when he started to see that "how things got done around here was who you know, not what you know," he says. At the end of Romero's second year of law school, he ran for South Houston City Council, beating out Johnny Tamayo, who had previously lost two races (Tamayo ultimately was appointed to his post before being elected).

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