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.

Though South Houston is 70 percent Hispanic, Romero is the first Hispanic mayor since 1983, and the first mayor with a doctoral degree. By contrast, none of the middle-aged men on the city council has a college degree -- some don't even have high school degrees. Tamayo has been a mail carrier since high school and has in the past owned his own business, a combination grocery store and bar whose alcoholic beverage license was canceled in 1989 due to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission violations.

The mayor's job, as Tamayo sees it, is "to carry out the instructions of the council. That's it. He serves the council."

Tamayo wields his power with unvarnished self-interest, admitting that he sponsored the "special prosecutor" resolution because, among other things, the mayor asked the police to investigate a possible illegal meeting that Tamayo attended (he says it was a "conference"). The mayor also asked for an investigation of a city project where the father of the supervising department head was hired to do the welding. Tamayo had defended the arrangement.

"I think it's a misuse of the police department," Tamayo says of the investigations. "I want it looked into."

Because the mayor has no vote on council, about all he can do is try to harangue the councilmen into action. He says, "Here I am, you know, at the top of the mountain screaming, 'Hey, we're paying the city engineer $50,000 more. Anybody hear me?' And they don't. But they hear about keys; they hear about Easter egg hunts; they hear about cars."

If you ask any of Romero's supporters to tell you which project best indicates the city engineer's hold on the city, they'll tell you it's the sewage plant expansion. Like many other communities its size, South Houston has difficulty meeting the standards of the various federal and state agencies that oversee natural resources, water table subsidence and pollution standards. The city's sewer system is 50 years old, and for at least the past decade it has been under the constant scrutiny of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1988, the city got $11.4 million in grants and loans for the water and sewer system. About half that was spent on the sewer system -- part on the pipes and lift stations that get the wastewater to the treatment plant, and part on the plant itself. The improvements to the collection system were supposed to slow the flow of sewage to the overloaded plant, but instead, according to a 1994 letter written by city engineer Ron Patrick, it increased the flow and thus overburdened the plant even more, which forced the plant to discharge raw sewage. That in turn led to more EPA sanctions. Patrick, estimating that the necessary improvements to the sewage system would cost $20 million, began agitating instead for a sewage plant expansion that would cost another $6.75 million -- a behemoth of a project for a city that size. The city, already heavily in debt, would have to borrow the money from the Texas Water Development Board.

Some people argued that such an expansion wasn't needed. Then-councilman Hal Smith, a bookkeeper, says Patrick was simply looking for a way to get more money, because the 1988 bonds were running out. Smith says he showed how the city could pay for the needed improvements itself by building retention ponds. The old sewage plant, he says, was converted into holding tanks anyway. "You've got a pickup truck, and you're trying to haul something," Smith says by way of analogy. "But it's a half-ton pickup truck, and you need a one-ton pickup truck to carry your load. The option I was trying to get them to use was, how about a trailer? But the city bought themselves a brand-new, one-ton pickup truck. Then they took the old truck and made it a trailer."

The Press's investigation of the sewage project turned up the following:
* City officials misrepresented the truth in order to prevent a referendum on the sewer system bond ordinance. In an attempt to stop the city from borrowing the funds, former councilwoman Eloise Smith, Hal's wife, circulated a petition to force a referendum. Although the city attorney accepted the petition in a letter dated December 6, 1994, on April 6, 1995, city secretary Barbara Bigham certified on the bond application that "no petition or other request that any of the proceedings authorizing the certificates be submitted to a referendum or other election" had been submitted.

* Two months before the May election, when the referendum could have been held, the city council declared the matter an emergency, citing complaints of backed-up sewage. To this day, the Smiths and former mayor Lynn Brasher maintain that the emergency was orchestrated, and that a city employee switched off the lift station that would carry that sewage to the plant. "You can't say that processing sewage for 15,000 people is an emergency," Brasher says. Declaring an emergency allowed the city to sidestep the referendum requirement, and the bonds were approved.

That's not the only time that South Houston officials have used histrionics for political ends. In 1996, City Attorney Dick Gregg wrote an angry letter to the mayor and council, saying he had just heard from the city engineer that environmental engineer Ted Palit of the EPA was threatening a $125,000 fine, and had threatened to triple the fine because the mayor had not called him to schedule a meeting. "IF [PALIT] DOES NOT HEAR FROM THE MAYOR BY TOMORROW, HE SHALL CALL ME MONDAY WITH THE AMOUNT OF THE FINE THAT IS BEING LEVIED ADMINISTRATIVELY. AND THAT WE CAN JUST FORGET ABOUT CALLING HIM AFTER THAT," Gregg wrote that the engineer had told him. Naturally, that incident translated into accusations that the mayor's inaction had resulted in EPA fines.

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