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.

The mayor asked companies to put their objections in writing, and five did. The letters note that the bid specs named the exact manufacturer, model and configuration of equipment; that the bid required that the software be "INCODE or city approved equal;" and that "the specifications were very narrowly defined." The companies complained that the bidding process seemed designed to discourage competition. Mike Emberg of AVR Systems wrote, "I believe that this bid process was illegal, simple as that."

Patrick's attorney, Scott Rothenberg, says that the city's water department already knew it liked the Incode software, so the bid specs simply asked for something equivalent or better. "It's as if, for instance, someone were looking for a McDonald's Quarter Pounder, or something better ... In which case Burger King could come in and say, 'Well, we think our Whopper is better,' " he explains.

Incode's was submitted on a form that looks (in font and design) almost exactly like the bid specs the city distributed.

More interestingly, the bid specifications ask that the software package include a module for cemetery records. Yet, South Houston does not have a cemetery. Rothenberg has an explanation for that, too. He says that cemetery records were included in the city's requirements because "the commercially available software package already included it anyway," and also because "if the city acquires cemetery property," it would make sense to have the software needed to manage it. Of course, South Houston cannot expand because it is bounded on all sides by Houston and Pasadena, and has no plans to convert any of its existing land into a cemetery.

Incode president Dusty Womble says his company did provide a disk of sample specs to the city -- a common practice among vendors -- but that the city made some changes to it before issuing the specs.

Four councilmen interviewed by the Press say there's absolutely no truth to the mayor's allegations of bid rigging. They say that the computer companies that wrote in were just upset because they didn't get the bid. "[Romero] called them and tried to influence their thinking and their complaint by planting in their mind that someone had some sort of inside track to the development of the specifications," Tamayo says, admitting that the councilmen "rely a lot" on the engineer to handle such matters. And although Rothenberg says the specs were written in the engineer's office, Sybert claims that Councilman Billy Kelly, not the engineer, wrote the specs, and that it was a collaborative effort. "Incode helped work on them," he says.

Because South Houston has no newspaper of its own, and the Houston Chronicle and Pasadena Citizen cover it only sporadically, it's difficult for citizens to tell exactly what's going on in their city government. If more of South Houston's citizens attended council meetings, they might be surprised.

For one thing, the budget approval process has become progressively more farcical. By law, the mayor submits a budget, which is on file for a period of public review before the council holds a public budget hearing. In 1997, Romero says, he submitted a budget, but secretary Bigham refused to process it. Mayor pro tem Al Thiel then submitted his own budget, claiming that Romero had failed to do so. Then Tamayo and Sybert, after a meeting with Patrick, brought their own budget with them to the meeting as a proposed "amendment" to Thiel's budget, Sybert says. Citizens prefaced their comments by saying they didn't know which budget they were supposed to be commenting on. Eventually, the Tamayo-Sybert budget passed. But the council failed to pass a continuing finance resolution to prevent a budget shutdown if the mayor vetoed it.

That Friday was payday. Bigham announced that because the mayor planned to veto the budget -- although he had not yet done so -- she would not be issuing checks to city employees. So the mayor, who says that the stopgap finance measure was not technically required in order to issue paychecks, called an emergency noon council meeting so that the council could pass a resolution anyway. No one showed up. Bigham, who issued paychecks early to her brother and two friends, rallied city employees to demonstrate against the mayor, demanding that he not veto the budget so they could be paid. In a videotape of the demonstration, Bigham can be seen encouraging chants against the mayor. At five, the mayor called another meeting. This time, the council showed up and passed the resolution, coming off as if they had saved the city from the miserly mayor.

This year's budget process was no better. Although Tamayo says his budget, along with the mayor's, was on file for 15 days for public review, he amended it right up until October 26, two days before the budget hearing. Among other things, the budget reduced the mayor's salary from $28,000 to $6,000 a year beginning with the next term. Although the city had only $400,000 in its accounts, Tamayo's budget insisted that there was $600,000 in carryover from the previous year's budget in capital projects. Capital projects, of course, are where the engineer makes his money.

Then there was the matter of the tax rate. The city is supposed to calculate one tax rate to cover its bond debts, and one tax rate to fund the city's operations. In 1993, the state sued the city because it failed to collect the bond portion of the tax rates, and got a writ of mandamus ordering the city to do so. The city collected 30 cents per $100 of property, and that amount has stayed the same for five years, even as the city's bond debts have increased. According to truth-in-taxation law, the city secretary calculates the debt portion of the tax rates, and the city collects it. No deviation from the calculated rate is allowed. This year, the new city secretary, Susan Engel (hired after Barbara Bigham finally quit in December), calculated that the tax rate should be 42 cents per $100. But the council voted to levy 30 cents. The mayor vetoed the tax rate, but the following week the council passed it again.

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