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.

Although the mayor is often accused of opening the city up to lawsuits and fines, in this case the council is steering the city into treacherous waters. "If the city secretary's calculations are correct," says Texas Water Development Board Audit Director Randy Galbreath, who instigated the 1993 lawsuit, "I have a problem with that."

South Houston city council meetings have been known to last until the wee hours of the morning. In the low-ceilinged municipal courtroom, there is always at least one citizen in the back row, videotaping the proceedings to preserve possible evidence of wrongdoing. The mayor's supporters sit on the right side of the aisle, his enemies on the left. The tension in the air is stale and sparkless. The same people sign up to speak week after week, and they lambaste the council for the same things.

Often, the citizens are able to predict exactly what will happen in the meeting. Thiel will be the dissenting vote, but more because he doesn't like Tamayo than because he supports the mayor. Brasher will heckle the council, saying things like: "I'm going to get up every time Al Thiel does something illegal!" Eloise Smith will scold Brasher for cursing. Tamayo will table the mayor's agenda items and move to adjourn before the citizens get to speak on non-agenda items. Mayor Romero will peer up at the clock at the back of the room, and say, with a perfectly grim poker face, "Meeting adjourned at ..." and read off the time.

If the mayor is impeached, chances are the police investigations he has ordered will be halted. Whomever the council appoints to take his place might pay the engineer's bills happily, no questions asked. The city may or may not fend off the latest administrative order of the EPA, which threatens fines of $25,000 a day for sewage leaks, including one at the new treatment plant.

The results of at least one of the mayor's police investigations have been sent to the Harris County District Attorney. But the D.A. won't confirm if an investigation is ongoing. And Eloise Smith says the D.A. has not been much help in the past.

Roberto Gutierrez, chief of the D.A.'s Public Integrity Division, says "Obviously, we do care about corruption." But, he says, his division has only three investigators, so they rely on law enforcement agencies to investigate misconduct. Or, he says, anyone can put a specific, substantiated complaint in writing.

But, Smith says, the problems in South Houston are so pervasive, it's difficult to know where to begin: "We need a public inquiry."

"We have been to every law enforcement agency we can think of," she says. "They say, 'Oh, well this is really really bad' ... But they just have bigger fish to fry, and if they ever get any spare time they'll let us know. Our little old city's just not important to them."

The mayor may go on to pass the bar exam and become a high-paid lawyer. Or he may continue his public service somewhere else.

But at least until November 13, he's still the mayor, and the city is still his main concern. "How are the people going to get along if it just persists and persists as it has been?" he asks. "I know I can make it, but I don't know if South Houston can make it."

Sitting in the 14-year-old mayoral automobile, where he's parked behind City Hall after visiting the senior citizens, he is simultaneously glum and agitated, despairing and determined. Although his "little old city" is never alone, crowded on all sides by its larger neighbors, the severity of its problems makes it seem strangely isolated, as self-contained as a misadventurous television serial.

"Sometimes I think we're characters on Gilligan's Island, uncharted and forgotten," says Mayor Cipriano Romero. "Stupidity shipwrecks us.

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