Under Siege

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."

Theoretically, the city approves and signs a contract with Patrick's firm for each project he undertakes. In reality, Patrick's opponents say, he sometimes bills the city for projects that have not been expressly approved. They also say that the city's lack of political stability and financial controls allow Patrick to bill the city again and again for the same work. Indeed, auditors have found that he has overcharged the city by thousands of dollars.

The mayor has tried several times to fire Patrick and hire a salaried city engineer. But councilmen like Tamayo and Jim Sybert say that South Houston can't afford an engineer's salary, although Patrick, by the mayor's calculations, has received $1.8 million in fees from South Houston over the past three years.

Tamayo defends the engineer's fees, explaining that they are regulated and approved by granting agencies, like the Harris County Community Development Agency, which gave the city its three current grants. "If you have grant funds, they also include fees to pay your engineer," he says. But Community Development Project Manager Elizabeth Rodriguez says none of her agency's grants cover engineering or design fees, and the city -- not the agency -- determines those fees.

Patrick is usually involved in several projects for the city at one time, and when the mayor has disputed his invoices, Patrick has threatened to walk off all the jobs at once unless he was paid. Romero points out that although the engineer is not salaried, he still has a fiduciary duty as a city officer, adding that if the engineer thinks he's owed money he should pursue it through normal debt-collection channels. "He's supposed to be protecting the city," Romero says.

Tracing the flow of money to and from a private company is not easy, but there is some evidence to suggest that Patrick might reinvest his earnings, so to speak. Although Patrick's name does not show up on campaign contribution reports for any of the current councilmen, three former office holders -- Hal Smith, Eloise Smith and Lynn Brasher -- say they were offered cash contributions from Patrick or his business partner, Alan Munz. Patrick, through his lawyer, told the Press he did not recall making any such payments.

Questioning the city engineer seems to provoke the ire of the council more than anything else the mayor does. "Any time I'd raise a stink, ask these questions, I'd get shut up," Romero says. "And now, these are charges of an impeachment. When I open my mouth questioning, in my mind, questionable costs, with reasonable evidence and audit reports sanctioned by the city council in my hand ... I think a prudent person, a reasonable person, would question that."

Back in February, 66-year-old Margaret Fleming filed a formal complaint of impeachment against Romero. Fleming, a retired apartment manager, had worked on the campaign of Romero's opponent in his first political race and was a longtime critic of the mayor. In her complaints, she accused him of refusing to sign checks and failing to enforce the council's decorum ordinance. But the city's attorney urged the council to dismiss the complaint, saying it contained no grounds for impeachment. Instead of following the attorney's advice, the councilmen set a trial date for July.

Already the deck was stacked against the mayor. By law, the city's five councilmen serve as judges in the court of impeachment. In such a court, judges do not have to enforce the normal rules of evidence (which bar, for example, hearsay testimony). The court's chief judge, Councilman Johnny Tamayo, is one of the targets of a police investigation instigated by the mayor, and all of the councilmen are Romero's enemies.

In July, the mayor circulated a lengthy communique in his own defense, calling Fleming "unstable."

"Again, because of city council, our city will have a black eye of negative publicity as councilmen aim to destroy me and your city," the mayor wrote. "The effort to remove me was started by a misled citizen, Margaret Fleming, who is these councilmen's biggest buddy. I understand that I'm not the first mayor they've hated. I'm just the first one they can't control or intimidate."

Fleming responded by asking that the trial be postponed, complaining that Romero's "scurrilous commentary" had exacerbated her weak stomach and chest pains. She sent along a doctor's note. "Mrs. Margaret Fleming has been advised to abstain and refrain from any type of political or legal activity ... regarding the impeachment of the Mayor," the note read.

A new trial was set for September 14, but on September 1, Fleming amended her complaint to include 13 new allegations. Fleming, who refuses to discuss the charges with the Press, said the mayor had, among other things, jeopardized the city's water supply, "refused to execute the laws simply because they were contrary to his wishes," used city vehicles to disseminate political materials, "converted" the city's Easter candy "to his own personal use and benefit," invoked "frivolous vetoes," removed official documents "for his personal use ... to the detriment of the citizens," and created "an atmosphere of distrust and low morale" with his "vile and and vulgar comments" and "vituperative epithets."

Attorney Michael Villalba, hired by the mayor to represent him, asked the council-as-court for a two-month delay to prepare a defense against the new allegations. Though the proceedings had dragged on since February, suddenly time was of the essence. The court granted only one month.

Both Fleming and another key witness, city engineer Ron Patrick, refused to be deposed by Villalba. But at the advice of the city's attorney, the councilmen ruled that Villalba had the right to conduct discovery, and they again reset the trial for November 13. Denise Villalba, Michael's wife and a paralegal, called Fleming to plan a suitable time for the deposition. "There is no good time," Fleming said, and hung up. Afterwards, the city secretary notified the Villalbas that Fleming had left the state for "seven to ten days."

Although the hearing was held with no sign of Fleming, the impeachment process moved forward without her. On October 19, the court met again because Patrick still refused to be deposed. His lawyer argued that any relevant information Patrick could provide was already a matter of public record. The court decided to allow Michael Villalba to ask questions in writing, which would then be vetted by the city attorney. The court also insisted it did not have the power to subpoena witnesses -- so there was no way to force Patrick to appear in court. Villalba says both decisions were designed solely to protect Patrick from being cross-examined under oath about his billing practices.

At the same hearing, Villalba asked that Fleming be required to make her sworn accusations, which are short on details such as when and where particular offenses occurred, more "specific and certain." The councilmen refused. Virtually every decision they made went against the mayor.

"The entire thing is absurd," Villalba says. "It's a distortion of the law in order to effectuate a political ouster."

Once again, Fleming did not attend the hearing. Councilman Al Thiel, a printer who wears amber-tinted glasses and moonlights as a karaoke singer, and who seems to be the only councilman who might vote in the mayor's favor, moved to dismiss the complaint. "How can we go on with a one-sided case?" he asked. "This thing's got to be fair." No one seconded his motion.

Meanwhile, apparently worried that Romero might somehow escape unimpeached, Tamayo took precautions. At the October 12 council meeting, he sponsored, and the council approved, a resolution to appoint a "special prosecutor" to investigate the mayor and -- regardless of said prosecutor's findings -- "prepare a proper complaint of impeachment to be properly served on Mayor Cipriano Romero."

Political turmoil is nothing new for South Houston. The fact that it's nothing new isn't even new. In the '60s, circus owner George Christy, the town's most colorful mayor, clocked a councilman in a fight over the city's dog pound. In 1982, Mayor LaNelle Chafin threw Councilman Hal Smith out of office because he slept in a Houston apartment during his divorce (he was reinstated). Since 1985, there have been eight attempted impeachments. Romero himself was appointed in 1996 to replace his predecessor, Don Gaylor, who resigned after losing a bruising legal battle over the right to put items on the council's agenda, saying, "I do not have deep pockets nor the desire to participate in this insanity."

Insanity is precisely what Romero was left to deal with. On Gaylor's last day in office, he granted City Secretary Barbara Bigham indefinite leave with pay due to stress. In the absence of the secretary, who also serves as the city's treasurer and tax assessor, Romero discovered that the city's bank statements had not been reconciled in over a year. A new city accountant, former Pasadena controller Jaime Valderama, found more than 600 mistakes on the books (which Bigham's defenders on council, who repeatedly refused to let Romero fire her, contend weren't her fault). The bank statements showed that the city's general fund had $685,000 less than the city's records indicated. And, Romero says, he and Valderama discovered missing checks, handwritten checks (including one for $67,608) and close to 40 separate bank accounts. Some of these accounts were supposed to have been closed years before, others were earning at the most $42 per month in interest, and one -- a Christmas party fund left untouched, the mayor says, for several years -- was being charged a maintenance fee. He began consolidating them into the city's general fund, planning, he says, to inform the council when the job was complete so they could invest the money. All in all, by the mayor's records, he transferred a total of $536,000.

But then Bigham returned after a month and a half's absence. Bigham, the daughter of close friends of some of the councilmen and a longtime enemy of Romero, discovered what the mayor was doing. She raised a stink, telling councilmen that Romero was removing money from interest-bearing accounts and placing them in the general fund, a non-interest-bearing account. The council removed the mayor's power to transfer funds and close accounts. The story became so exaggerated that by the 1997 election, both Sybert and Thiel were accusing the mayor of having transferred $2.5 million out of interest-bearing accounts. "This caused the loss of thousands of dollars in lost interest to our city," Sybert, a local manager for Entex, wrote.

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).

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.

Not at all, says Palit, reached by phone in his Austin office. The fines are not determined based on timely response, but on the city's material violations of environmental policy. "There were many misquotes in that letter," he says, adding that $125,000 "is a maximum penalty if they don't negotiate." City officials did negotiate, and the fine was reduced to $45,000.

* The contract for the sewage plant was signed by a nonexistent corporation. On the face of it, the contract was signed by agents for three corporations in a joint venture -- R.W. Patrick & Associates, Inc.; Son-Ar Enterprises, Inc.; and Civil Concepts, Inc., on February 3, 1993. But Son-Ar was not incorporated until April of that year. Son-Ar is listed on the contract as the participating Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MBE/WBE), but Son-Ar did not receive that status until March of 1995. Patrick's lawyer explained to the Press that both the incorporation and the MBE status were pending at the time the contract was signed. However, records indicate that Son-Ar did not submit an application for MBE status until November 3, 1994.

Also suspicious is the fact that the signature of the South Houston mayor, Ralph Clark, is dated September 30, 1994. Yet all the names appear to have been typed in at the same time, or at least by the same typewriter. Back in 1993, when the corporations purportedly signed, Ralph Clark had not yet been elected. Furthermore, in a detailed review of the sewage plant project, auditor Mark Fifield was unable to determine when the city council had approved the contract.

"We didn't even know that they were borrowing that money until it was a done deal," says Eloise Smith.

* Fifield's examination of the project turned up thousands of dollars in "questioned costs." The Fifield report, which examined every invoice and payment related to the sewage plant up until 1995, found that Patrick had billed twice for surveying, costing the city an extra $15,000. "They tried to explain why the overpayment was valid, but they were not able to justify it," says Fifield. Though Patrick was forced to return the money, the council refused to discuss Fifield's report in a meeting. One night, Fifield says, he waited two hours to make his presentation before it was tabled by the council. "That's what got me most frustrated," he says. "They just didn't want to hear it."

Councilmen now complain that Fifield did not conduct a proper audit of the project. But Fifield's agreement letter, which was approved by the council, spells out exactly what he was to do, and Fifield explains that the work was far more detailed than an audit would have been. Council recently voted to hire another firm to audit the project.

* Patrick's son was an employee of Civil Concepts, which earned $156,000 on the plant, primarily for inspections the son performed. According to Patrick's report to city council, one wall of the plant is already cracked and leaking.

* Patrick made at least 50 -- some say 86 -- change orders to the project. None of them were approved by council or the mayor, but all put extra money into Patrick's pockets. The change orders include basic items such as a hot water heater and a sink for the dog pound, whose relocation was included in the original project.

* Patrick continued to bill the city for the project after it was closed out in June, and after it had been operational for two years. The most recent bills, dated September 1, total $31,230. Patrick's attorney, Rothenberg, explained that because the construction company, Belmont, took longer than expected to complete the project, the engineer had to do more work than originally anticipated. Belmont was penalized for taking so long, and the engineer waited for the penalty to be arranged before billing the city. But letters from Belmont assert that the project was substantially completed in early 1997, and was held open at Patrick's request because he wanted to add a new, costly piece of equipment called a "muffin monster" or grinder. One letter refers to "the request by your office to leave the contract open until the grinder change order was designed and built." Another says, "... to be eligible to perform the work [on the muffin monster change request] we were asked by you to keep our contract insurance and bonds open in order for the city to avoid bidding this work as a new project."

Former mayor Lynn Brasher, who never fails to plant himself in the front row of council meetings in his blue or orange work coveralls, insists that the new sewage plant benefited Patrick more than it did South Houston. "This guy has raped the town," Brasher says. "He's still doing it."

The letters from Belmont say something about the way the city conducts -- or doesn't conduct -- competitive bidding.

The latest of a string of allegations involving bidding practices centers on the city's attempts to purchase a new computer system for water billing and administrative record keeping. Patrick was responsible for writing the bid specifications and bidding out the project, and the mayor accused him of bid rigging.

Although Patrick told the Houston Chronicle that the mayor's allegations were "way off base," only two of the 16 companies that picked up bid specifications submitted bids, and only one, Incode, submitted bids according to the specifications. Concerned, Romero and the Smiths started calling around. Seven of the ten companies they reached felt that the bid specifications had been tailor-made for, or even written by, one company -- Incode. Two of the other companies said they had simply been too busy to bid.

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.

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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