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TEN ALLEGATIONS As May 10 council election nears in GW, a watchdog group clashes with city officials over alleged city wrongdoings
by Ben Tinsley
May 01, 2014 | 109 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The May city council election in George West takes place against the backdrop of a struggle between the city and a government watchdog group.
The May city council election in George West takes place against the backdrop of a struggle between the city and a government watchdog group.
slideshow
The group "Friends Of George" has a list of mismanagment allegations they have levelled against the city.
The group "Friends Of George" has a list of mismanagment allegations they have levelled against the city.
slideshow
GEORGE WEST – The only contested election in Live Oak and McMullen counties on May 10 is shaping up to be a bit of a horse race set against the backdrop of a clash between the city and a recently-organized watchdog group.

Members of the group, titled “Friends Of George” have levied a number of allegations against the city—including claims that the city manager lives rent-free on GW property and that GW officials refuse to tell residents how much money the city has in its coffers.

City officials have flat-out denied most of these claims, but there are other allegations they acknowledge are somewhat true, such as the assertion 17 of the city’s fire hydrants were inactive in recent years.

The Progress has compiled a comprehensive list of those allegations with direct responses from the city, which can be seen later in the story.

In George West, City Councilman Louis Salinas is unopposed in his bid for re-election. But City Councilman David Cantu decided not to run for re-election, setting into motion what originally was a three-candidate race.

Those who threw their respective hats in the ring included Hector Cortez, 32, a BHP Billington employee; Colton D. Shannon, 24, an engineer; and Greg Likens, 60, a refinery board operator.

On Monday, Greg Likens withdrew from the race, announcing that he is throwing his support to Colton Shannon.

“I work at the refinery with Colton, and I can assure you he is the kind of man that has a great deal to offer the city,” Likens said in his statement. “Very level headed, open minded, intelligent man who has the best interest of this city and its citizens at heart. I think he will fit in and work really well with our present council.”

On their Facebook page, Friends of George members announced they also are endorsing Colton Shannon “because Colton will not be a mouthpiece for Friends of George. Instead, Colton will ask intelligent questions, make sound fiscal decisions, and work for the entire community instead of any one interest group.”

In an email interview, Shannon said his platform improving the infrastructure and appearance of George West, ensuring fiscal responsibility so the city leadership spends taxpayer money where it needs to be spent, and increasing transparency from the city government.

Shannon said he fully supports any civic group, including the Friends of George, that promotes bettering the city of George West.

“Since the Friends of George, and any other group, is a union of people that have the city’s best interest in mind, I believe they will, and should be influential to the city,” Shannon said. “The city government is meant to serve the people and make decisions on their behalf, thus the people should have a say in local dealings.”

According to his Facebook page, Shannon and his wife Kelley moved to George West over one year ago.

Hector Cortez, a lifelong resident of George West said Monday he plans to stump fairly vigorously up until the election. He had for some time been planning to run for city council.s

“The opportunity opened up, and I decided this was my chance to get in,” Cortez said. “I want to do my best. There are big issues like water and infrastructure. But I will learn as much about them as I can so I can help address them. I want to learn everything I can so I can be the best possible councilman.”

As far as the Friends of George are concerned, Cortez applauded anyone who wants to help the city of George West, but said he fears the conflict between the city and the Friends Of George could be too polarizing for the community.

“I really wish everyone could chime in and help—but I really don’t want the city to be divided,” he said.

Other May 10 races

Only school boards and city councils are up for election on May 10. Actual elections in Three Rivers ISD, George West ISD and Three Rivers City Council will not be required because they all have unopposed candidates:

• In the Three Rivers ISD board race, Karl Arnst, Dianna Pullin and David Saenz are unopposed.

• In the George West ISD board race, Magdalena G. Alvarez and Riley Rhodes are unopposed.

• In the Three Rivers City Council race, candidates Murrell Foster, Reynaldo Trevino and James Timothy Stroleny all are unopposed.

• The elections for the McMullen ISD will not be conducted until November, explained Superintendent Dave Underwood.

Friends of George vs. GW City Hall

Members of what would become the Friends of George group contacted The Progress in February, inviting a reporter to the office of local realtor John Walker. There, Walker and a couple of his business colleagues discussed with him frustrations they said they had getting public information from the city. The reporter discussed with them how certain government watchdog groups in Texas operate.

Later, Walker and more than 20 others officially organized into a civic group, naming themselves “Friends of George.” They said the group was open to both residents and non-residents.

At the time, Walker earnestly communicated his concerns to The Progress on a regular basis.

“I feel that we as tax-paying citizens should be able to openly and easily communicate with our city government,” he wrote in one email. “It is time that the great citizens of George West become involved in their local government.”

But the Progress reporter held back on publishing the huge list of complicated allegations—including some mentioned in a letter to the editor Walker had submitted—until he was comfortable the facts had sufficiently been vetted. Now that all the information in the allegations has been reviewed, Walker’s letter to the editor will run in its entirety this issue.

Walker was unhappy with the reporter’s decision to wait. He also asserted in an email that allowing the city to respond to some of his allegations “allowed them to discredit much of what I said.”

Ultimately, Walker shut down communication between The Progress and the Friends of George. He declined a recent interview request to review the group’s allegations one-by-one.

“To get the word out to a wonderful community that deserves to know what is going on, our citizens group called ‘Friends of George’ has collected money to run a half-page ad in your paper or $400 plus,” Walker wrote in his last communication. “That ad is billed to my company, Desert Flower Realty. Desert Flower has been a paying customer of The Progress for over 20 years, and you do not trust me enough to run my letter to the editor. We intend to run the same size ad next week and the following week. It is the consensus of the group that this is the only way to get the facts out.

“In answer to your email, NO,” Walker wrote. “Read about it in our ad or in the Caller-Times.”

George West Mayor Sylvia Steele and City Manager Sandra Martinez on Friday produced numerous city documents as they discussed the Friends Of George allegations.

Steele and Martinez said it is important to understand George West’s city resources are limited—meaning that many different tasks have to be performed by a limited number of city employees. There subsequently are delays that may frustrate some residents, they said.

“I understand people might see the way we do things in this small area as unconventional,” the mayor explained. “But we try to get the job done. We try to improve conditions here with the resources available to us. We don’t have the luxury of an on-hand attorney or having our own city engineers on staff. We’re a small community, but we’re doing the best we can.”

Steele and Martinez acknowledged that some of the group’s contentions are true. But they added that a great many others are based on either misunderstandings of the law and city procedure—or are deliberate manipulations of the facts.

“Don’t get me wrong: I really believe we should all be held accountable, and we welcome anyone to come in and address this situation with us,” the city manager said. “But our concern is we want to make sure the information being provided to the public by these groups is correct and not misleading.”

The allegations/city responses

The following point and counterpoint reviews each “Friends of George” allegation directly asserted on printed literature, plus a few others stated vocally by members of the group.

Each allegation is taken directly from Friends Of George literature and is followed by a response by the city manager and the mayor—combined with city budget, city document and law research to add context:

1. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: “According to the Series 2012 Certificate of Obligation, in Dec. 2011 the City of George West, WITHOUT A VOTE FROM YOU, borrowed $2 million dollars which must be paid back by your property taxes and some small revenue from the Utility Fund?”

CITY RESPONSE: MISLEADING.

This statement incorrectly implies that certificates of obligation must be voted on by the city council and somehow were not. This is not true. By state law, certificates of obligation do not require a council vote. City Manager Martinez said the council formally notified residents of the certificates of obligation by posting notices in the local newspaper twice as the law dictates.

“The city did incur a $2 million certificate of obligation back on Nov. 7, 2011, and will last about 30 years,” said the city manager. “The city council passed a motion for a resolution of intent to issue. We put notices two consecutive weeks in the newspaper advising the community what was about to transpired. But this isn’t the first certificate of obligation. Our certificates date back to 2005 and even 1998. This is not a new process to the community.”

According to the website of Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, “Certificates of obligation allow certain cities, counties and certain hospital or health districts to issue debt without voter approval—unless (the aforementioned) referendum is petitioned—and are backed by tax revenue, fee revenues or a combination of the two.”

2. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: “According to the George West Fire Chief, Lloyd Wientjes, after the Nueces Grill restaurant fire in March 2013, the fire chief notified the city manager that the NEAREST FIRE HYDRANT DID NOT WORK at the time of the fire; AS WELL AS 17 OTHER FIRE HYDRANTS WERE NOT WORKING or had problems, yet the city took no action.” ALLEGATION: According to the fire chief, during the Agave Jalisco restaurant fire, in February 2014, the nearest FIRE HYDRANT ‘was DEAD and DID NOT WORK,’ which forced firefighters to locate two other working fire hydrants? One hydrant was across Highway 281 and the other one, several blocks away, barely worked with only 480 gal/min. of water when pumper trucks need at least 1250 gal/min.?”

CITY RESPONSE: TRUE FOR THE MOST PART.

There have been many fire hydrant and infrastructure problems in George West in recent memory. The city manager said she was approached in May 2013 by the fire marshal and the fire chief with a list of 17 or 18 fire hydrants that were not working correctly. Around the same time it was determined that the underneath infrastructure that relays water to the city was failing.

“Between April 7 and April 25, we changed 12 of the fire hydrants,” the city manager said. “Regarding the infrastructure, it was aged and not being taken care of on a daily basis. To address the problem, we’ve been repairing the infrastructure as our money issues allow. ... In the last 18 or 19 months we have received $1.43 million in grant funding for infrastructure, above and beyond the resources we originally had to deal with the problem. We’re doing our best to deal with it.”

The city manager confirmed that during the recent restaurant fire at Agave Jalisco Restaurant, 403 Nueces St., firefighters indeed found one hydrant inoperable but had their choice of two working alternates within 600 to 700 feet.

“You have to understand there were several variables of this fire,” she said. “The fire hydrant malfunction was only one. But we’re trying as best we can to repair everything.”

3. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: Although the city has begun to replace most of the fire hydrants, many of the water lines in the city are so old that they are at risk of collapsing during maximum usage of a fire hydrant? Is your property safe during a fire? ALLEGATION: ‘While at least 17 fire hydrants remained inoperative, according to the 2013 budget and financial report, the city spent $419,955.17 of borrowed money, plus an additional $184,484, on park improvements including: playground equipment, a double-wide and five single-wide mobile homes at Cactus Park?

CITY RESPONSE: SOME TRUTH BUT ALSO MISLEADING.

The city manager said while it is true that $419,955.17 was used for park improvements, more than that was used on infrastructure—$461,064 in improvements was used for streets and $48,631 for water.

“We have spent well over $2 million on infrastructure in the past 18 months,” the city manager said.

4. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: “According to the July 15, 2013, minutes of the city council, after executive session, a motion was made to increase the city manager’s salary by 10 percent; five percent in free rent and five percent in salary. The foregoing motion was passed and approved by the following vote: Steele, Lopez, Salinas and Cantu voting “Aye.’

CITY RESPONSE: WRONG.

The city manager—who has been with the city four years on May 10—presented a reporter with numerous rent receipts directly from the city. She said her rent is discounted from $700 to $300 by virtue of a last year’s raise, but by no means is it free.

She said this living situation was designed to accommodate a city manager and will probably be passed on to the next city manager.

“I can guarantee you, this is not free rent,” she said.

She explained that the city created Cactus Park in George West so that its cabanas could be used to address a shortage of housing for incoming teachers, coaches and law enforcement officials.

“There are five cabanas, plus the double-wide I live in, which makes a total of six,” she said. “It’s mostly built out. We are hoping to engage in new projects to create 48 apartments.”

Additional concerns levied by the group

5. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: The city is ignoring infrastructure problems within the city limits of George West in lieu of funding water and sewer for the incoming service stations on the Interstate 37-US 59 corridor outside of town.

CITY RESPONSE: WRONG.

The sewer lines being extended out there are not paid with city money. They are funded through Texas Capital Funds Grants and an arrangement with Live Oak County.

“We’re talking apples and oranges here,” the city manager said. “We are not using city resident funds for this.”

6. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: John Walker was charged a very unreasonable fine for failing to renew a permit to operate his mobile home park in George West.

CITY RESPONSE: TRUE.

The city manager acknowledges there was a misprint on forms sent Walker in regard to his fine, which implied Walker could owe the city as much as $117,900 because of a clause that states he would be charged $100 for every hour he didn’t pay his bill. But they said they corrected it, and Walker’s fine was amended to a little over $1,000.

Walker contends the city kept sending him copies of the bill with the incorrect information, but the city manager said the mistake was quickly changed. She produced a copy of the letter to that effect she said was sent to Walker after the mistake was corrected.

Instead of mistakenly stating Walker will be charged $100 for every hour he doesn’t pay his bill, it now states failure to comply with the city’s request he renew his annual manufacturer home park, manufactured home subdivision or recreational park permit can constitute a misdemeanor under law punishable by a fine not to exceed the maximum permitted under applicable law. It does add: “Each violation of a state provision and each day that violation continues shall be a separate offense.”

The city manager said the form sent to Walker was flawed because city officials used another city’s notice as a template on which to build their own and mistakenly did not remove some of the boilerplate that did not apply to Walker’s situation.

“On Feb. 12 this was brought to our attention and we corrected ourselves,” she said. “We apologized to him and he came to my office. We have made it clear he only owes the lower amount.”

7. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: John Walker was given the runaround when he tried to get the matter regarding his large fine listed on the George West City Council agenda.

CITY RESPONSE: HARD TO TELL.

The city manager is unsure exactly what happened when Walker tried to get on the agenda.

“There was a frame of time in which he would have received a formal hearing about the bill, but he didn’t adhere to that time frame,” she said. “We eventually got him speaking at a meeting. But getting there took time because he started at the very bottom city official he could find and slowly worked his way up to the city manager. I have an open door policy. If he had simply walked into my office, I would have been glad to get him on the agenda right away.”

The city manager said when Walker arrived after the agenda had already been drafted, he was encouraged to speak during the citizen comment portion of the agenda, which he did.

“He asked us, ‘Why can’t I get on the agenda?’, and we said, ‘If you come and place your request before we draft the agenda, we’ll get you on there,’ and he eventually did that,” she said.

8. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: The city is dragging its feet answering multiple letters requesting documents discussing city salaries under the Texas Open Records Act. And the information the city responds with is vague and misleading.

CITY RESPONSE: THE PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER IS WORKING AS FAST AS SHE CAN.

The city manager said copies of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget were sent to members of the Friends of George, but they didn’t feel it addressed their queries adequately.

“If they want the salaries broken down more we will be happy to comply,” the city manager said. “But people need to be more specific when they send open records requests. They have resubmitted their request, and we are getting them the information. We will give them information by salary not by name. Position and salaries. We will specifically list how much, for instance, the city manager makes and how much the police chief makes.”

9. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: Officials are deliberately keeping mum about how much money the city has in its coffers.

CITY RESPONSE: MISLEADING. THE FISCAL YEAR 2014 CITY BUDGET IS $4.1 MILLION.

Information on salaries is readily available in the FY 2014 city budget, which totals $4.1 million, including the general and utilities funds, the city manager said as she provided copies of those budgets.

“That budget has increased from 2010 when it was a $2.8 million budget,” she said. “The budget runs from October 2013 to September 2014. We have passed a balanced budget for the past four years.”

She added that the city’s sales tax generated $54,000 last month—significantly less than other Live Oak County municipalities, which receive double, triple or even quadruple that amount, she said.

10. F.O.G. ALLEGATION: City officials are rude and slow to respond to requests of residents.

CITY RESPONSE: IF SO, IT WAS UNINTENTIONAL.

“First of all, I am sorry if anyone felt that way. I assure you no one was intentionally neglected or treated anyone with any kind of rudeness,” the city manager said.

Ben Tinsley is a reporter for The Progress newspaper in Three Rivers, Tx. He can be contacted by email at theprogress@mysoutex.com or by phone at 361-786-3022. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BenTinsley or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12.
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