PERF reforms stalled, Big Tex polluter stonewalls

PERF recidivism

A new contract with the police union is cooking and local human-rights activists are steaming over the City’s failure to reform SAPD’s Internal Affairs.

A couple of years ago, shootings of unarmed citizens were in the headlines, use of force by San Antonio police had just jumped 20 percent in 2007, and equally unappetizing stories of rampant anal probing on roadsides and at service stations were circulating. SAPD Chief Bill McManus called in the D.C.-based police-consulting group, Police Executive Research Forum, to review and advise the department on use-of-force measures. When those 141 recommended changes were released in May 2008, McManus quickly adopted most of them. But measures designed to reform Internal Affairs were handed over to a special task force to hash out during months of meetings. Thanks to the resistance of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, many of the most vital reforms didn’t make the cut, said Mario Salas, chairman of the San Antonio Coalition on Civil and Human Rights and a task-force member.

“This police union is out of control,” he said this week. “There’s not accountability, as far as that’s concerned, and there’s no transparency.”

Antonio Diaz, of the Texas Indigenous Council, told the Current this week that he took his concerns, heightened in part by 17 officer-involved shootings to date in 2009 — to Assistant City Manager Eric Walsh, who is leading contract negotiations with the union. While Walsh failed to return a Monday call from the Current and the City’s communication office still hasn’t replied, Diaz claimed in an email that police aggression in the city is “getting worse.”

“As an activist I get complaints from people that are afraid to go before Internal Affairs because of the biased way that it is set up. The Civilian Review Board is a joke,” Diaz said.

So the pressure is on Walsh and crew.

“They have to do their damnedest to get those things out of the contract,” Salas said. As it stands now, Salas says, citizens who want to file complaints against officers are not allowed to bring friends or family, or an attorney with them to make their statement. (“Contrary to some residents’ understanding of the process, a complainant can be accompanied by counsel when filing a complaint,” said the PERF report. “The department’s material on the complaint process should include this information.”) Salas adds that they are not allowed to write out their statement in their own words; an officer records the complaint and writes the report, which is then off-limits to the complainant and the public. The complaint form itself threatens anyone found reporting untruths with aggravated perjury, a third-degree felony.

Salas worked to get that perjury threat removed from the paperwork, as PERF recommended, but said he was blocked by the union. He also fought to have the reports available as public records — even with the provision the officers’ names be blacked out.

“You’re able to hide inappropriate and bad activity by not giving the person a copy of the report,” Salas complained. “If that’s not fascist-like, I don’t know what is.”

But the union wasn’t entertaining any compromises. While we’re waiting for a call back from SAPD, another MIA in the IA debate is SAPOA President Michael Helle. We left him a message first thing this morning, but, as yet, we  haven’t had the pleasure.

Nuclear collider

After what can only be considered a sustained Certified Sales Event by CPS Energy, matched by Mammoth Media Buildup, Thursday’s would-have-been $400-million bond vote — a vote that, in essence, would’ve put San Antonio on an irreversible path to an estimated $13-billion nuclear-power project — has been postponed till January.

A new cost estimate from Toshiba got CPS officials into a sweat about two weeks ago, but the “substantial cost increase” didn’t trickle down to
Mayor Julián Castro until Monday night. At a Tuesday-afternoon press conference, CPS Energy’s Interim GM Steve Bartley said the vote delay sends Toshiba a “clear signal” that “these preliminary cost estimates must come down in order for us to meaningfully participate in this project going forward.” He wouldn’t say what, exactly, Toshiba’s new cost estimate is.

For Council members, the vote delay was not so much a negotiation tactic as an unexpected cold shower. Councilman Justin Rodriquez had been lined up in the “aye” column for the $400-million vote but said the news reveals a serious “chink in CPS’s armor.” That it is, perhaps, “a mixed blessing.”

“We need to take a step back and look at all the options, including continued investment in renewables,” Rodriquez said.

It’s perfect timing, in fact, to review a fact still lost on most residents — and, apparently, many of our elected officials — that San Antonio could tap alternative-energy sources capable of delivering the needed 500 megawatts by 2020. Developed by a team of international energy experts, the report “San Antonio: Leading the Way Forward to the Third Industrial Revolution” lays out in broad strokes a way to meet future energy needs, save utility customers a collective $3 billion by 2030, and create, on average, 10,000 jobs a year in a stimulated “green-collar” revolution.

With one day to go before the big nuke vote, one would expect the Mayor and a gaggle of our Council members would have huddled around the speakerphone and pumped the report’s authors for details. But during a teleconference last week, a key author said he wasn’t so popular. Had any of our county or city reps rung him up? “Surprisingly, no,” said Jeremy Rifkin, an adviser to the European Union on renewable energy issues.

So exactly what is the city doing, besides not studying the alternatives to expanding the South Texas Proect?

CPS staff, nuke-ambivalent council members, and community organizers from COPS-Metro Alliance were hammering out a deal for increased weatherization programs for low-income residents — a deal intended to deliver to Mayor Julían Castro his requested unanimous nuke-expansion vote.

CPS Board Member Steve Hennigan fretted Monday about poor folks gaming the system. Complaining that .3 percent of customer bills are never paid and have to be written off, Hennigan said: “These kinds of programs, in my opinion, they can become very abused very quickly once people figure out what it takes to get it.” Funny, considering this is the same utility that hopes to cut out a power plant’s worth of energy through conservation measures over the next decade.

Council Member Jennifer Ramos, until today one of three confirmed nuke skeptics, said her doubts have increased with the news from Japan. “There are a lot more questions to be asked,” she said.

With the bond-vote delay, Mr. 9.5-percent Rate Hike, you’ve been pushed back, too. See you around in the spring.

Sweep stakes

To developer James Lifshutz’s C.V., add community organizer. With a well-placed email or two, the owner of the recently reclaimed Big Tex site on the banks of the San Antonio River sparked a general uprising at last week’s EPA meeting, effectively turning the topic from “Big Tex Gets Clean Bill of Health” to “Who Will Pay For It?”

Lifshutz and his supporters maintain that W.R. Grace, the company that poisoned Big Tex with amphibole asbestos from Superfund site Libby, Montana (and whose environmental rap sheet is longer than the Texas Constitution), ought to pick up the entire $2.75-million tab. But the EPA reportedly wants to pass a half-million on to Lifshutz, who purchased the property in 2001. (Unknown: How much, if any, the EPA is asking former owner G. Richard Galloway to cough up.)

Lifshutz has told the QueQue that a Big Tex bill of any size could shut down his planned redevelopment, which includes apartments, retail, and a donated building site for the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. Blue Star, which is currently leasing space on the cheap at the adjacent Blue Star Arts Complex, could use more room, more parking, and a building to call its own so that it can pursue larger grants and build an endowment — so not surprisingly, the Center and its supporters were a big part of last week’s protest movement.

“We are really looking forward to establishing Blue Star in a brand-new building as a gateway to the Mission Reach,” said Executive Director Bill FitzGibbons, who points to the museums and cultural institutions that line the banks of the northern Museum Reach. “We feel it’s extremely important for the South Side of San Antonio and the success of the Mission Reach river improvements.”

EPA onsite coordinator Eric Delgado, who oversaw the Big Tex cleanup, suggested that one reason it’s fair to ask Lifshutz to pay part of the bill is that he hadn’t done due diligence before he purchased the site — an assertion Lifshutz scoffs at: “I would expect him to say that.” Lifshutz, Delgado added, was prepared to pay to clean up the site himself before the EPA stepped in, and that even with a six-figure bill, Lifshutz would come out ahead.

When the mood of the crowd seemed to be turning on the EPA, neighborhood resident Anita Anderson reminded the audience that in 2006, community members petitioned the agency to get involved after the City rezoned the property, clearing the way for redevelopment, even though its connection to the Libby site, and the gravity of the Libby contamination, was known. The petition reminded the EPA that Grace had processed more than 100,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite at the site over almost three decades, and that testing done by Lifshutz and the previous owner was inadequate for detecting the smaller tremolite asbestos fibers from Libby. Yet, “the entire 300-400 Blue Star area was re-zoned for residential/mixed-use development,” it noted, and “the City of San Antonio has said that its policies are to leave this entire issue of the testing up to the developer and the enforcement of any environmental laws up to the appropriate state and federal authorities.”

For what it’s worth, former District 5 Council Member Patti Radle, who championed the project when she was in office, doesn’t think Lifshutz should have to pay for any part of the cleanup.

Lifshutz encouraged community members at the meeting to ask the EPA why it didn’t submit the Big Tex site to the Department of Justice when it was compiling a cleanup payment list for W.R. Grace’s recent bankruptcy settlement (from which it has emerged — surprise! — solvent), an action which might have averted this round of bargaining. The reason for that decision (or oversight) is yet another source of dispute between the agency and the current property owner that’s going to take a little more FOIA action to sort out.

In the meantime, Lifshutz says he hasn’t heard from the EPA since last week’s meeting, and doesn’t expect to.

“In retrospect, it’s clear to me, because I’m dealing with the enforcement division,” he said. “Their assignment is to enforce. It’s not to enlighten … or help chart a path toward a positive solution.”

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