The QueQue

Bexar trap

Every incipient strongman needs a crisis, and newly elected Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Dan Ramos walked into a ready-made SNAFU when he was sworn in May 4: The disappearance last fall of at least a quarter-million in 2008 primary-election funds owed the County. His response to the economic and political fallout has been to reboot the party, rules be damned.

Last Tuesday’s confab should have doubled as a County Executive Committee meeting, where Executive Council members and a new secretary could be appointed. But Ramos abruptly adjourned the meeting with an ayes-only vote, and encouraged everyone to head to the Cadillac Bar, where gubernatorial candidate Bill White was expected. Longtime Party member and Precinct Chair Ian Straus said written notice of the meeting was not sent to members, so you could make an argument that it wasn’t an official gathering, but the Executive Council appointments had been on Ramos’s agenda. “When people pointed that out, he said he’d hold another meeting another time,” Straus said. The CEC has already voted to hold a meeting the first Tuesday of June, but they rely on Ramos to set the location and send out the notice.

In the ensuing week, Ramos informed the Budget and Finance Committee that he doesn’t recognize its authority, and told the QueQue that he’s looking into the status of the Executive Council, which recommends Budget and Finance Committee members to the CEC. “At this point, I don’t know how legal `the Executive Council` is,” Ramos said. “There’s some people that claim to be the Executive Council, but I don’t see any provisions for that in the rules of the Party.”

The Banking and Finance Committee is one of the few Party mechanisms that exercises direct control over the Chair’s actions, by setting a budget that he’s required to follow. Committee members D’Mitri Kosub and Chris Forbrich were particularly alarmed when Ramos removed the party’s Secretary and Treasurer from the operating account May 6, making him the only person with direct access to or knowledge of the party’s finances.

“Whether or not he’s living within the budget, we have no way of knowing,” Kosub said.

Ramos told the QueQue that due to the “relaxed policy of the Texas Democratic Party,” he is empowered to “recommend” individuals for more than 400 vacant precinct-chair seats. But other CEC members say Ramos has asserted that he can appoint them, and there has been back-and-forth between the Bexar County and state parties about the scope of Ramos’s authority. Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, confirmed that TDP’s political director sent an email May 6 to Ramos clarifying that the CEC is the only entity that can appoint precinct chairs to fill vacancies between elections.

Political consultant and organizer Gina Castañeda says Ramos is just a little rough around the edges, but that his priorities are in the right place. “We’re going to come back to our grassroots leaders, which are our precinct chairs,” she said. Ramos confirmed that Castañeda will be in charge of running the Party’s campaigns, which they plan to bring under one roof at their new far-Southwest-side headquarters by cutting out the independent consultants — whose MO, Castañeda says, is “How much can I make off the party?” — and bringing the various Democratic clubs under its wing.

But several of those local clubs, including the Northwest Bexar Democrats, are running their own coordinated campaign for the upcoming general election. Chair Jacob Middleton says his club already has $50,000 in the bank for the election, and is installing additional lines for phone-banking at their offices. They plan to campaign for candidates such as Congressman Ciro Rodriguez “as hard as we can.”

“The environment is not necessarily very favorable for Democrats,” he said, “so we need to work harder and smarter.”

Christian Archer, the man behind our two most recent mayors’ victory parades, is part of the coordinated-campaign movement. He says it’s too early to talk about long-term plans, but they do expect to raise money and share resources. “We’re just making sure it’s a coordinated effort and that every nickel spent is spent wisely,” he said.

County Judge Nelson Wolff was one of several Democratic elected officials who pledged last fall to raise money to replace the missing primary funds, but the offer was put on hold when Ramos unexpectedly beat longtime Henry Cisneros ally Choco Meza. Wolff says his concerns right now are GOTV for the general election, and making sure that the parties hold a joint primary next year. “Everything fell apart after Choco lost,” Wolff said. “There’s no confidence there now.”

But Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, who donated $8,000 under interim Chair Roberto Flores to retire some of the Party’s outstanding debt (including a five-figure judgment for back-due rent), is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Ramos has been in office a mere week, he said. “Not only that, you’re inheriting quite a mess.” He said he expects Ramos to call a meeting soon with elected officials and other interested individuals to report on the Party’s financial status and his GOTV strategy.

While the SAPD and the DA continue to investigate the theft of funds, the Party’s project budget through June shows an almost $10,000 shortfall. Interim Chair Flores submitted a final bill for the 2008 primary to the state in late April. That total is $376,844, 25 percent of which will be covered by the state. The County will bill the Party for the remainder. “Anecdotally we know the money’s missing,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said, “but we haven’t sent them a bill yet.” (Flores and Cheryl Novak “should be commended,” she added. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”)

And if the Party can’t pay? By law, Callanen can’t refuse to hold a primary, even for a deadbeat party, and the Bexar Dems wouldn’t be alone in their overdue status. Since the post Bush v. Gore electronic-voting mandate, she said, counties have become the go-to shops for primaries, but the money still flows through the parties. “I do know just from going to conferences, that larger counties are often left holding the bag,” Calhoun said. “Counties are not statutorily allowed to lend money, but that’s in essence what’s happening.”

Biting the hands that feed

There were big shifts at the Wild Animal Orphanage last weekend, but will it help the beleaguered animal sanctuary move in the right direction? We reported on the hot mess that was the Wild Animal Orphanage last fall, when founding couple Ron and Carol Asvestas were ousted by their own daughter, Nicole Asvestas García, following a laundry list of animal deaths that critics (including García) alleged were suspicious. The board then elected García, 28, as Chief Executive Officer based on her previous full-time employment at WAO. Late last week, García was notified via email that she was fired by the board, though at the time she was also one of its three members, along with longtime board members Sumner Matthes and Michelle Cryer. Jamie Cryer, Michelle’s husband and an experienced animal rescuer, was named acting director. Self-described as retired, Cryer, 39, says he’ll work for free as acting director on a temporary basis until “we get past the shitstorm.”

García wasn’t the only one to go. The board, which filled García’s spot with Matthes’s wife Elise, axed nine of the 17 employees, mainly office staff. While showing us the Leslie Road tour facility “to `prove` the animals are still being cared for,” Cryer said he would keep one maintenance staff person and intended to help with maintenance himself.

According to Cryer, WAO is at least $100,000 in the hole. Former board member Kristina Brunner puts that figure closer to $150,000. Michelle Cryer claims that as a board member she never received any financial information from García, and when she and her husband finally saw the books, they discovered much of the budget went to payroll instead of animal care for the more than 700 rescued wild animals on two sites in Northwest San Antonio.

The Cryers say that several thousand dollars from donors have come in during the past week alone. “We tried just a little bit,” said Cryer. “The people before us, they didn’t try at all.”

That phrase, “people before us,” or “prior management” (as García refers to her parents) is heard frequently at Wild Animal Orphanage. Both García and the Cryers agree that the Asvestases put their sanctuary in a troubling financial position that isn’t easily remedied. “We were so far behind from prior management and things hitting us that we didn’t know about,” García said, including unpaid payroll tax and a USDA-required new perimeter fence.

But both Matthes and Cryer were board members during the Asvestases’ tricky reign, and former board member Brunner finds the Cryers’ participation in WAO troubling. The QueQue received a forwarded email from an “SMatthes” account to Nicole and two other WAO stakeholders dated October 30, 2009, recommending that Jamie Cryer be fired as a WAO volunteer and that, “it is time to ask Michelle Cryer to resign from the BOD and stop any further association with the WAO. It is obvious that she is not willing to work with us on our reorganization and change.” In a phone conversation with the Current a few days after that email, Matthes said, “I have heard nothing but positive things on Nicole since she’s taking over the operation as  CEO. I have been in touch with her on a daily basis to determine if there are any real problems.” The Mattheses could not be reached for comment.

In her last email to the board, sent just two hours before she received notice that she was fired as CEO, Garcia wrote “You may recall last year we all had a long discussion that family members should not hold board positions at the same time because of the conflict of interest and appearance which was apparent under prior management.”

For now, the Cryers are pleased with a recent (as in last week) USDA inspection and say they will implement a financial plan. Meanwhile, García says “I’m going to be starting a new life and watching the animals from the outside.”

Captivity audience

This month, a looming billboard message courtesy of PETAconfronts visitors to SeaWorld and San Antonians commuting nearby. “Whales and Dolphins Want Out: Don’t Support Captive Animal Shows,” the signage near Loop 410 and Old Pearsall Road asserts. That’s roughly the same message that four experts urged the U.S. Congress to consider during last week’s subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Oversight hearing entitled “Marine Mammals in Captivity: What Constitutes Meaningful Public Education?”

Last month, Jeffrey Wright wrote a probing Current cover story on the ethics of displaying marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins and orca whales for an adoring public `“So wrong, but thanks for all the fish,” April 14`. Prompted  by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during an orca show at SeaWorld’s Orlando facility, Wright questioned the quality of the public education that SeaWorld maintains is one of its core missions, and the theme park’s legal justification for holding and breeding once-wild species for captivity. This captivity results not only in trainers’ deaths (there have been three other such fatalities), but, as Wright documents, the deaths of dozens of whales and dolphins due to host of nasty illnesses.

Madeleine Z. Bordallo, chairwoman of the subcommittee hearing and delegate from Guam, seemed frustrated that the 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act require organizations that take in marine mammals for public display to have a public-education or conservation mission and yet, “the `regulating` Agency apparently has no process for ongoing evaluation of education and conservation programs at public display facilities to ensure that they are meeting the professional standards that the industry has established.”

The hearing was evenly split between witness testimony from advocates for SeaWorld-style education, including the Association of Zoo and Aquaria’s senior vice president of conservation and education, and the previously mentioned experts, including Humane Society International’s Naomi Rose, a specialist in killer-whale biology, and Louie Psihoyos, executive director of Oceanic Preservation Society and director of The Cove. The subcommittee also seemed split between members who introduced themselves with a variation of “There’s an `aquarium, animal theme park, etc...` in my district and my young children just love it!” and the more skeptical members like Dale Killdee of Michigan, who bluntly asked, “What are the reasons for captivity of marine animals?”

According to the critics, there’s no definitive evidence SeaWorld visitors learn anything meaningful while watching marine animals perform, their expected lifespans are dramatically truncated, and their performances have little relationship to their natural behavior. “Never once have I seen a dolphin ... moonwalk,” in the wild, testified Psihoyos.

Beyond PR

While an estimated 210,000 gallons of toxic crude now spill daily into the host waters of the nation’s most prolific fishery, the well-televised horror known as BP’s Deepwater is not the end of our petro problems. Every year on our northern flank an estimated billion gallons of liquid wastes leak out of containment ponds across the Canadian tar sands. Now the product of that nightmare is headed to Texas.

In what would be one of North America’s largest pipeline networks, TransCanada’s proposed 36-inch Keystone pipeline is expected to cross the U.S. Midwest atop the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer and 91 streams on the way to Port Arthur and Houston. Creating liquid fuels from the tar sands involves massive strip-mining operations. It takes the removal of four tons of sand and overlaying rock to produce each barrel of oil. Each barrel of crude further requires massive amounts of natural gas and water to separate the bitumen, a process that emits up to four times the amount of greenhouse gases of more traditional oil-extraction processes. Assuming the gathering complaints of cancer clusters and territorial lawsuits by indigenous groups don’t slow the Keystone, Texans should be watching the pipeline, which could enter the state early next year.

“They have applied that they would use thinner pipe than standard and operate the pipe under a higher pressure than standard,” said Kate Colarulli, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels program. “The pipeline and how the pipeline is built is very concerning, and I think it’s very important particularly for those landowners. But from my perspective what’s even more concerning is what’s in those pipelines.” After the heavy bitumen is mixed down into synthetic crude for transport, the product remains far heavier and dirtier (ie. more heavy metals, more sulfur, more nitrogen oxide) than typical crude oil. “A leakage from this, from tar sands, is going to have a bigger impact than leakage from regular oil,” Colarulli said.

Texans know something about busted pipes. Since January 1, 2009, roughly 253,000 gallons of crude oil have been spilled across the state in five separate events reported to the National Response Center. “It’s sort of flying under the radar right now, sort of one of those unreported environmental problems,” Colarulli said.

A string of public meetings are being held next week. See QueBlog for details.

No-nuke news is good news

Assuming the current economic recession or Twilight Zone Wall Street mysteriousnesses doesn’t suck human society into Mad Max levels of chaos and dysfunction, uranium mining across South Texas will most likely pick up again.

Nuke plants are en vogue once more around the world, and taking nuclear technology to tourist destinations like Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Iran will require plenty of delicious yellow cake. As will the South Texas Project in Matagorda County, turning more Japanese by the day with this week’s announced 9-percent buy-in by current STP consultant TEPCO.

While Texas lawmakers’ objections last week delayed an early push to open a to-be-built West Texas dump to national and international radioactive-waste producers, the outcome of a case wrapping up at the State Office of Administrative Hearings will help determine how carefully mining operators practice their craft here. You may recall that last year the TCEQ agreed to let Uranium Energy Corp mine the radioactive mineral out of a Goliad County aquifer. Astute readers may even remember that Goliad County Commissioners and the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District were somewhat put off by the appearance of slimy, reddish water in some local wells after exploration holes were punched by the company in 2007.

Last week UEC officials sought to save their project by trotting out the hired guns to speak in their favor at the SOAH hearing. University of Texas geology professor Philip C. Bennett, clearing about $1,500 from the company for his five hours of exacting testimony, defended his earlier written determination that UEC’s hundred-plus unplugged exploration wells could not have led to the contamination of groundwater in 2007. When cross-examined by the plaintiff’s attorney, noted Houston-based environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, Bennett admitted he was not present when the wells were drilled, did not personally inspect the wells, or participate in any sampling of the wells. Nor did he perform his own subsurface examination of the site. Instead, he said he “assumed” the reports he relied on from fellow UEC consultant Craig Holmes were a “professional product.” Holmes testified last Tuesday that he was invested in UEC stock until he divested himself the week before.

After five days of back-and-forth in Austin last week, testimony resumed in Goliad on Monday and was expected to wrap up yesterday afternoon after David Murry, a geologist with TCEQ’s Underground Injection Control Team, left the stand.

A decision from SOAH is expected by mid-September, at which time the TCEQ Commissioners can still overrule the SOAH judge, as they did in the case of Kleburg County complaints over contaminated water at the Kingsville Dome uranium mine. Fortunately, the final word on “exempting” the Goliad aquifer for mine operations must still come from the U.S. EPA. More than 70 homeowners living within three miles of the would-be Goliad mine site will no doubt be watching. As will the variety of companies scouring 42 sites across the state for pumping dibs should the current economic bust begin to flop back over to something resembling boom times. •

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