A(nother) Year of Infamy

In the QueQue’s book, 2009 will go down as the year the right thing often happened for the wrong reasons — not unlike a Coen brothers’ script. Space is at a premium in this special holiday edition (enjoy our look at the Naughty Aughts, beginning page 11), so without further ado, 10 of the year’s most vexing SA-centric developments, in no particular order:

An unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

In early May, less than 12 percent of registered voters turned out to elect wonder twin Julián Castro mayor of San Antonio in a, uh, landslide. The slate of uninspiring opponents included two controversial council members and PR genius Trish DeBerry-Mejia, who previously sold penny-wise/pound-foolish SA on a $500-million bond, the venue-tax extension, and a term-limit extension, but wasn’t able to put together a compelling case for herself.

Castro stepped into the long shadow of Mayor Phil Hardberger, who essentially backed his former rival when he gave campaign manager and adviser Christian Archer the nod to work for Castro, but that’s looking more like a white-elephant gift by the day. In addition to the win-win Museum Reach extension, Castro’s inheritance included: extended term limits in distracting two-year cycles, the pricey Hardberger né Voelcker Park, an unpopular and overbudget Main Plaza makeover, the Parade Ordinance lawsuit, new Venue Tax obligations during a recession, and a nuclear-power deal with NRG. The latter, of course, would lead to ...

How many people does it take to screw CPS Energy?

Our City-owned utility spent the long, hot days of summer stumping for a nuclear-development deal it was brewing with partner NRG that would add two new reactors to the South Texas Project. Federal loan guarantees were in the offing, and with the solid backing of SA’s business community, it looked like a done deal despite the unresolved dangers of uranium mining, the entirely unsolved issue of nuclear waste, and activists’ repeated (prescient) warnings that the touted costs were impossibly low.

But if CPS was at the altar, NRG, who is also partners in Nuclear Innovation North America with reactor-maker Toshiba, was getting cold feet. NRG and NINA reps met multiple times with Castro independent of CPS, and ultimately tipped the Mayor that CPS knew that the $13 billion cost it had been selling was too low by at least $4 billion — mere days before City Council was expected to OK another $400 million investment in the project. Someone tipped off the daily, too. Castro, whether through inexperience or intent, essentially tanked the deal and proceeded to axe heads at the utility.

The CPS management casualty count currently stands at: Co-CEO Steve Bartley, Vice President of Nuclear Development Bob Temple, and Board Chair Aurora Geis. Board member Steve Hennigan has so far declined the Mayor’s invitation to fall on his sword.

Not that a little housecleaning isn’t in order at CPS. As the Current first began reporting in fall 2007, utility management has drawn a plethora of employment-discrimination lawsuits, spent 90 grand lobbying against cap-and-trade legislation in D.C. even as the City worked to develop Hardberger’s Mission Verde initiative, and has repeatedly used its semi-private structure to withhold information from the public. Should we be so surprised they weren’t totally transparent about the STP expansion deal?

You had us at “civil-rights violations”

Embattled Bexar County Probation Chief Bill Fitzgerald resigned in August ... but gave himself five months to clean out his desk. Neither the misdemeanor judges who voted “no confidence” in the Chief a few days before he resigned, nor the felony judges who scratched their “What About Bill” agenda item when they heard he was leaving of his own volition, decided to push the issue. Reasons the bench might’ve been losing confidence in its probation director were numerous: lawsuits alleging employment discrimination, civil-rights violations, and union-busting, for starters. But at least one allegation is unintentionally hilarious: that employees accepted bribes to produce clean urine tests — the QueQue figures it was pretty much the only way you could be sure of passing your piss exams once Bexar County contracted with Treatment Associates. Even when probation officers pointed out that the number of positives had jumped suspiciously, Fitzgerald stuck to the contract, and probationers apparently were not told they could request a GC/MS confirmation test.

Germane warfare

In January, San Antonio officially lost out to Manhattan, Kansas, which landed the Department of Homeland Security deal to host a new bio- and agro-defense research facility to replace the aging Plum Island site. SA immediately filed suit alleging favoritism and insider deal-making. A General Accountability Office report issued in the spring backed up SA’s contention that Kansas (home to Dorothy and Toto) is too dangerous. Unfortunately for local NBAF boosters, it also concluded that all mainland sites were a bad idea for a lab that will deal in “high-consequence” livestock and zoonotic diseases, and argued that DHS should go back to square one. DHS, perhaps predictably, dug in its hooves — er, heels.

Self-policing: Not just for corporations anymore

Beginning with a story in July, the Current uncovered a troubling new system of CYA operating at City Hall : City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s decision to create a hand-picked committee to oversee the Office of Municipal Integrity — headed by Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni — had resulted in the neglect (at best) or burying of substantive complaints about department managers and employees. Most notably, as a result of the committee’s decision to send complaints about the City-run detention facility back to the Municipal Court that oversees the jail, a handful of allegations (including physical abuse and theft of property) moldered for two years until the Court and the committee arranged for SAPD’s Internal Affairs to take them over — at which time the trails had mostly gone cold. Heads did not roll.

The Current’s attempts to find out whether complaints by Public Works staff that the construction of the River Walk Museum Reach and a new San Antonio River Authority dam did not comply with federal flood regulations were investigated have so far been stymied: The only responsive document, says the City, is an attorney’s memo, which they’ve asked the AG to let them withhold.

Animal trafficking

The death of a visiting beluga whale at SeaWorld at the end of October called attention to the marine park’s body toll since it opened in 1988: 11 beluga whales, seven “false” and “true” killer whales, for starters. Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society, explained that while dolphins live equally long in the wild as they do in captivity, the same is not true for species like orcas.

“Female orcas often live to be 60, 70, 80 years old,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of females that should be 50 by now, but they’re dead. … It’s very clear they live much shorter in captivity.”

But the cast of whales who play Shamu for enthusiastic audiences have yet to garner the media attention and near-celebrity status that Lucky, the San Antonio Zoo’s lone elephant, can claim. Pleas continue to come in from across the country to let the Asian elephant take an all-expense-paid retirement at a sanctuary in Tennessee, but the Zoo, despite having previously announced (and then kind-of denied) plans to replace Lucky with African pachyderms, resists.

On the more exotic end of the spectrum, the Current followed up on news tips generated by the San Antonio Lightning (thanks, R.G.) and discovered that the unexpected summer death of a tiger named Vi Vi had sparked an uprising at the Wild Animal Orphanage, where Nicole Garcia has taken over from parents Ron and Carol Asvestas. According to current employees and based on recent visits to WAO facilities, the animals’ diets and quality of life appear to be improving.

From pink to red

Five months after the Current first reported in July that the Museo Alameda only made payroll over the summer by calling in pledges early, the Express-News revealed that the museum of Latino culture is essentially broke. Board Director Margarita Flores and brand-new President and CEO Guillermo Nicolas inherited the empty coffers from founder Henry Muñoz, who stepped down as chair in June, but remains on the board. The Alameda Theater and the newly opened Alameda School for Art and Design are still viable concerns — although the theater, like the museum, could face a productivity crisis once it opens — but a virtual death-watch is on for the museum.

Eyes on the East Side’s prize

Healy-Murphy Park, the scant but historical acre of Eastside open space, got a reprieve from hotel-chain development when District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil — who had worked with Walter Serna and his client La Villita Development to cut a deal with Park & Rec — was term-limited out of office. Whether the park will get a much-needed infusion of resources and attention remains to be seen; rumors circulated earlier this year that La Villita was working to get the historic Dullnig House separated from the rest of the lot.

Meanwhile, just south of Healy-Murphy Park, a subsidiary of the Zachry construction empire was negotiating with the City to purchase historic St. Paul Square in a complicated swap involving the construction of an Eastside parking garage using TIRZ money, additional land for Palo Alto College, and a little CDBG cash. The City neglected to contact local neighborhood representatives and activists before they published the legally required public notice in the paper, which got things off to a rough start, but neither the City nor Zachry has thrown in the towel yet.

A clean sweep

The TCEQ has given the Air Force Real Property Agency a thumbs-up for its high-tech cleanup of a defunct metal-plating shop on the former Kelly Air Force Base, which means the government will soon transfer the final 368 acres to Port San Antonio. Remediation measures designed to eliminate a plume of toxic chemicals that radiated into surrounding neighborhood groundwater over the course of decades are also in place — and made earlier land transfers possible — but they are expected to take another decade to finish the job. Even as life goes on at the decommissioned air field, the link between the plume and illnesses and death in the Toxic Triangle remains weak — deliberately weak, suggested a Congressional panel this spring, which accused the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of catering to industry over the public health. The Current also uncovered a study commissioned and then buried by the City, in which the researcher — who is essentially under a gag order — concluded that at least 10 percent of the area’s cancers could not be explained away by other factors.

Swim at your own risk

Turns out that’s mostly not freshwater in the San Antonio River, even up by the Zoo, close to her headwaters — during dry times, as much as 70 percent of the river’s flow is déjà vu all over again. The Zoo turns what is already a stream of recyled gray water into an animal-doo railroad, which is jumped on by the runoff from 530 square miles of leaky cars, pesticides, riverfront grease traps, and lawn fertilizer. But plans are afoot to mitigate all of the above, starting with riverside property owners and unsuspecting bat colonies.

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