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News : Tilting at transit buses 

The Public Transit Users’ Association (membership: 4) takes VIA to court

“Pro se,” reads the phrase following Alfred Ehm’s name. “For oneself.” In thepresent context, the words suggest, “without aid of attorney,” or, “on one’s own behalf.” Apt descriptions all for Ehm, who just might be the most visibly steadfast — and most polite — warrior in a battle no one else seems to be bothering to fight.

Bus transportation advocates Alfred Ehm and Mel Feldman.

“Something drives me, but I don’t know what,” says Ehm, silver-haired and prodigiously bespectacled, at a back table in the San Antonio Public Library. He is over 65, mild-mannered and articulate. He speaks softly, in a moderate, east-European accent. “It’s very depressing at times, believe me,” he says. “Yeah, very depressing.”

On February 2 of this year, Ehm filed a lawsuit asking the board of trustees for VIA Metropolitan Transit to stand for public election. That they do not, he says, is a result of a statute that he contends is not only troublesome, but demonstrably unconstitutional.

VIA’s 11-member board was established under the provisions of the Texas Transportation Code, which decrees member-appointment “by the governing body of the principal municipality.” Currently, the City Council (5), the Bexar County Commissioners Court (3), and the Council of Suburban Mayors (2) select members. Board members elect the eleventh member, the Board chair.

All this, presumably, would sit better with Ehm if VIA did not derive much of its annual revenue from municipal sales taxes.

“When you take a history course, basic American history course the cause of the `American` Revolution was taxation without representation,” says Ehm. “That’s a gross oversimplification, but that’s what they teach kids in school we separated because we didn’t want to pay taxes. Well, in a way, that’s true.”

About 77 percent of VIA’s yearly operating budget ($118-million-plus, for 2005-06) is tax-funded, according to VIA’s office of public affairs. VIA draws from two voter-approved sales taxes: a half-cent bite levied since the company’s inception in 1977, and 2004’s Advanced Transportation District tax, a quarter-cent excise that yields one-half its profits (1/8 cent per dollar) to VIA and splits the other half between the city and the Texas Department of Transportation. By fiscal year’s end, VIA expects to have collected more than $79 million from the half-cent tax, and more than $18.6 million in ATD disbursements.

“They’re gonna say, ‘Oh, goddamn, now we have to go vote for somebody else,’ just because you don’t want to vote doesn’t mean you can keep other people from voting.”

Alfred Ehm

Councilman Richard Perez, who counts Ehm among his District-4 constituents, says the “no taxation without representation” cry does not apply here: The Board is representative, albeit by proxy, he says, and the taxes are not imposed.

“I don’t really feel it’s an issue,” says Perez. “We all as a community said we all want to be taxed. I think it’s a little bit of a different situation `The City Council is` elected There’s accountability there `The Board’s` mandate is to do what’s in the best interest of the community.”

Ehm, though, says he wants a direct voice in return for his money. “I live on the West Side,” Ehm says, “Who on the VIA board represents my area? What are his personal views for bringing modern mass transit to San Antonio? Well, I don’t know. He doesn’t have any. Because I don’t know who — there’s nobody who represents me.”

Perez says the Council provides the link Ehm seeks.

“If he had an issue, he could come to me,” he says. “I personally think it’s sufficient to have `Board members` appointed by the City Council.” VIA, its board, the mayor’s office, the VIA Citizens Advisory Council, and VIA lawyer Howard Newton all declined comment on the matter, citing its active-litigation status.

“I’m the lawyer for VIA,” Newton said. “I don’t talk to the press.” For Ehm, one obstacle may loom larger than courtroom opposition: public disinterest. It is here that his quest becomes seemingly Quixotic, here that “pro se” seems most readily applicable.

A retired German professor and Air Force translator, Ehm says he developed an interest in Constitutional law some 30 years ago, and “started going to the library and reading up on it.” Accordingly, the original complaint and subsequent briefs he’s filed — pages upon pages of legalese — were self-prepared. The Public Transit Users’ Association, of which Ehm is acting president, has four registered members, two of which, he says, “don’t participate very much.”

The other member, however, may be Ehm’s most vocal, if only, ally.

“They see me there, they pretend I’m not there, but Feldman, you know, he just virtually jumps onto their lap, you know?” Ehm says. “They can’t ignore him, but I’m not that personality; I’m a very shy person.”

“Feldman” is Mel Feldman, a transplanted New Yorker and involved citizen of varied interests who, as Ehm intimates, is not “shy.” (Sample Feldman proposal: “What Would Mel Do?” bracelets.)

“I’m not blaming the people on the board, I’m blaming the people who appointed them,” says Feldman, who, like Ehm, is over 65, single, and a frequent bus-rider. “Nobody on the entire City Council has gone to a meeting in the whole two years I’ve been going.”

While Feldman agrees with Ehm that the Board should not be appointed, he doesn’t believe election is the answer.

“You can’t have a voting by the citizens,” he says. “They don’t know enough about it How many people ride the buses? How many people come to the citizens-to-be-heard meeting? Five?”

In a community-involvement climate that saw a sputtering 17-percent voter turnout in the last mayoral/City-Council election, Feldman’s point is not lost on Ehm. Nonetheless, Ehm remains undeterred.

“A lot of voters would be opposed to electing the VIA board,” Ehm says. “They’re gonna say, ‘Oh, goddamn, now we have to go vote for somebody else,’ you know `But` just because you don’t want to vote doesn’t mean you can keep other people from voting.”

Meantime, it’s gratifying to imagine Ehm and Feldman, under cover of night, decked out in moccasins and faux-Mohawk duds, gleefully dumping crates of VIA Day-Tripper passes into the San Antonio River.

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