Smoke screens, Bexar claws, pony rides, and more...

Smoke gets in our eyes...

It was odd to see LULAC and NAACP join hands in front of City Hall Monday to oppose ... a smoking ban. In April, District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez proposed expanding 2003’s smoking ordinance to nix smoking in all restaurants and bars, as well as public areas like Alamo Plaza and the River Walk. The San Antonio Restaurant Association, which has roundly criticized the proposal, called Monday’s press conference to introduce the Save Our Jobs Alliance, whose newly minted membership includes SARA, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the San Antonio Mixed Beverage Association. Their claim: The ban will disproportionately burden Hispanic and African-American small-business owners.

SARA and SAMBA’s opposition to the ban is well-known: SARA negotiated with the City for nearly a year over 2003’s smoking ordinance. SAMBA came into existence a little over a year ago with the help of Ken Brown, a lobbyist for Reynolds American, the parent company of Big Tobacco’s RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. Both groups argue the expanded ban would kill businesses already running on slim 3-4 percent profit margins. They’ve been rounding up allies such as Hispanic marketing magnate Lionel Sosa, who wrote in a June 10 letter to City Council that “this proposed ordinance is economically discriminatory to members of the Hispanic community,” because people of color are more likely to own the San Antonio ice houses, pool halls, and VFW halls the Save Our Jobs Alliance claims the ordinance would affect most.

Enter Rosa Rosales, national president of LULAC, and Tracy Harper, who read a letter from local NAACP Chapter President Marvinette Smith. They joined Ruben Cortez, president of SARA and scion of the Mi Tierra restaurant empire. “My concern is the jobs,” said Rosales, “and the small little restaurants.” Rosales pointed to a rumored loophole for cigar bars as a further sign of discrimination. “Who goes to a bar to buy a $30 or $40 cigar and cognac?” she asked the news cameras. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

Proponents of the smoking ordinance counter that the real discrimination lies in the smoking-related illnesses that disproportionately affect Hispanics and African Americans, groups that as a whole have less access to quality health care and are more likely to be employed in workplaces without smoke-free policies. Moreover, service-industry jobs, especially in the small mom-and-pop establishments the Save Our Jobs Alliance most wants to protect, employ more Hispanic and African-American employees than any other occupational sector, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I would have to say that it’s perhaps also discriminatory when we don’t think about those who work in the service industry,” said Dr. Fernando Guerra, Director of Health for Metro Health and a supporter of expanding the smoking ban.

Smoke-Free Texas, a statewide coalition that lobbies for smoke-free policies, points out that local bar, restaurant, and lodging industries in cities and states that have passed expanded smoke-free ordinances have not suffered a negative impact on profits.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said “I don’t want to disagree that `an expanded smoking ban` may affect people of color’s businesses. But this is a short-term way to look at a more long-term problem. ...  I don’t think calling it racist is appropriate.”

Rodriguez said, “We’d be happy to meet with them and discuss what concerns they do have. `But` I have not heard directly from any of those leaders. I have heard, of course, from SARA.”

Neither LULAC nor NAACP has a history of opposing smoking bans and a quick scan of other chapters around the nation found them supporting such initiatives in other cities. Guerra said neither group was involved in discussions about the 2003 smoking ordinance. When asked how LULAC became involved in SA’s campaign, Rosales said she was approached by SARA. “When we get called for a need, we answer it!” she told the QueQue.

Cortez confirms he brought up the subject as Rosales was eating at his restaurant one day this summer. Rosales then took the conversation to the local chapter of the NAACP, which frequently joins arms with LULAC on local civil-rights issues. But framing the smoking ban as a violation of civil rights has thus far been awkward. Using the estimate that 20 percent of San Antonians are confirmed smokers, NAACP rep Hunter proclaimed at the press conference, “Two-hundred thousand smokers have rights, too!” Even more puzzling was the laissez-faire economic policy Rosales and Hunter espoused on behalf of their organizations. In the past, the NAACP and LULAC have urged government regulation to protect marginalized communities from big, bad business, so the QueQue admits to being a bit confused reading the following from the Save Our Jobs Alliance: “We strongly believe that the free enterprise system and the free market should dictate how businesses cater to their customers.” The last time we heard this argument, it was coming from Kentucky’s Republican senate candidate Rand Paul, who was discussing his theoretical opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Bexar claws

Industry and optimism filled the reception area at 1101 Broadway on Monday afternoon. Small round tables were draped in red, white, and blue tablecloths and topped with festive centerpieces. The front entrance window announced “Bexar County United Democrats 2010” in USA team colors. In the interior warren of small rooms, the occasional political sign indicated that a campaign had claimed an office. Tenants reportedly include DA contender Nico LaHood, district-court candidates Rosie Alvarado and Norma Gonzales, County Clerk runoff winner Tim Ybarra, and some 15 more. In addition to in-kind headquarters, candidates will be able to take advantage of phone-banking, mailing services, and other GOTV resources, within the confines of the various campaign-finance laws.

“The idea, kind of, is for us to take care of the base vote and allow candidates to go out into persuadable areas and swing voters and convince them,” says Northwest Democrats Chair Jacob Middleton, one of “the three instigators,” along with Joyce Dorrycott and Verna Blackwell-Hilario.

According to Middleton and Democratic campaign veteran Christian Archer, the county’s official Democratic clubs, from Stonewall to the Young, have pledged their support to the BCUD between now and the November elections, cementing what was a public rift with the newly elected Bexar County Democratic Party Chair into an official parallel power structure. Perhaps the most glaring (if unintentional) indication of the speed with which the BCUD has replaced the fractured Party were Tuesday night’s meetings: A BCUD strategy session was convening as the Current went to press, with a full slate of elected officials on the RSVP list, while the Party’s previously scheduled County Executive Committee meeting had been canceled by Chair Dan Ramos. As of Monday, Ramos had not scheduled a new CEC get-together — although he told the QueQue they can’t elect a treasurer until they have a meeting, and he can’t raise funds without a treasurer.

“I feel this is based on racism, because it’s mainly Anglos that are pursuing this activity,” Ramos said. He says he has candidates lined up to work out of the Party’s hotly contested Southwest-side offices, and he does not plan to let the BCUD, “an organization that’s acted well outside the authority of the Democratic Party,” go unchallenged. “Several of `the candidates` have recognized this is the headquarters, and they want to work with my administration. … I haven’t really had a head count as to who’s who. There’s probably the majority on board.”

He may not be mentioned as one of the BCUD instigators, but Archer has been the catalyst, securing the Broadway offices through his consulting group, Adelante, and future funding through the Vote Texas PAC, with which he is closely associated. (During the 2008 election year, it collected $515,000, most of it from trial attorney Mikal Watts, making it SA’s third-richest PAC, behind USAA’s and Valero’s PACs). The BCUD’s official literature will read: The Bexar County United Democrats, a Project of Vote Texas. Although Archer is coy about the BCUD’s financial prospects, he predicted a six-figure kitty for this fall’s elections.

Middleton emphasizes that the BCUD is a short-term alliance meant to support this fall’s Democratic contenders, not a permanent replacement for the BCDP. After the elections, Middleton says, they hope to deliver updated phone and address lists to the Party, as well as a roster of newly elected big-D officials. “Hopefully BCUD can serve as a model for the Party,” Middleton said. “This is what the Party should be doing every year.”

Gray water rules

Widespread opposition beat back a TCEQ proposal to increase the amount of E coli allowed in the state’s most popular swimming holes, but an end run could still realize the fecal fantasies of the three Perry-appointed commissioners.

The trio ruled at their June 30 meeting that 126 colonies of E coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water in areas of “primary contact recreation,” such as the EPA recommends, was probably a good upper limit, despite the fact that TCEQ’s in-house scientists were suggesting we’d be safe enough swimming with 206 colonies.

But the state’s less-visited rivulets — those creeks and streams close enough to influential agricultural donors to be deemed more desirable as feedlot ditches, even though they ultimately drain into important sources of drinking water and treasured swimming holes — are another matter. These will be divided on a sort of bacterial sliding scale based on the understood uses of the individual bodies of water, allowing poop quotas of 1,030 colonies for “secondary contact recreation 2” and 2,060 for “non-contact recreation.” Unfortunately, there was no accompanying budget item funding a statewide bio-hazard labeling system for our waterways.

TCEQ’s rationale lies not in a new understanding of the beneficial uses of bacteria-laden mud scrubs, but in the economic pressure for what TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow told the Longview News-Journal are “appropriate, realistic targets.”

While the San Antonio River Authority is working with the TCEQ to get the San Antonio River below the 126 threshold, several area creeks, some of which drain into the Edwards Aquifer, may be affected by the rule change (Cibolo, Helotes, Leon). “Even intermittent or small waterways not connected to historical use are often used by neighborhood families to swim and play in,” Amy Swanholm, of the Office of Public Interest Counsel at the TCEQ, testified last week.

The Lower Colorado River Authority encouraged the Commissioners to keep the 126 limit for popular recreational waters such as Highland Lakes, and TCEQ Commissioner Carlos Rubenstein ended up leading the way, taking Commissioner Buddy Garcia and a reluctant Commissioner Bryan Shaw with him. “We’ve all sat up here and said 206 is protective,” Shaw said, adding: “I know there are those that will see 126 as overly burdensome.”

Sometimes shit flows uphill, however. In this case, new water-quality standards for the state must still be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Time-release toxins

A new wave of information about the potential causes of elevated liver cancers and other illnesses around the former Kelly Air Force Base — rapidly being transformed into Port San Antonio — will be released this summer. The folks at Metro Health who brought us the corn-tortilla conspiracy are assembling a round of monthly meetings for July, August, and September to share updates about their research and information about new studies getting under way.

To date, local wells that tap into the contaminated groundwater plume beneath the Toxic Triangle’s neighborhoods have been identified as the most likely culprit. Since heavy-metal and industrial-chemical contamination was first discovered in the 1980s, about 80 wells have been plugged, said Kyle Cunningham of Metro Health’s Public Center for Environmental Health. A variety of studies performed on fruit and nut trees haven’t revealed links between contamination and local diets, but the suggestion that aflatoxin-tainted corn tortillas could play a role is still being evaluated.

New county-wide stats are expected in July or August — as is the result of wide-ranging sediment sampling. “With Kelly, it’s not an easy subject,” Cunningham said. “We have really pushed to answer those `questions` as fairly as we can.” Cunningham hopes to also share information about a birth-defects study she plans to launch soon using new, up-to-date plume maps, possibly for release next year. “I think that’s still a question out in the community,” she said.

In the meantime, Diana Lopez, environmental-justice organizer for the Southwest Workers Union, is hoping the recently expanded fishing advisory on Leon Creek will be quickly linked to Kelly’s waste streams. “Obviously, contaminants went off the base,” said Lopez, who grew up swimming and fishing on Leon Creek. “It’s going to keep migrating.”

Worth noting: While the first fish advisory for Leon Creek was issued in 2002 and considered only fish caught swimming between Old Highway 90 and Military Drive (or Kelly’s western boundary) risky fare, the new ban extends downstream all the way to Loop 410. It’s perhaps also worth noting that the samples analyzed date back to 2007. Hello, we’re 2010. Nice to know you. And sure it’s anecdotal, but lingering questions about the source of contamination should consider the first words in the health department study on the creek. Yep. “Kelly Air Force Base.”

For information about the upcoming Kelly meetings, call San Antonio’s Public Center for Environmental Health at (210) 532-5765.

Pony ride

Any lingering blues over our July 5 non-holiday at the office were dispersed at news of a miniature horse loose in the historic Eastside cemeteries. When we arrived, a handful of bemused police officers were hanging out with the mellow Blue Jean, a stout white gelding who wanted very much to continue his roving morning munch among St. John’s headstones. “This was my first horse call,” said one officer. A passerby recognized the pony and alerted the owners, who, unfortunately, did not arrive before Animal Care Services. The ACS officer insisted to the QueQue that no livestock are allowed in city limits, period, and issued Rigoberto Piñeda a ticket, all the while assuring him that he should simply plead not guilty.

“Give me a chance, please,” Mr. Piñeda said repeatedly. “No one is perfect.” His wife waited patiently in a pickup truck so she could follow him as he walked his pony down Dakota, the downtown skyline in the distance. He suffers from dementia, she said, and although he had grown increasingly depressed and anxious, he refused to attend an adult daycare center. The pony and a few other pets we hesitate to mention in case ACS is having a slow stray-dog week keep him occupied and happy. “Because I like animals, you know,” Mr. Piñeda told the QueQue.

Most frustratingly, as we reported two weeks ago, the City’s animal ordinance seems to be ersatz. As we read the code, citizens can keep up to two horses (llamas, cows … ) without a permit provided they have adequate facilities, which the ACS officer made no attempt to determine. According to the ACS spokesperson, owners must have a permit for any nag at all, and “a horse is a horse,” even a horse that would make Tiny Tim look tall. But the ACS officer told us cloppety-clops are verboten, period. The end result: A family with too much heartache on its plate already will spend time and money trying to corral our AWOL code.

Meeting of the week:

Sure, Council’s on vacation, but that’s no reason to let your civic engagement slide. Still wondering what health-care reform means for you? Attend the Antioch Community Transformation Network’s Community Forum on Health Care Reform and Education Initiatives, featuring two of SA’s own who moved to D.C. to serve under Obama: Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, and Teresa Niño, director of external affairs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Free, 8:30-11am Saturday, July 10, 314 Eross St. •

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