The QueQue

I hardly
know ’er!

Rumors were rampant at City Hall last month that Sheryl Sculley was about to call a press conference and announce her resignation from the City Manager’s post. Judging by the sweet new package the Council is likely to award her this week, Sculley might have been tempted to start the resignation rumor herself.

The three-year employment agreement, which comes a year before her already luxurious contract was set to expire, includes a $20,000 raise to a hefty annual salary of $315,000, a $2,000 annual retirement-plan boost, and the opportunity to pass along her negotiation savvy to the next generation at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Sculley would also receive $20,000 raises in January 2010 and 2011, which would push her pay to $355,000.

For months, Council insiders have speculated that Sculley views San Antonio as a stepping stone, and was determined, at all costs, to achieve a Triple-A bond rating for the city so she could gild her reputation and land a plum job elsewhere. In addition, although she’s received public praise from mayoral candidates Julián Castro, Diane Cibrian, and Trish DeBerry, there are underlying questions about how eager Sculley would be to work with Phil Hardberger’s successor, and how eager that successor would be (despite the rhetoric) to extend Sculley’s San Anto tenure. Given all this uncertainty, Mayor Hardbergerseems determined to settle the matter immediately — via a last-minute addition to Thursday’s Council agenda.

The QueQue would like to take this opportunity to start the hot rumor that we’re relocating to Portland, Oregon — unless we get a a plush new employment agreement, of course. And please don’t forget the expense account.

Holiday shopping

At the Council’s December 4 meeting, it felt as though city leaders decided to cram a year’s worth of eminent-domain cases into one morning agenda and fly through them with a consent-approval rubber stamp. The Council approved the acquisition of more than 40 acresalong the Leon and Salado Creeks for the linear creekway and Voelcker Park projects, despite concerns from a couple of residents that the move would result in the loss of hike-and-bike park access from Old Blanco Road. They also authorized the expenditure of more than $3 million for an aquifer-protection easement over the Hondo Ranches in Medina County, cleared the way for SAWS to acquire private property for a Prue Road to Bamberger Way water-main project, and approved the construction of CPS power lines near the Toyota plant over property that crosses Leon Creek.

All this land grabbingapparently left the Council too wearyto deal with two of the more intriguing items on last week’s agenda: A proposed ordinance that would require bikini car washes to make their NC-17 sudsing less openly visible to the public, pulled at the request of its sponsor, District 3 vice crusader Jennifer Ramos; and the awarding of a $2 million architectural contract for renovations on the Lila Cockrell Theatre, pulled at the request of District 1’s absent Mary Alice Cisneros. The Cockrell project will be interesting to watch because there is City Hall buzz that Council may ignore a City Staff recommendation that the contract go to Marmon Mok architects, and hand the coveted project to another company. Allied Towing redux, anyone?

Water right

Robert Puente, new CEO of the San Antonio Water System (and former member of the Texas lege, where he was the SA elected official not raked over the coals by the E-N for his handling of the BexarMet public spanking) was the headliner at the District 3 holiday-season town-hall meeting last week, where he explained SAWS’ proposed rate increase of 3.9 percent — scheduled to go before Council this week — that would raise the average monthly home bill by $1.63.

Puente put the numbers in perspective with a chart showing that since the last rate increase in 2006, rates in Houston, Dallas and Austin have skyrocketed 8.1, 21.1 and 25.9 percent respectively. 

Puente also pointed out that while SA has 50 percent more customers than it did 20 years ago, it uses roughly the same amount of water due to conservation strategies, which have been the key in keeping rates down. “The less water you use, the less water SAWS has to treat,” said Puente, who went on to note that current projections show the region has enough water for the next 20-30 years... unless there’s a severe drought, in which case we’d need an additional water supply by (gulp) 2013. (Cast your eyes due north, to that formerly green swath twixt New Braunfels and Austin if you’re wondering what constitutes a severe drought.)

The rate increase will support operations, water supply (optimizing use of the Edwards Aquifer), and infrastructure improvements. The latter will not, however, include acting on a recommendation from the Center for American Progress that three of SAWS’ local pumping stations stop treating water with chlorine gas, which makes them “high-hazard facilities,” vulnerable to a toxic gas release in event of terrorist attack. The Center says such stations should replace chlorine with liquid bleach, generate bleach onsite, or substitute ozone or ultraviolet light. But Puente said that such changes would require a 20-percent rate increase, which is why Congress has not yet mandated a transition. 

Lawyers, hired guns, and money

Speaking of well-run City utilities (ahem), crack a bottle; we’ve vaulted another hurdle this week, albeit one with itty-bitty type. Following four weeks of (costly) wrangling with AG Greg Abbott’s offices, CPS responded to a nearly four-month-old open-records request for the amount your utility pays for legal counseland on bottom-line-busting lawsuits. Though it pains us to say, ’twas worth the wait: We can now share with our fellow citizen-owners the amount they (we) pay their (our) in-house team of lawyers.

Can’t remember when we first got curious about CPS spending on lawsuits … Oh, yeah, the day we learned they had 20-plus pending against them. `See “Hot wired,” August 6, 2008.`

The bill so far (as we know):
Outside legal counsel
Fiscal 2007: $3,206,839
Fiscal 2008: $2,987,710

Staff attorneys
Fiscal 2007: $1,381,939
Fiscal 2008: $1,382,302

Out-of-court settlements
2007: $301,825
2008: $610,750 to date

That’s a lot of lawyering going on. Maybe it’ll pay off. A local attorney tells me that five new discrimination lawsuits against CPS Energy will not be settled out of court. CPS has decided they don’t want to settle anymore, s/he says; seems they lost their appetite for compromise after paying out more than $600,000 earlier this year in a gender-discrimination suit.

Risky business

Big news last week: Seems the Feds like Kansas better’n Tejas for the new National Agro- & Bio-Defense lab. `See “Banging the drum for bio-defense,” August 15, 2007.`

The massive proposed Homeland Security germ research facility — which dazzled the contenders with oodles of federal dollars and terrified everyone else — has been slated to dock in Manhattan, Kansas.

No one is likely more surprised than auto baron Red McCombs, who per the boosterish press, couldn’t imagine a day when Texas would be beat by Kansas or Mississippi. He mocked the possibility. It made for a nice, if typical big-booted Texan hoo-paw, sort of quote. But considering how long our best moralists have definitively linked pride with the loss of equilibrium (leading, in turn, to embarassing missteps), it was a dangerous elocution the fender thumper was engaging in.

Those of us with less brass but broader imaginations weren’t nearly as shocked Texas business interests did, in fact, lose to the sod-buster state with the fancy Latin motto (Ad Astra Per Aspera — something about louse-picking a path to Glory).

Local leaders rattled their jowls in indignation.

“We’re going to be right up in their face,” York Duncan, president of would-be NBAF home Texas Research Park, brayed to the Express-News. “We have decided to pull all the stops out and we’re going to exploit every opportunity to steer this to San Antonio.”

Fellow rejectee, Mississippi Governor, and experienced lobbyist Haley Barbour told the AP, “We’re looking at `a challenge` very seriously because we do think we have the best site.”

Which begs the question: What exactly makes for a “best site?”

Homeland’s own risk analysis, undertaken only after they had been burned by the U.S. General Accountability Office for failing to take into account potential outbreaks of incurable diseases, suggested the current (but aging) Plum Island facility is the safest bet. In its favor, starting with non-Mainland status, count the annual freezes that keep disease-spreading mosquitoes in check, steady seaward breezes, and lack of facilitating livestock.

With all of this in mind, the nation has chosen to study foot-and-mouth in the epicenter of the nation’s Concentrated Animal Feedlot country? Really? Not if the hometown boosters can help it. Expect a final, final announcement to be made early next year — before incoming meddler Obama can step in.

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