Monday, March 20, 2006

Juvenile Justice

Texas capitol reporter Elizabeth Pierson's articles about abuse of juveniles by Texas Youth Commission officers have the South Texas blogosphere buzzing.
  • Rio Grande Politics gave a heads up a couple of weeks ago that the series was in the works. Today the blog wonders, "who in fact is the criminal"?
  • South Texas Chisme asks, "Must a guard thump Johnny on the head to feel safe?"
  • Over at A Capitol Blog, state Rep. Aaron Peña says, "Texans should demand more in the care of our young .... We can not simply take the 'throw away the keys' attitude that many have regarding our adult [prison] populations."
Pierson covers state government in Austin for the Brownsville Herald, The Monitor and the Valley Morning Star. Her stories on the Texas Youth Commission document the doubling of abuse rates at TYC facilities in 2004. The articles include:
  • Little Boys, Big Time: "Rates of physical abuse in TYC have increased steadily for at least seven years. By 2005, three of every 100 detainees were abused by the employees who watch over them."
  • Guards on the Defensive: "Juvenile inmates are becoming more aggressive and injuring guards with greater frequency, Texas Youth Commission employees and union representatives say."
  • Trouble at Evins: "Leadership is new, and abuses have dwindled, but Edinburg’s juvenile prison is still recovering from a rash of beatings and altercations with juvenile prisoners in late 2004."
  • No Warm Welcome: "TYC investigators have confirmed physical abuse against youth by employees at the Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit 62 times since 1999, more than any other TYC facility."
  • Elected officials express concern: "Already the House and Senate committees that oversee the TYC are investigating abuse in the agency, in part because of a string of abuses at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg in late 2004."

BACKGROUND: A TYC investigation confirmed cases of abuse at Evins in January 2005, prompting a legislative investigation. Advocates claimed the abuse problem extended statewide, and one mother spoke of her son's abuse that resulted in eight guards getting suspended. Two months later, the TYC director acknowledged there was a lack of oversight at the facility. Last fall, parents of three kids at Evins filed a lawsuit claiming abuse last year. Workers at Evins, on the other hand, say they're not safe while on the job.

RUMBO Scales Back

Competition makes everyone better, especially in journalism, so when I see a media outlet cut back or go dark, I'm not just sad for the employees, but for the effect on news coverage.

So it's a bummer to see RUMBO, the Spanish-language newspaper chain, drop to three days a week in San Antonio and Houston, cut Valley publication to weekly and cease publication in Austin. The paper will offer issues for free instead of 25 cents per copy and increase the number of copies it distributes.

Rumbo calls it a "refocused strategy" but it really means people out of work and less diversity in reporting.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Election Investigation

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott puts the 2004 Hidalgo County Democratic primary under the microscope.

The AG's office wants mail-in ballots from the election of two years ago, KGBT Channel 4 reports. The station has a copy of the attorney general's memo requesting the documents.
According to the memo, the AG's office received "allegations of improprieties with an unknown number of absentee mail-in ballots in that election."
Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Teresa Navarro tells the TV station Abbott's looking into 11 other counties' elections as well.

I'm thrilled to see the AG investigate voter fraud at the county level. If only he would scrutinize city and school board elections as well. Maybe someday ...

In case you forgot, here are some election results of note from the 2004 Dem primary:
  • Challenger Mando Martinez dropped incumbent Weslaco state Rep. Miguel Wise.
  • McAllen state Rep. Roberto Gutierrez ended up in a runoff against Veronica Gonzalez.
  • Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña held off challenger Eddie Saenz.
  • Buddy de la Rosa and Juan Maldonado made it past the first round to vie for Hidalgo County Democratic Party chairman.
  • Lupe Treviño booted Henry Escalon from the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shine On

Celebrating Sunshine Week, an annual observance of the public's right to know what our government's up to.

Why should you care about access to government information? The introduction to the Texas Public Information Act answers that question:
... The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
In other words, we give the government power to enforce laws, levy taxes and so on. But that government is made up of individuals who must remain accountable to the rest of us.

The Legislature encourages this accountability with a law from last session. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who enforces open government laws in the Lone Star State, praises local and state officials complying with this requirement for public employees to undergo open government training.

Hopefully this will cut down on some of the delays members of the public encounter when seeking public documents. Remember, they work for us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Time for Some Sunshine

It's kind of appropriate that as I catch some rays during my spring break, journalists everywhere observe Sunshine Week (March 12-18) in order to remind the public how vital open government is to our society.

All over Texas, news outlets remind us why governments should be forthcoming with public records. The Brownsville Herald links open government to a free country:

A nation that keeps its people informed of its actions generally pursues policies that the people support and are willing to defend. Secretive governments usually exist in the most tyrannical regimes, where paranoid leaders shroud themselves in secrecy. ...

All too often — especially in the Rio Grande Valley — ... [o]nce in office, controlling millions of dollars in tax funds and able to determine who gets chunks of it, many public officials become power brokers who steer public assets and contracts to friends, family and political allies.

Unfortunately, I haven't found much more from Valley media about Sunshine Week. Elsewhere in the state, the Houston Chronicle asks students to submit open records requests to their schools:
The project reflects the importance of such requests in professional reporting. Court filings, verdicts and salaries of public employees are all delicate materials that many in power would prefer to keep to themselves. But these data tell the public how their taxes are spent and laws administered. Public documents are often the only clues that resources are being misused.
The Dallas Morning News edititorializes about how open government laws protect ordinary Texans' right to know vital details such as police reports, school administrator salaries and pollution sites:
Texas' muscular open-records law is the citizen's biggest advocate in dealing with such matters of public interest, all of which would be documented for the common good by people paid with tax dollars.
The Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress explains the Texas Public Information Act and reminds us that taxpayers pay public employees' salaries, and therefore we have a right to know how our money gets spent:
If you have a problem with sharing your work and speaking to the public, there’s probably a job for you at Halliburton, but not with a city or school.
The Beamont Enterprise points out that open government laws apply to everybody, not just journalists:
While reporters file many of the requests government agencies receive, parents, teachers and everyone else have as much right to that information as the media.
And the alt weekly San Antonio Current offers some tips for filing open records requests because:
Citizens have a right to complete government information. Public federal, state, or local agencies should not be able to withhold information because it is embarrassing or inconvenient.
This post grows long because I hold this subject very dear to my heart. I'll post more later, but let me leave you with this:

Attention, public employees and elected officials: They are not YOUR records. Those documents belong to ALL OF US. We paid for 'em, so hand 'em over.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Font Size Matters

Is former Edinburg mayor Joe Ochoa breaking Texas election rules? Anonymous blogger Earn My Vote at Edinburg Politics says Ochoa's mayoral campaign advertising violates state law.

Earn links to the Ethics Commission's "what you need to know" pamphlet on political advertising, which says candidates can't imply that they hold an elected position if they aren't actually the incumbent. If they're the challenger, they have to use the word "for" in their material:
The word "for" must be at least one-half the type size as the name of the office and should appear immediately before the name of the office. [emphasis added]
According to this image of Ochoa's campaign material (is it from an advertisement, a sign or a commercial?) that Earn provides, the letters spelling "for" appear less than one-fourth the size of the word "mayor."

Has it already been three years since voters ousted Mayor Joe, resulting in a huge turnover in Edinburg city government? This should be an interesting race to watch.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Arresting Development

This week from the Valley's new independent weekly, The Paper of South Texas (DISCLOSURE: I do freelance editing for the publication): School police arrest a union organizer for trespass when she sets foot in the McAllen Independent School District bus barn.

Hortencia Armindariz works for Service Employees International Union. She says the district cops never warned her she was trespassing before slapping the cuffs on. The real reason for the arrest, district employees say, is that she's teaching school workers to stand up for their rights:
Throughout the past several months, Armendariz has been working closely with transportation and other MISD employees to help them learn how to inform the administration about problems that workers are faced with, explained Rosa Medina, an MISD school bus assistant and union member.

"We have problems with the distribution of hours, here in the transportation department. We don't have enough food-service staff to handle cooking food for all the schools," Medina said.
But the McAllen school district administration doesn't like being questioned. It extends to the supposedly open forum during board meetings, in which board members refuse to allow employees to talk. When non-employees try to bring up problems, they get muzzled as well:
A union organizer mentions an administrator's name, then a board member stops the discussion to proclaim that names can't be mentioned in open forum. An organizer mentions the phrase access to open forum, and a board member quickly states that the organizer is off topic. One organizer in the last school board meeting tried to circumvent restrictions by relating the district's silencing of speech to the history of the Chicano movement. The board allowed the organizer to mention the Chicano movement, but not to draw a connection with the district's public forum policy.
District officials don't want to respond to questions about this issue:
Phone calls placed last week by The Paper of South Texas to the MISD Information Office, as well as e-mails sent to superintendent Yolanda Chapa and board member Sara Tippit, remained unanswered as of press time.
The answer is clear -- McAllen school officials think they're above scrutiny.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Television Station Award Winners

The Texas Associated Press Broadcasters also names two local English-language TV stations in this year's list of award winners. They competed in Division 2, which includes stations from Austin, El Paso and East Texas.

KGBT Channel 4 sports director Clay Williams wins second place in the Best Sportscast category for a May 24, 2005 spot. Rob Keltner brings home honorable mention in Best Feature Editing/General News for Streets of Speed/Hall of Shame.

KRGV NewsChannel 5 as a whole earns second place in Best Spot Coverage/Station for "Judge Resigns" (I assume this is the Aparicio resignation/suicide coverage). Reporter Tony Castelan and Everardo Chapa get an honorable mention in Best Feature/Serious for the report "La Santita." Anchor Will Ripley, Mireya Villarreal and Israel Alfaro take home a second-place award in Best Investigative for the report "Teacher Sex," and Ripley and Mel Sayavedra win first place in Best General Assignment for the report "Border Battle."

Congratulations to these broadcasters as well.

Radio Station Award Winners

The Texas Associated Press Broadcasters announces the winners in the 2005-2006 contests for radio and TV broadcasts. Edinburg radio station KURV 710 brings home several awards, thanks to its news crew.

News anchor Sergio Sanchez earns second place for Best Newscast for "The Drive Home" (aired March 30, 2005); sportscaster Jeff Koch grabs second for Best Sportscast for "The Drive Home" (aired October 14, 2005); and news director Tim Sullivan gets top honors in Best Continuing Coverage for his reporting on the McAllen vote fraud and honorable mention for Best Reporter.

The station as a whole notches a second-place award for Best Spot News/Station for its coverage of Judge Aparicio's suicide and a No. 2 ribbon for Best Website.

Congratulations, guys.

Of Course Not

The headline in The Monitor's latest story on politiqueras asks, "They say reform ... but do they mean it?"

Of course they mean it -- for the other candidates. Look how they try to weasel out when reporter James Osborne asks politicians about their own politiquera history:
Questions are referred to campaign treasurers or quickly cut off with something along the lines of, "I don’t really want to get into that," as former McAllen mayor and recent candidate Othal Brand recently replied.
The politiqueras themselves are pissed because Democratic Party chairman Juan Maldonado openly acknowledges the dirty little secret and is calling for a little reform.
"We were like, ‘How come he has to bring this all up in public? He can call us privately,’" said Rosa Peña, a politiquera from San Juan.
Right, how dare he try to put the brakes on this gravy train of looted ballots, intimidated voters and stolen elections? I guess politiqueras do have a sense of shame, if they don't like public scrutiny of their dishonest tactics.

Of course, Maldonado isn't too thrilled that these electioneering mercenaries might increase their price:
"Sooner or later it’s not going to be $1,500. It’s going to be $10,000 or $20,000," he said.
At least once the election's over, state investigators and citizen watchdog groups can pore over the campaign finance reports and voting records to catch some of the sloppier election thieves.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Politiquera History

James Osborne of The Monitor has another story on politiqueras, this one discussing the history of the paid political operatives. Their power grew when the state laws expanded early voting rules, resulting in the abuses we see to this day.

I wonder what examination of Hidalgo County's mail-in and early voting ballots from this year will uncover.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Popular Politiqueras

The Monitor's James Osborne looks at politiqueras in Hidalgo County, whom nobody says they like, but everybody hires. He notes that Democratic Party Chairman Juan Maldonado has taken steps to rein in these political mercenaries:
The longtime politico and former mayor of San Juan has since gotten agreements from virtually every Democrat running in Tuesday’s primary to pay politiqueras by check instead of cash, which he says will provide greater transparency and cut down on the fraud many officials are now calling endemic to the politiquera system.
The reporter also talks to some politiqueras, who say they're providing a valuable service and helping people perform their civic duty. Of course, they (and the candidates who buy their services) still manage to intimidate voters -- even longtime civic activists like Futuro McAllen member Nedra Kinerk:
When I was working as an election judge, I had politiqueras trying to intimidate us to get into the election area," she said. "I had one candidate who came in yelling at me and threatening me … I won’t say his name, but he’s still politically active."
I wish she would name this politician. The only way to halt this thuggish behavior is through public shaming of the bullying candidates.

Speaking of shameful behavior, The Paper of South Texas wrote about the politiqueras and their practices last week.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

When Ads Attack

The Hidalgo county judge race turns uglier, with challenger J.D. Salinas invoking the Mission chemical plant lawsuits to score points against incumbent Ramon Garcia.

The Salinas commercial says Garcia pocketed 75 percent of the settlement, and "that doesn't leave much for families exposed to banned pesticides."

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit want the ad taken off the air, they tell Channel 4.
"It's very upsetting especially for people who have lost loved ones. To be used for political game, it's just not right, it's not right," says Ginger Silva.
Garcia says the commercial is nothing but lies, and points out that he took a 15 percent commission. The Mission folks say they are cool with that.

The question is, why do candidates drop close to a half-million each in campaign spending for a job that pays less than $100,000 a year?

Politics as Usual

With early voting over, we're in the home stretch to see who ends up in a position to reward their cronies and help themselves to taxpayers' money. And at such a critical time, it's interesting to see what politicians are up to right now.

A judge grants a restraining order against Democratic Party chair Juan Maldonado, preventing him from replacing election judges. A candidate had complained about those replacements.

The expected voter turnout on Tuesday? About 13 percent.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Here's Omar

Hidalgo County's highest-ranking telecommuter, District Clerk Omar Guerrero, emerges from his secret hideout to chat with NewsChannel 5 (which "checked Omar Guerrero’s office six times in recent weeks and only found him in the office once").

Guerrero doesn't say too much about his arrest last fall on marijuana and DWI charges, because the case is still looming. He does, however, apologize:
"But I can tell you I am sorry for my bad judgment. And that I'm sorry to the people of Hidalgo county,” he said.
So the district clerk earns some respect for his apology. He then goes on to say that the bank suing him for failing to repay a loan is financing and endorsing his opponent's campaign. Make of that what you will.

(Finally) Doing the Right Thing

Shame, or perhaps a sense of the inevitable, overtakes Aaron Gonzalez, who resigns from his position as Edcouch-Elsa school board president.

Gonzalez, of course, remains behind bars on charges of witness tampering after a judge denies him bond. The feds originally busted Gonzalez last December for conspiracy to commit extortion, mail fraud and bribery.

I called for Gonzalez to step down back then and last week. The blog South Texican predicted his resignation yesterday, and ST's source was right on the money.

Meanwhile, a second local blog, Republic of the Rio Grande, says the charges against Gonzalez may lead to trouble for other local candidates. Still another blog, RGV Politics, has an essay on the disgraced E-E leader from earlier this week.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Battle for the Ballots

The Rio Grande Valley's newest alternative media outlet, The Paper of South Texas, has its second issue out on the streets. (DISCLOSURE: I'm doing freelance editing for the publication.) This week, The Paper takes a look at politiqueras and how they browbeat votes out of the elderly.

Thanks to increased scrutiny of easily manipulated mail-in-ballots after the indictment of some political workers, politiqueras are taking a new approach to extracting votes, The Paper says:

In order to fill the mail-in ballot gap, politiqueras and the politicians who pay them are putting most of their resources into early voting at election sites - a technique that requires rental cars, precise mapping of political subdivisions, and big, big campaign budgets, explained Carmen De Leon, a political organizer and notary public in south McAllen who serves as a magnet for complaints of voter fraud.

The losers remain the elderly, and democracy itself, according to De Leon.“These elections are so dirty, it’s really just pathetic,” said De Leon - a person who has been involved with grassroot political campaigns most of her life and who has seen the development of the politiquera system throughout its four-decade history.

The result: manipulative campaign workers guiding clueless senior citizens to the polls, where they vote according to the politiqueras' orders. As I said yesterday, this blatant manipulation needs to stop. Perhaps advocacy groups like Proyecto Libertad, GRUPO Poder and others could send some members to keep an eye on thuggish behavior at polling places.

Elsewhere in this week's issue, The Paper endorses candidates in the upcoming election, earning some props over on state Rep. Aaron Peña's blog:
What proved to me that the folks over at The Paper were really serious is that their second edition has actual endorsements from their editorial board. That was refreshing and proved to me that these folks were not going to take the easy road. Look, because of the serious and personal nature of South Texas politics, the safer bet would be to stay away from endorsements, this is dangerous and uncharted territory.
Also in this issue: Is the Valley ready for The Vagina Monologues? Some RGV media outlets are a little uncomfortable listing that title in their events calendars.