in Houston, Texas
Weslaco ISD threatens suit following newspaper’s report on wasteful spending
Friday, Nov 09, 2012, 11:09AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

As if to prove a point made by a Texas Education Agency investigation into financial mismanagement, Weslaco Independent School District trustees have threatened to spend taxpayer money to sue the local newspaper.

In dudgeon as high as only school boards can muster, Weslaco board members promised to take “any legal action necessary to preserve its rights,” unless the McAllen Monitor removes from its website a story based on the TEA audit and the text of a confidential memo sent to board members outlining the investigation’s results, the Monitor is reporting.

The story, published on Nov. 1, focuses on several criticisms by the TEA of decisions made under former Superintendent Richard Rivera for the school district, between McAllen and Harlingen.

For instance, diverting $2 million from a worker’s compensation fund to help build a press box for the football stadium, the audit said.

No one on the board is suggesting anything in the story or the audit is incorrect, not that that matters. What has the board particularly chapped is how its super-secret memo got leaked to the Monitor.

School district attorney Fernando Saenz, who has been putting all of this bile in letter form, pleaded attorney-client privilege for the memo, while acknowledging Texas laws that protect journalists from being made to give up their sources.

The letter to the Monitor, Saenz said - perhaps playing good cop to the school board’s bad - is really just a formality.

Steve Fagan, executive editor of the Monitor, is treating the threat as even less than that. The paper has no intention of removing the story. Any lawsuit based on the letter would be frivolous and unwinnable, Fagan said.

And if the district sued and lost, Fagan said, the newspaper would ask that its legal fees be repaid by the district. In others words, district taxpayers.

Or maybe there’s still a little left over in the worker’s compensation fund, if it hasn’t already been spent on a Jumbotron.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of money by flickr user 401 (K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Hidalgo County water district - flagged by auditors for spending that exceeded revenues - approves staff pay raises
Wednesday, Aug 08, 2012, 09:54AM CST
By Steve Miller
money

At first blush, a South Texas water district’s 10 percent raise to employees who haven’t seen such a thing since 2003 is an ‘it’s about time’ prospect.

When the entity giving out the raise was found in a state audit released three months ago to have spent more than it took in since at least 2008, the raises for 10 employees become more significant, even though the estimated cost will be a paltry $25,000.

The audit of the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 was a scathing review that alleged the district paid more than $106,000 to companies with links to District 3 President and General Manager Othal E. Brand Jr. The district operates without a conflict-of-interest policy. Brand recused himself in votes involving his business interests, according to a report in the McAllen Monitor.

The raises will be covered by a 33 percent increase in water rates, which was approved in July on the heels of the audit and its allegations.

At the time the increase was approved, Brand said it would raise about $300,000 and cited the audit as the spur for the higher rates.  In addition to the pay increase, the district hopes to hire two more administrators, Brand said.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user Philip Taylor PT, used via a Creative Commons license.

In Starr County, not enough volunteers to hold GOP primary runoff
Friday, Aug 03, 2012, 12:47PM CST
By Curt Olson
empty

Not every Republican who wanted to vote in Tuesday’s runoff election could do so.

Starr County Republicans did not vote Tuesday because they had no one to work the polls, the McAllen Monitor reports. It would not have changed the outcome of the GOP races for U.S. Senate, railroad commission, or the Texas Supreme Court race.

The county of about 61,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley west of Hidalgo, south of Jim Hogg and southeast of Zapata counties, does not have an active Republican party chairman. Heavily Democratic, Starr County had 30,259 voters as of May.

Counties run the general election while political parties oversee the primary, including any runoff, but the Republican Party of Texas cannot administer a local primary. No local GOP races were on the May primary ballot, and there was no early voting, the newspaper reported.  

Dora Fankhauser took over as county GOP chairman two years ago when the party was in a similar situation. She stepped down prior to the May primary because she lives in a remote area of the county and had to devote more time to her business.

State GOP leaders called a past county GOP chairman, Benito Trevino, to have people in place for the May primary. Twenty Republicans voted in May, the Monitor reports. But Trevino said he could not find volunteers for the runoff.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of 'Empty Room, Chairs' by Flickr user timsamoff, via the Creative Commons license.

DWI, back taxes keep Starr County commissioner’s race in the news
Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 02:39PM CST
By Mike Cronin
taxes

A Starr County commissioner candidate owes about $100,000 in taxes, filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated last summer.

Upon learning of his opponent’s bankruptcy filings and delinquent taxes, former Justice of the Peace Abel Cantu told The Monitor that he didn’t think someone like that should be put in charge of the county, which has an annual budget of about $14 million.

But Jesus Maria “Chuy” Alvarez wouldn’t respond to the newspaper’s questions about his financial woes or his DWI arrest beyond saying, “You don’t have your facts right.”

He pointed out that there are other people with his same name in the county. His son is Jesus Maria Alvarez Jr., but the younger Alvarez’s tax accounts clearly list “Jr.” at the end of his name.

Chuy Alvarez refused to clarify which information was wrong. He said he would call back and hung up. He did not call back and when approached outside the polls later in the day, he said he would not answer any more questions.

Alvarez has been a regular source of fodder for the Monitor.

When a Texas Highway Patrol officer pulled Alvarez over in July, Alvarez refused to take a breath test. State law requires those who refuse breath tests for alcohol receive an automatic DWI charge.

The candidate posted a $500 bond.

Alvarez still owes $95,413 in taxes to the county and Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District, records show.

Alvarez is running for the seat that his brother, Jaime Alvarez, has said he is vacating purposely to allow Chuy Alvarez to seek election.

Their father, Jose Maria Chema Alvarez, served as a county commissioner for more than 25 years.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo illustration by flickr user DonkeyHotey, used via a Creative Commons license.

School salaries data pulled from newspaper's website
Friday, May 13, 2011, 02:48PM CST
By Steve Miller
school supplies

It's the thought that counts only sometimes.

When the Monitor newspaper in McAllen on Tuesday published the salaries of local school district employees, the outcry came loud and fast. Some threatened to cancel their subscriptions, while others claimed the public outing of taxpayer-funded expenditures threatened the safety of those named.

The newspaper, in a rather abashed mea culpa, removed the offending data from its website and on Thursday published an apology

Now it's not known whether those very public records will ever show up again on the Monitor's site. From the apology:

Once we have compiled the salary information for all districts, we will perform due diligence and report, in the best interests of all taxpayers, where there might be anomalies that call for further explanation from elected officials and, where appropriate, administrators. We plan to provide you the key information that will help you be better informed and make those decisions for yourself.

 

That does not mean we plan on “exposing” every single public school employee salary in every district in Hidalgo County.

The comments on the "I'm sorry" posting from the paper are a good place to read various views of openness. 

 

"Teachers are people too, and have every right to privacy," one person writes. Another fires off, "All educators should cancel their subscription, individual and for the classroom."

 

Another astute poster sends readers to the Rand site, where one can access overall and average school salaries, though not individuals', for a fee. Still one more directs readers to the treasure trove that is the Texas Tribune's database, where you can look up salaries, by name, of teachers in a number of districts --  but not for the districts first published by the Monitor.

 

Then there's the local CBS affiliate, which broadcast the story of an angered school district employee.

 

As a postscript, we note that it was employee salary information --- and the act of shining a light on it --- that sparked an investigation last year into misappropriation of public funds in tiny Bell, Calif., where the city manager was making almost $800,000 a year. The public information has led to the arrest of that official and others.


***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeedand tumblr.


Photo of school supplies by flickr user stevendepolo, used via a Creative Commons license.

McAllen withholds info about firefighter's firing, but story gets out anyhow
Tuesday, Jan 04, 2011, 12:13PM CST
By Steve Miller
Antique fire truck

Sometimes not getting all the public records requested doesn’t matter; the story can be told with those that are provided.


In McAllen, the Monitor newspaper filed a request for documents related to an incident in which a city fire official backed over a mailbox with a fire engine, then attempted to cover it up.


According to a story, the city denied the request for the documents, citing personnel issue exemptions in the state’s public records law. The city did, however, provide a seven-page report on the matter that not only detailed the event, but also cited city policy that warranted the firing of Lt. Marcos Reyes.


The situation isn't ideal -- we'd like to know more about the city's rationale for withholding documents pertaining to disciplinary actions against a city worker, and as the Monitor story says, the seven-page investigative report failed to explain who owned the mailbox in question, why the fire truck was at that location on Halloween night, and the extent of the damage to the truck. 

 

But it's a good example of how diligent reporters can use public records to get the story out to the public, even when the information released is not complete.

Contact Steve Miller at stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Antique fire truck photo by flickr user Krystn Palmer Photography, used under a Creative Commons license.

Taxpayers foot bill for McAllen firefighters' union conference expenses
Monday, Aug 02, 2010, 11:15AM CST
By Steve Miller

The Monitor newspaper in McAllen reveals a taxpayer-funded excursion for four city firefighters.

The story notes that the local firefighter’s union got $7,000 in expenses from the city to fund travel to a 2008 convention in Las Vegas. The hotel rates at this year’s event in San Diego start at $229, with a couple of hotels sold out.

fire truck

We have to wonder a couple of things: If these are city employees, why are they not negotiating for a government hotel rate? Also, who was the official responsible for allowing such a payment to be part of a union contract?

As the subjects in the story point out, this arrangement is hardly usual. Unions should pay for the training of their own, or at least part of it. And this arrangement is truly unfair to the public.

 

The public benefits from well-trained firefighters. But motorcycles rides, open bars and golf tournaments - all of which are scheduled as part of the program - do not fit into most people's idea of training. That is where such travel turns into a junket and criticism is warranted.

 

Check out the comments on this story; it’s a good piece of journalism.

 

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org
 
Photo of a fire truck by flickr user ohad*, used via a Creative Commons license.

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