By BEN TINSLEY
GEORGE WEST, TEXAS – City Attorney Dwayne McWilliams has launched his own inquiry into the dueling allegations of municipal wrongdoing and racism surrounding the city manager, a civic watchdog group, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“In my opinion, there have been some serious allegations made … and the citizens need to know what the true facts are,” said McWilliams, who has been city attorney since 1976. “I’ve seen many disputes involving the city, and they tend to come and go—eventually they all calm down. But I think this one is getting out of hand, and something serious could happen.”
Just prior to the May election, the civic watchdog group Friends of George leveled 10 allegations of wrongdoing against the city of George West and City Manager Sandra Martinez. They ranged from claims that the city manager lives rent-free on GW property to contentions that GW officials are refusing to tell residents how much money the city has in its coffers. The allegations also outline some basic problems Martinez acknowledges do exist but are currently being addressed—such as infrastructure disrepair, bad roads and malfunctioning fire hydrants.
LULAC responded to the Friends of George allegations by announcing its own investigation into the Friends of George to determine if members of that group are attacking the city manager because she’s Hispanic.
LULAC contends the city manager has been disparaged extensively on social media. They also contend there is a tape recording of some Friends of George members speaking derogatorily about Martinez.
John Walker, the central organizer of the Friends of George, said no one in his group ever did that.
“I have never heard any reference to derogatory comments at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, in recent interviews:
•The city manager recounted several incidents she said led her to conclude she is being targeted by the Friends of George for racial reasons. Friends of George representatives deny this is true.
• Walker reiterated that his group does not have a racially based agenda of any kind.
• In a separate-but-related development, the city manager confirmed that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is investigating whether sewer overflows in George West have been under-reported to the state—an issue on which the Friends of George have been hammering for some time.
A ‘LESS HISPANIC’ CINCO DE MAYO?
The Friends of George situation is a painful subject for the city manager. After the allegations were leveled directly against her in print and on TV by the Friends of George, she started to feel she was fighting for her immediate political and job survival.
Martinez said the racism she has experienced as George West city manager started with a seemingly small request that had huge implications: A member of the Friends of George asked the city to change the name of the city’s “Cinco de Mayo” celebration—which just finished its fourth year at the time—to something … less Hispanic. More Caucasian.
“On numerous occasions members of the FOG have come into my office and ‘suggested’ we change the name of the event ‘to help increase participation,’” Martinez said.
Complaints about the Hispanic nature of the festival name were made as recently as May 2014, she said.
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo—Spanish for May 5—commemorates the May 5, 1862, victory of the Mexican Army over the French. But in America it means much, much more. In the words of former U.S. President George W. Bush, “Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by Americans and Mexicans alike—after all, it is a symbol of determination against great odds and is a source of inspiration for all who love freedom.”
But the city manager contends those who complained about George West’s use of the name did not seem to understand or care about its historical and multicultural significance.
“On one occasion, I was asked, ‘Why celebrate Cinco de Mayo and not Fourth of July?” she said. “I responded, ‘The city DOES celebrate Fourth of July.’ But I felt the gentleman was questioning my patriotism to my country.”
LULAC INVESTIGATES FOG
Ramiro “Gambi” Gamboa—civil and human rights committee chairman for LULAC Council #1, based in Corpus Christi—said any initiative to change the name of Cinco de Mayo on the part of the Friends of George would be suspect.
“If the only reason they want to change it is because it is a Spanish name, then LULAC would come right back in to George West to investigate,” Gamboa said. “My question is, why would anyone want to change the name of a very successful multicultural event that brings people out and makes money?”
Gamboa anticipates LULAC will continue its investigation of the Friends of George for the next two or three months, all the while working to develop a LULAC chapter in George West—and possibly another in Three Rivers.
“We have been a part of change, and we want to continue to make sure every person in the community is fairly represented,” he said. “We want everyone in the community to be aware of the changes happening.”
LULAC officials are tracking possible attacks against the city manager on social media, Gamboa said. He added that LULAC officials have a copy of a tape recording of Friends of George members expressing ill will against the city manager.
Walker said Monday that, as far as he knows, no member of the Friends of George has ever asked the city to change the name of the Cinco de Mayo celebration. He said he never expected allegations from LULAC to arise in the first place.
“Really, this never even entered my mind,” he said. “I was really surprised.”
Walker said this wasn’t his first experience with LULAC. He was a member of the George West ISD board in 1995 when the group filed a voting rights lawsuit against the George West Independent School District and several other Texas districts in an attempt to create single member districts.
The GWISD settled with LULAC out of court in a 1996 agreement that did exactly that.
Walker said he remembers when the issue of the single-member districts was originally presented.
“I remember that our response to the lawsuit was ‘if you feel like it’s being handled unfairly, please come up with another proposal’ because the last thing we wanted was disharmony,” Walker said. “It turned out to be very amiable. There was no blowback.”
Martinez—the daughter of former Bee County Judge Jimmy Martinez—remembers when she moved to George West to become city manager from a similar leadership position in Driscoll. She was very nervous to work in a city whose charter dictates the city manager “shall not be appointed for a definite term.” (Meaning she works month-to-month and can be removed by the council at any time.)
The city manager said she moved into the cabana on city property which she is currently paying rent because she was having problems at the house on Houston Street in which she lived for many years. She felt like she was being watched and monitored by others.
“I am a very private person, and I lived on a street that was probably the heaviest traveled street in George West—and sometimes I didn’t like going outside my house into my yard,” Martinez said. “I felt people were always looking at me and judging me on Houston Street. When they weren’t doing that, people were turning the other way when I walked past, so they didn’t have to look at me or wave at me. It was about that time that the cabanas and park houses were going to be purchased by the city. I felt at the time it was my best move—into a home where I would still pay rent but be able to live at ease and concentrate on my job.”
However, the city manager said any hope she had of peace at home was destroyed when the accusations by the Friends of George was aired on TV news. She said it essentially made her home into a tourist attraction.
“There are people who continually come by my house at all hours and take pictures,” she said. “But I know the park where I live is a public place, and there’s really nothing I can do about it.”
She said she is very proud of her accomplishments over the past four years:
• The new businesses that have located in town—the Holiday Inn Express, the One Stop Exxon, Alamo Lumber, the new steak house, the new mini mart at the corner of 281/59, Flying J and the new Stripes Store. Martinez said very soon they will be joined by O’Reilly’s Auto Store and the Tex-Best Travel Center at 281/59.
• Martinez said during her time with the city, she has been able to acquire $2.7 million in grant funds to be used for infrastructure improvements. Nine free new homes through the HOME Program have been built for families of George West, and a new fire pumper truck purchased for the volunteer fire department, she added. All three city parks were revamped with new park equipment and met ADA compliant restrictions.
• Martinez added that her administration has been able to double the size and fleet of the George West Police Department and its fleet.
“There was also the passing of over 30 new or amended ordinances in four years to help improve quality of life for its residents—businesses and tourists,” she said. “Not to mention the good working relationship formed between the city and the county judge, school superintendent and the Chamber of Commerce executive director for the betterment of George West.”
‘A FINE GROUP OF PEOPLE’
John Walker, meanwhile, is emphatic that members of the Friends of George are not racists.
“They are retired principals and business people,” he said. “They’re a fine group of people. We see 30 to 40 of them each meeting.”
Walker said his group wants to ensure that the city is going to clean up the gutters and roads and make the city more attractive for coming attractions such as the Vietnam Wall, which is on its way to George West in the near future.
Members of the Friends of George, meanwhile, went about their business after LULAC first announced its investigation. The Friends of George specifically invited a reporter to attend one of their recent meetings.
At that meeting, Walker and other members of the group indicated to one another they do not understand why they have been accused of racism.
Going back into watchdog mode, member Mary Brown discussed recent city problems such as sewer regurgitations in the heavily Hispanic Manchaca area of George West. The group has been focused on that issue for awhile.
“These are several residences from what I understand, and they’ve had problems with raw sewage for years now,” Brown said “A couple of elderly Manchaca residents came to the Friends of George and asked us to help them get resolution from the city. The smell was getting so bad it was making them sick. I contacted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and provided them with contact information for a couple of the residences along with some narratives we had prepared.”
GW MONITORED BY TCEQ
A call to TCEQ Region 14 in Corpus Christi, which covers Live Oak County, was deferred to Austin. There, Andrea Morrow with TCEQ public relations emailed a reporter the following response:
“On May 19, 2014, the TCEQ Corpus Christi Region conducted a complaint investigation to evaluate allegations relating to problems in the collection system and lift stations,” it reads. “The investigation is still ongoing.”
Brown said the TCEQ representatives with whom she spoke went to the homes in question with a city representative and determined the city had under-reported similar incidents.
“They entered into a compliance agreement with the city, which requires George West to do a number of things,” Brown said.
Martinez verified the city’s activities are being monitored by TCEQ as part of a compliance agreement.
The city manager said the sewer problem stems from deteriorating infrastructure and “the fact that a lot of these homes weren’t level with the ground when they were built and probably should not have been built there—although there’s nothing we can do about that.”
“When there are sewer backups we try to send out employees as fast as we can,” Martinez said. “This problem is where a great deal of our grant funding goes. But folks need to please quit shoving paper towels and napkins and wipes and diapers into the system. Please don’t pour your grease down there. You’re just aggravating the bad infrastructure problem and making it worse.”
The city is looking into “smoke testing” to make sure certain areas of sewage infrastructure are secure.
As many as 30 people—a smattering of different ages, races, genders and walks of life—attended the recent Friends of George meeting at a local church.
Max Perez, a volunteer minister, told a reporter he doesn’t believe the Friends of George have any racist leanings. He is Hispanic.
“This is only my second meeting, but I really don’t have a problem with them,” he said. “I don’t see any prejudice. They mentioned the Manchaca area—that’s a heavily Hispanic part of George West and I know it’s a priority for them …. I was born and raised in George West, and I can tell you this group is trying to better the community.”
The city manager said she never meant for the community to become divided the way it has or for anyone to throw the “race card” into the matter.
“I did not ask LULAC to come in and investigate,” Martinez said. “Neither I nor anyone with the city called the TV station to make a mockery of our community. There is only one group we can thank for that.”
Martinez is one of a small group of Hispanic women holding city manager-level leadership positions in the state of Texas. She said she understands there are some Hispanics in the FOG group—and she believes most of those members of the group have the best of intentions for the city. But it is the intentions of the leaders of the group (she did not name names) about whom she is concerned.
“A couple of handful of people with hidden agendas and personal vendettas can sometimes overtake a good honest community and divide it,” the city manager said. “We the city presented all the information asked from us. We did not distort the truth.”
In response, Walker says much the same—his people are telling the truth, and they are not playing dirty.
Walker also said he is happy with the results of his group’s work. He said the city has been doing quite a bit to resolve these problems since the Friends of George was first founded.
“There are some really positive things the city is doing,” Walker said. “There are some infrastructure issues that need to be resolved but the fire hydrants are being taken care of.”
Meanwhile, GW City Attorney McWilliams said he fears the back-and-forth allegation situation with LULAC, the city manager and the Friends of George might spin out of control at some point.
He said he is currently not at liberty to provide many details about his investigation. But whatever the results—if the city or the Friends of George have done something wrong—he said the public will learn all about it.
“Whatever it is, I am going to disclose it,” the city attorney said.
Ben Tinsley is a reporter for The Progress newspaper in Three Rivers. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 361-786-3022. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BenTinsley, Google at http://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12.
(Above) George West City Manager Sandra Martinez.