(María Eugenia Guerra is a journalist and the mother of City Council member George Altgelt.)
At the August 6 City Council meeting, interim president David Gonzalez of Laredo Firefighters Local #872, fulltime firefighter captain, and fulltime law school student in San Antonio depicted the process the union’s political action committee (PAC) implements to decide who they will support with money and/or in-kind contributions in the November 6, 2018 General Election.
He said that the Union’s PAC contributions hinge on the candidate’s answers to questions posed by a committee. “First question out of our mouths, ‘What can you do for our City? How much money can you bring in for our City? What can you do and will you do to lift the pay of employees not only for the City of Laredo, but across the board? How well do you understand the City budget? What do you think you can do?’”
How compelling, informed, and convincing, I asked myself, could have been the answers of, say, the inarticulate City Council member and convicted felon Vidal Rodriguez, a recent beneficiary of the firefighters’ PAC — to date this year, with two and-a-half months left in the campaign cycle, $4,820.53 to print campaign signs; $998 in labor to hang signs; $719.86 for shirts; $495.61 in food and beverages for sign hangers; and $142.63 for equipment.
The union’s PAC exercises the right to give money to any candidates they have selected, but the very choice of Rodriguez spatters guano on Gonzalez’s noble narrative that the PAC supports outstanding candidates who will work for the greater good of the City. Gonzalez could well have said more to the point, “We dance quid pro quo with who brought us to the ball, even a convicted felon, y que?”
The firefighters PAC has given District I Council member Rudy Gonzalez $10,000 this year. Perhaps he, too, dazzled the Union’s PAC members with a civic betterment plan that made them reach deep into their well-padded pockets, though it is more likely that he was rewarded for voting to pass without questions or debate the Union’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the City.
It will surprise no one that union #872’s PAC will end up giving money and support to every Council member who supported the CBA, including (as of this writing) District VI Council member San Miguel, the father of two firefighters, in his run for Mayor; and later to District III candidate Christina Perez, Alex Perez’s wife. When District VIII Council member Roberto Balli and Albert Torres of District IV run for re-election, they, too, will likely find comfort in the PAC’s fistful of dollars.
REFRESH THE MORAL TURPITUDE PAGE
Rodriguez acts as though his 2017 conviction for moral turpitude is a mere trifle, when in fact it is a large valise that he carries around and can’t easily stow. While running for the City Council District II seat in 2016 — in the employment of Webb County as a court coordinator for Pct. 2 — Rodriguez illegally accessed and posted to Facebook the sealed juvenile records of Annette Ugalde Bonugli, his opponent in a race that he won not fair and square.
An investigation by the FBI and the Webb County District Attorney’s office determined that Rodriguez had used a County computer to access Ugalde Bonugli’s private, protected-by-law juvenile records.
Rodriguez has never admitted wrongdoing in the crime for which he was convicted in State District Court, but why would he when four of his City Council colleagues voted thereafter to allow him to keep his District II seat. That vote, which evidenced the skewed political compass by which they — Balli, San Miguel, Perez, and Gonzalez (Torres was absent at that meeing) — navigated, bore and still bears the message that four members of the Laredo City Council believe that the records of juveniles are not protected and that there was no consequence to Rodriguez helping himself illegally at the expense of his opponent.
A July 27, 2018 summary judgment handed down by visiting judge Sid Harle in the civil suit Ugalde Bonugli filed against Rodriguez and a supporter named Alejandra Cadena Sepulveda, ordered Rodriguez and Sepulveda to each pay Ugalde Bonugli $350,000 in damages. Harle has referred the case to the City’s Ethics Commission.
Despite the black marks of Rodriguez’s March 23, 2016 arrest and October 11, 2017 felony conviction for moral turpitude, the Laredo firefighters union PAC threw their overwhelming support to the candidate.
What badge of pride could the support of Rodriguez muster for the good men and women of the Laredo Fire Department who provide the noble service of saving lives and who do not themselves break the law or reward felons?
THE GANG OF SIX: MAYHEM & CHICANERY
The Gang of Six is the cabal of two savvy politicos and four all too willing followers who have the like-minded desire to oust Mayor Pete Saenz in the upcoming November 6 election and to replace him with District VI Council member Charlie San Miguel. The members are District I’s hapless piece of furniture Rudy Gonzalez Jr.; the indicted, convicted, and uninformed Vidal Rodriguez of District II; District III’s Alex Perez who has the hope that his term will end on a Ma and Pa Ferguson note with a win for his wife; District IV’s young, transparently ambitious Albert Torres, who has years ahead to build his very own City-County political machine, and who in the meantime supports the licensing of more maquinitas and welcomes their accompanying organized crime; the ever slick, fork-tongued, tap dancing, and opportunist mayoral aspirant Charlie San Miguel; and the dark and calculated Roberto Balli of District VIII.
The minority members of the Council, often out-voted and blocked by the Gang of Six, are District V Council member Nelly Vielma, District VII Council member George Altgelt, and Mayor Pete Saenz.
LANDIN: “CUT THE CIRCUS”
Laredo Fire Chief Steve Landin referred to the August 6 City Council meeting and its protracted debate about the firefighters CBA with the City as a “circus.”
Landin had all the power to stop the circus, because he’d brought it with him, the applauding, sometimes heckling members of firefighters union #873 — applauding when their side scored a point, grumbling and jeering when Mayor Pete Saenz and Council members Vielma or Altgelt questioned budget officer Martin Alemán and City Manager Horacio De Leon about the prudence of giving in to an agreement that smacked of a done deal weeks in advance of August 6.
Any who attend the bi-weekly Council meetings or who are viewers in the Public Access audience of about 31,000 have seen many a Council meeting turn into a circus. This one came with sideshows, a ringleader, elephants in the room, flame throwers, jugglers, tight rope walkers, rings of fire, and paper tigers.
Little was heard from the Gang of Six, except San Miguel who asked questions for which he already knew the answers, palliative and intended to allay the public’s hesitation about the Firefighters’ agreement with the City — which depending on the calculus and the human calculator was $4 million now or $14 million over four years.
How is it that the father of two firefighters could engage in debate over the compensation of firefighters without the sounding of a conflict of interest alarm or the raising of red flags? Citizen David Cardwell admonished San Miguel that his participation in the collective bargaining agreement may not have been illegal, but that it was not moral.
It was Altgelt’s agenda item asking Chief Landin — “to explain to the public why the Former Laredo Fire Department Union President and current Fire Fighter is allowed to remain on paid leave and attend St. Mary’s School of Law and whether/how/what policies and/or collective bargaining contracts allow for taxpayers to subsidize someone’s private education, impact to the current collective bargaining negotiations and any matters incident thereto” that ramped up the jeering and heckling of Altgelt.
Chief Landin asserted defensively that there was “nothing illegal” about Gonzalez going to law school and that he wasn’t doing Gonzalez “any favors.” He told Altgelt that he would appreciate the Council member treating department heads “with respect.” He added, “Cut the circus.”
Altgelt responded archly, “You’re supposed to explain how this works….how a fire department employee can go to law school fulltime and be a fulltime firefighter…what’s your authority…you’ve been called up here not to get on a soapbox, but to explain the mechanics of this.”
“We are both upset,” Landin said, calling up divine intervention. “Lord, give me guidance. OK, here we go. They are called exchanges. It is simple. I work for you. You owe me. I pay you back. Our collective bargaining agreement allows these exchanges,” Landin said.
Returning to the podium, Gonzalez filled in the details of the mechanics of shift exchanges between firefighters. The matter turned personal at the podium and the dais as Gonzalez, unnamed in the agenda item, revealed that he was the fulltime firefighter attending law school.
While Altgelt asked how Gonzalez handled the challenge of the rigors of the first year of law school, the commute back and forth from another city, and his duties as a fulltime firefighter, Balli heaped praise on Gonzalez for undertaking the work. Council member Rudy Gonzalez echoed Balli (it’s an echo chamber in there; you can look good by repeating what was just said), and David Gonzalez’s Deputy Chief Paul Rodriguez lauded Gonzalez’s performance, work ethic, and dedication.
Even Gonzalez attested to his own worth, telling the Council, “It takes sacrifice, it takes work. No one says it doesn’t. I consider myself a real good firefighter. Council is welcome to come work with me at my station anytime you want.”
Landin spoke emotionally about his role as Fire Chief. “I love my job, and I love my firefighters. I don’t like anyone picking on my firefighters.”
He apologized for speaking “abruptly” and invoked Divine Providence once more with a homily directed at Altgelt. “God tells us to love our fellow man, even the ones that are hard to love, and sometimes, sir, you are hard to love.” (Thundering applause from the firefighters.)
POT CALLS KETTLE BLACK
David Gonzalez’s condescension at the podium — to City budget officer Martin Alemán (“Glad to see Martin was prepared this time”); to the public (“The public doesn’t understand big numbers the way they were presented”); to the Mayor (advice on giving incentives to owners of transportation companies “like you do for developers”); and to Altgelt (“I never considered running for City Council, but I keep hearing you say ‘How do we do this? How are we going to do that?’ Maybe you should have thought of that before you ran for office.”) — diminished his relevance in the debate.
Gonzalez said it “was sad to see how politics have taken over this chamber” and later, “We feel this is all political.”
This from a man whose union’s PAC has rewarded and will continue to reward — with thousands and tens of thousands of dollars — City Council candidates and elected officials who voted to approve their collective bargaining contract with an endorsement, PAC dollars, and in-kind campaign assistance, even for the convicted felon on the Council.
HECKLEFEST AIMED AT ALTGELT FOR ASKING QUESTIONS
THE PUBLIC MIGHT HAVE POSED
Council member Altgelt, who took the brunt of the firefighters’ heckling, was relentless in a no-stone-left-unturned query of City budget officer Alemán and City Manager De Leon, asking for an explanation of the sudden change in their initial position that the firefighters’ CBA could decimate City finances.
“We were walking into a $14 million budget shortfall, is that correct? That’s how it was told to us. But in the last two weeks things are looking up?” Altgelt asked, a bit skeptical about the turned-on-a-dime forecast of an imminent fiscal disaster. Alemán responded that the first quarter of the year saw a drop in amusement (maquinita) taxes and bridge revenues. He said, “That’s when we started putting on the brakes in the first four months of the year,” adding, “In the last two weeks things are looking up. Sales tax is up 5.5 percent and bridge revenues are up 2 percent as well. These are the two biggest revenues, and the property tax collection ratio is up.”
The minority members of the Council — Vielma, Altgelt, and Saenz —of late are frequently out-voted by the contentiousness and ill will of the Gang of Six.
In the 20-plus years that I have chronicled the behaviors of local politicians, I have not witnessed such deeply rooted posturing and jockeying for power.
It’s a good time to remind the Gang of Six that those behaviors don’t at all play well on the Public Access screen.
The eye-opening here-and-now of City Council politics and its future should motivate voters to become well-informed about the best candidates running in the November 6 election. Not all of them will be as fortunate as Charlie San Miguel, Vidal Rodriguez, and Rudy Gonzalez, to receive Firefighters PAC money.
As you drive through South Laredo, now wallpapered with Vidal Rodriguez’s re-election posters, keep in mind that the Firefighters chose a felon to support and that the cloaking of both sides of Hwy. 83 with signs was Rodriguez’s reward for supporting the Union’s collective bargaining agreement.
I’ve written about dirt bags and bag men over the years, and I recall well the Thanksgiving frozen turkey giveaways in the barrio — missiles of nano-second gratitude flying through the air to say, “In this moment I give a rat’s ass about how disenfranchised you are. Vote for me.”
And speaking of turkeys, I think of Johnny Amaya falsifying water quality records at the Webb County plant in Río Bravo while human life hung in the balance of his deceptions; and how long he was allowed to keep his job because he was a vote harvester who was politically useful. His luck held through a trial in district court for the falsifications and into a gig in the Dannenbaum era that screeched to a halt with the FBI raids of 2017.
I think of the legendary City Hall sexual harasser who was allowed to keep his job for decades as he cheapened and destroyed women’s lives — their ruin, his gain
The list goes on — the school board scoundrels of the mid-1990s posing as good stewards of the hearts and minds of children while bankrupting the public trust.
I’d be remiss not to add to this life list of desgraciados Vidal Rodriguez, the convicted felon rewarded with campaign money by Laredo Firefighters Union #872, so that he, with the blessing of four City Council colleagues, can continue to foul the public dais.