All roads seem to lead to toll roads these days for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. How else to explain the contentiousness we’re seeing at the local agency, which controls the purse strings to more than $200 million in federal and state transportation funding?
Two years ago, the 19-member MPO passed over outspoken toll-road nemesis (and County Commissioner) Tommy Adkisson for chair, despite his clear seniority, in favor of let-’em-eat-tolls Councilwoman (and MPO newcomer) Sheila McNeil.
This year, the MPO couldn’t help but give the nod to Adkisson, given the fact that the chair position generally alternates between City and County reps, and with McNeil’s surprise selection in 2007, the City had controlled the seat for two consecutive cycles. Adkisson also credits new Mayor Julián Castro for getting behind his bid for the chairmanship.
While MPO’s toll-road boosters couldn’t keep Adkisson out of the chairman’s seat, they seem determined to limit the power that he’ll be able to wield. County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, one of the MPO’s most vocal toll-road boosters, pushed this week to change the agency’s bylaws to limit the chairman’s power to set the MPO’s agenda. At the July 27 meeting, Adkisson maintained his agenda-setting authority, but agreed to appoint a committee that will explore the suggested bylaws change.
Adkisson says he has an “excellent” relationship with Wolff, but he’s convinced that the drive to limit the chairman’s power is directly connected to the toll-road issue. And it’s true that MPO’s toll-road advocates never challenged McNeil’s agenda-setting ability, but suddenly expressed concern when Adkisson assumed leadership.
“We’ve never had an agenda-setting problem, except once, and that was under Councilwoman McNeil,” Adkisson says. “Other than that, we collaborate, we coordinate, we communicate, we cooperate. Why would I force somebody to go through all kinds of artificial contortions to have some measure brought forth? I think we ought to be a free forum for open minds and ideas that address the best interests of our transportation policy.
“I think this is coming from the highway lobby, many of whom are my friends,” Adkisson adds. “But they want to possess you. I’m not available for possession by anybody.”
Adkisson sees light rail as a viable transportation option for San Antonio to pursue, and says he wants to make MPO’s decision-making process more transparent. Or as he puts it, “I would like to put the jelly on the lower shelf.”
We hope he means grape.
Vice presidents at CPS Energy were getting promotions in May of this year, according to CPS staff. But by June, employees were being notified there would be no more raises or promotions as the utility navigates the economic downturn (which according to msnbc.com’s Adversity Index just began to hit SA during the first quarter of 2009). This week, a day before the CPS trustees were scheduled to discuss CEO Milton Lee’s incentives package, workers were notified that if the economic “crisis” isn’t alleviated by the wage freeze and other belt-tightening measures, they could face mandatory furloughs and salary decreases.
As highlighted in a Current story last week, Lee is likely the highest-paid executive at any city-owned utility in the country. What’s more, “CEO Jr.” Steve Bartley — hired as Lee’s second two years ago as part of a transition plan for Lee’s recently iced retirement — may be the second highest paid.
Lee earned $613,000 last year, $245,000 of which was defined as “incentive” pay. Bartley took home $415,000.
The apparent double-standard at play between grunt and management pay is roiling some CPS workers.
“If we truly can’t afford to pay the employees, how can we afford to have two CEOs at more than a million dollars?” demanded one employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Bartley’s hard-luck memo read in part:
“Our leadership team is asking the directors, managers, and supervisors to micro-manage their budget to reduce expenses further and to stretch every penny of spending that’s mission critical. They will need your cooperation and support. If we cannot reduce expenses through renewed efforts over the next couple of months the next options will be considered … ”
Next options include: deferring wage-scale payments to union members, reducing or eliminating annual bonuses, implementing unpaid furloughs, and outright reducing employee salaries.
While that rhetoric jibes with promises Lee has made to the electrical-workers union to do everything he can to avoid lay-offs this year, Bartley told the Express-News “all options are on the table.”
(The daily somehow managed to avoid the subject of managerial pay and Milton’s impending incentives discussion. Woe to the one-outlet news consumer.)
Back on Milton, our mini deep throat echoed what so many other CPS insiders have been saying to us lately: He’s a dud.
“No one likes Milton Lee. We can’t figure out what he does … He shows up at press events, but who cares? That’s not worth what he makes.
“We’re just so ticked off. This is not right. It’s not fair. If he gets a bonus Wednesday, we’re all going to have to take a furlough day to pay him.
“And why the hell do we have two? No one here can figure that out.”
Neighborhood watchdog Santiago Escobedo sounded the alarm last week: Brackenridge High School is scraping its football field bare, and he worried that the earth removal was related to the benzo(a)pyrene-contaminated pile discovered in 2006 when the EPA tested the property for potential asbestos residue from the former W.R. Grace plant across the river. The high school was asbestos-free, confirmed EPA PIO Dave Bary, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality instructed the San Antonio Independent School District to remove the berm that was contaminated with benzo(a)pyrene, which it did last year.
During that process, workers discovered remnants of a basement from a school building that was demolished circa 1973, said Brackenridge Principal Linda Marsh, which led to further testing and the discovery that the field was significantly polluted with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which include benzo(a)pyrene. The District is removing 12 inches of topsoil, and will install a plastic liner before replacing the dirt and turf. But the SAISD will have to continue to monitor the groundwater, and a deed restriction will be attached to the property’s title.
That’s a lot of alarming-sounding remediation for an old building-demo site. The TCEQ said the PAH contamination is the result of decomposing roofing and building materials, but Escobedo thinks that a former power plant and incinerator adjacent to the school might be the real culprits. In a letter that was sent to school parents in 2006, Marsh reported that “Benzo(a)pyrene is formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat.” (Maybe the football field used to be the old smoking courtyard for the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds.)
Escobedo, you might recall, is one of SA’s own Erin Brockoviches. He was one of the citizens who worked overtime to force thorough testing of the Big Tex site, which led to a major asbestos-removal effort there this winter. “The reason the neighborhood is suspicious `of the current Brackenridge cleanup` is for the very reason that removal occurs without any notification or explanation to the community,” wrote Escobedo in a followup email. He’s since emailed numerous pictures of the old smokestack looming over the Brackenridge campus in the 1920s and ’40s, which suggests that maybe the school district isn’t the only entity that needs to do some digging.
A cool reception by some of the Texas Tech faculty isn’t scaring the administration off disgraced former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, says Sally Logue Post, the university’s associate director of communications and mass media. At least 45 faculty members signed a petition objecting to Gonzales’s new gig — a year-long $100,000 engagement to recruit and retain first-generation underrepresented students and teach a junior-level political-science seminar. “It was a long, involved thing, with several points,” said Post, but please keep it in perspective: Texas Tech’s total faculty numbers around 1,500. “The hiring will go forward.”
Gonzales’s teaching subject is provoking the most ire, although it is certainly an area in which he has unique insight: Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch. It’s not quite like Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but then Gonzales, for all his foibles, is no Henry Kissinger.
Sources: National Priorities Project, Iraq Body Count, icasualties.org