Letter to the Editor

Posted

Dear Editor,

Two aspects of life that I try to instill in my students are the negative effects that apathy has on society and the importance of maintaining integrity in all they think and do. In class, we cover the aspects of sympathy (the feeling of sorrow regarding someone else’s misfortune), empathy (understanding what someone else is feeling because you experienced a similar situation), and apathy (the total lack of interest or concern). To me, apathy is a very dangerous pitfall of society, yet it is an aspect of life we all experience. I strive to instill the dignity and self-worth gained by fostering integrity (what you do when no one is looking). Yet, these two characteristics of reasoning are often overlooked. Recently, the citizens of a small Texas town, 150 miles southwest of San Antonio, decided that apathy was no longer a choice. The integrity of their quaint South Texas town was at stake, and the citizens of Crystal City decided that it was time for action. The tiny town of Crystal City, Texas, took down its city council.

On June 6, 2016, in the article How a tiny Texas town took down its city council, Ike Sriskandarajah wrote in his article, “’One of the first things the new council did in 2014 was hire Jonas as the city manager. In a town where the median household income is $26,000, Jonas paid himself $216,000 plus a $6,000 travel stipend. That’s nearly half the city’s annual budget. At the same time, the council was voting to raise taxes and fees’…. ‘Residents have a laundry list of allegations: unjustified firings of city employees, questionable bids being awarded to family members, grant money disappearing without contractors getting paid. But what really insulted people was how blatantly they believed Jonas abused his power.

He’d even established residency by claiming to live in a city landmark: an abandoned caboose parked in the middle of town. A reporter from News 4 San Antonio confronted Jonas about it on camera, asking if he actually planned to live in the caboose on city property. ‘I absolutely hoped that was a possibility,’ Jonas replied. [Former Mayor Jose] Mata said they were fed up: ‘We wanted to put an end to it.’ So finally, some people in town reached out to the FBI, Mata said, adding that ‘they were the ones who ultimately got the ball rolling’… For residents who long had suspected that something was rotten in Crystal City, the February raid was like a federal holiday. FBI officials and residents present told me that people were cheering as agents stormed City Hall. According to Mata, the spectacle of the council members ultimately led to their downfall. ‘I believe that had it not been for the absurdity of the council, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get them out. That’s what made the citizens of Crystal City get all riled up … we all finally came together.’”

Sarah Kaplan, a writer for the Washington Post, reveals in February 2016, “When Barajas tried to have Jonas’s contract suspended last month, the rest of the council simply didn’t show up at the meeting, the Express-News reported. In their stead were eight uniformed police officers, ‘in case things got out of hand.’ Crystal City was $2 million in debt and facing bankruptcy, Barajas told KENS at the time. Richard Durbin Jr., the U.S. attorney for San Antonio, told the Associated Press that he hoped the indictment would help restore some public confidence in the local government. If convicted, each official faces up to 10 years in federal prison and as much as $250,000 in fines, according to CNN. But Durbin’s office doesn’t have the power to remove the officials from their positions, the U.S. attorney said — only voters can do that. ‘What we can do is that first step,’ Durbin told the AP. ‘In the end, it falls back on the citizens to make the next decision on who they put in those offices, because that’s how the system works’ … ‘What happened is nothing to celebrate. It’s something sad that happened to us,’ Barajas told the AP. ‘By all means, we need to move forward.’”

But the story didn’t end there. Kaplan continues to write on February 22, 2016, “When the schools superintendent in Crystal City, Tex., saw the murky, strange-smelling water coming out of her sister’s faucet last week, she knew this was another problem she’d have to deal with on her own. ‘Right now, there’s not really anyone in charge to oversee and to make people aware of the condition of the water,’ Imelda Allen told KSAT. As of Wednesday, when the water started changing color, all of the charged officials were facing a recall, and the mayor, Ricardo Lopez, had just been arrested for a second time for disorderly conduct during the first city council meeting since his indictment. Even worse, authorities found what appeared to be a Vicodin pill in Lopez’s possession when he was booked at the Zavala County jail, KSAT reported. It is illegal to have a prohibited controlled substance at a penal facility, making this Lopez’s second felony charge in less than a month. Allen knew all of this as she watched the sludgy black substance, which her neighbors have compared to crude oil, stream into a pitcher in her sister’s sink. The next day, the city finally put out a statement about the source of the black water: its elevated tank was drained Wednesday, causing sediments and deposits that had accumulated at the bottom of the tank to stream out into distribution lines. The city government said on its Facebook page that the draining was part of a long-overdue renovation of the city’s water tank and that it hadn’t anticipated the sludgy fallout. But that didn’t comfort residents who wanted to know what was happening to their water, and why they hadn’t been warned about the draining sooner. ‘We didn’t get a proper warning,” Crystal City resident Nora Flores-Guerrero told KSAT. “They didn’t post anything or send out any type of message to warn the residents. It was pretty scary’ …’I feel bad talking about the little town where I grew up, but this is ridiculous,’ Alicia Martinez, 53, told the Express-News. “We need help to get it back to where it used to be’… It’s not clear what will happen next in the Texas city, which calls itself the ‘Spinach Capital of the World.’ If the recall elections are successful, the council won’t have the quorum necessary to hold meetings, let alone carry out essential tasks, such as passing a budget, the Texas Tribune reported…. ‘I often say I’ve seen it all,’ lawyer Buck Wood told the news site after successfully arguing for the recalls this month. The Austin-based lawyer has spent 45 years working on cases related to ethics, school finance, election law and all manner of government dysfunction. ‘But what’s happening in Crystal City is in a league of its own,’ he said: ‘I haven’t seen anything close to it.’”

Crystal City is a true example of fighting to maintain a small Texas town’s integrity – of maintaining self-worth. In this time of questionable dignity among the political realms, is it not time to eliminate the forces of apathy? What is happening in our local, state, and national government? How are the leaders of small town Texas dealing with our tax dollars? We have the opportunity to participate as the City of Sealy is currently reviewing its proposed budget. The next public hearing occurs on Tuesday, September 6, in council chambers. The question remains, is now the time to become involved and take part, or is now the time to remain apathetic?

Janice Whitehead

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