Sunday, May 04, 2014

The future

I've been thinking a lot about the future of ConchoInfo and my involvement in politics and issues. Here is where I am today.

I will keep the conchoinfo blog and website up for the foreseeable future. The expense is minor and it doesn't take much to keep them on the web. I will probably do more posting from time to time but really, I'm stretched pretty thin and need help. There are lots of issues out there, especially on things like school boards, county government etc. that need independent citizen coverage that I just can't do. There are a few other blogs, like State of the Division, and other online news sources like San Angelo Live that are finally covering local issues but these are spread out and do require a bit of effort to follow. I had hoped, and probably still hope, that ConchoInfo could be a source of information, analysis and institutional memory on issues in the Concho Valley. Hasn't quite worked out that way yet.

I've been very discouraged lately. About a year ago we had a major city election and we had a major changing of the guard. We have four new council members and a Mayor with a very different approach than our previous one. I thought things were about to change, and they did. Unfortunately, not all the changes have been for the better. There have been positive changes. We've had evening council meetings. The capital improvement plan is being taken seriously and starting to function like intended. We are seeing movement on the street maintenance sales tax proposal. After a slow, long start, the city's newly redesigned website is getting up to speed and they no longer have to rely on slideshare to host agenda packets and other key public information. There is a lot of hard work being done and a lot of good information is being made easily available. A lot of what is going on in the newly renovated city hall is very good. Unfortunately, there is also a lot that isn't.

It's great we have basically a new council. Good to have fresh ideas and new perspectives. Unfortunately we lost some institutional memory and picked a few previous members who seem to think that this is the same council they were on 15 or 20 years ago. For example, Mr. Fleming keeps saying that the RV/mobile home park moratorium wasn't intended to affect existing businesses and by the time he got elected and voted on it that may be the case. On the other hand it is clear that the previous City Council wanted to keep the much feared "man camps" out of the city even if that meant restricting and possibly hurting existing businesses. Many of my recent comments before council have been to try and fill in this memory hole caused by the changes in membership. There are however a lot of things that concern me about the current City Council and city staff.

My first disappointment is in how "furnituregate" was handled. (Don't you just hate it when someone adds "gate" on some supposed misconduct.) This happened at the very first meeting our new City Manager was part of and the new city manager and then Councilman Morrison, who later campaigned on this issue for Mayor promised a full and public hearing/audit/investigation of how $100,000 were improperly spent on furniture. Granted, many of the principal players in that fiasco are no longer employed by the city (retired, left for other jobs) but the only public disclosure has been by a fellow blogger over at State of the Division as a result of his public information requests. He covers most of what I would say. I was and am disappointed that if that is the complete investigation report, why were some key officials not interviewed, and where is the section about corrective actions to ensure that we don't repeat the same thing in the future? This is especially relevant because one of the people at the center of this issue is now running for city council. This lack of transparency makes it hard to trust the system.

During the last year, I've felt that the quality of many staff presentations has declined. I can sympathize with Mayor Morrison's desire to have the meetings over at a reasonable hour. Still, it seems to me that staff has been showing up missing some answers to key questions that have been asked by the public and even council members. The agenda packets are available on the city website before hand but again, on some key issues the information seems to be less complete than it used to be.

That brings us to the council meeting that happened just before my last blog post. I was terribly disappointed in the presentation made about the RFP selection process for trash collection and landfill operation. What I consider to be very basic questions such as how much the contract has been worth and how the proposals were scored what the scores were, etc. were not available. The only answer was that was the past and what we're looking at is a completely new and different contract and so anything in the past is not relevant. First of the dollar value of the contract is not going to change that much just because we have a new contract with a few new procedures. At the minimum we need to know how the cost of the new contract compares to current contract and rates and services. An estimated $400 million contract will not all of a sudden become only a $10 or $20 million contract. They did hold a news conference last week that addressed at least some of these questions but all of this information should have been available at the April 1st meeting. It would have went a long way towards establishing trust

I've also spent more time than I can afford going over the RFP and comparing it to the previous contract and the past is very relevant. Some sections of the previous contract have been copied as boilerplate into the RFP. In addition some parts such as the requirement for any new contractor to pick up the liability for faults or mistakes made the current contractor would be a huge disincentive for any new company to respond to the RFP. At least that's what addendum 1 seems to say and that was basically what was stated at the news conference the city staff held on the selection of Republic. Kind of hard to understand when the current contract says that

"The indemnity provided for in this Agreement shall survive the expiration of this Agreement and the discharge of all other obligations owed by the parties to each other hereunder and shall apply prospectively not only during the term of this Agreement but thereafter so long as any liability (including but not limited to liability for closure and post closure costs) could be asserted in regard to any acts or omissions of Contractor in performing under this Agreement."

I could be wrong but it seems the RFP wants any new contractor to let Republic off the hook for any past liability. That may not be the strictly legal interpretation of the full RFP but even in addendum 1 it says

"Section C7.2: Scope of Services: What expectation does the City have for the new operator to assume liabilities for prior violations, historical contamination, or other environmental tortuous liability claims?

Response: Proposals to assume all liabilities are requested. Proposals for such will be evaluated to determine feasibility and value and the results thereto will determine the extent of the City’s expectations for assumption of liabilities during contract negotiations."

This is also pretty much what the city manager said during the press conference. I may be reading this wrong but on its surface it looks like the city is asking any new contractor to assume the liability for any problems or issues that Republic would be on the hook for. Why would a sane bidder take on the liabilities left over from a previous contractor? I have a feeling there are other such disincentives in the RFP. Its a big document so I can't say if any such disincentives were intentional but they shouldn't be there. I also find it a bit hard to believe that staff and the selection committee were actually able to thoroughly read, let alone evaluate, the responses to this RFP in the short time they had it.

Add to this that back in August of last year, the council members that were on the selection committee either moved or seconded a motion to automatically award Republic the built in 5 year extension of the current contract and then hope we could get the changes we needed in the contract through negotiation after the fact. Fleming did have the good sense to withdraw his second when several members of the public said that no business person in his right mind would award a contract until and unless all negotiations were finished. Of course, that didn't stop Wardlaw from seconding the motion that Farmer had made and wouldn't change. Wardlaw basically said that we could trust Republic to do the right thing. Interestingly enough, as a result of the controversy dredged up by this RFP and selection process the city council will be meeting in executive session next council meeting to "to consult with attorney on pending or contemplated litigation relating to 1) alleged non-compliance with Agreement for Waste Collection and Disposal and Landfill Lease and Operation between City of San Angelo and Republic Waste Services of Texas effective August 1, 2004." Just one of those things that make you want to go Hmmmmm.

I am not a lawyer and I don't have access to all the information that city staff or council does but I have been following local politics closely for a long time. I am frustrated almost to the point of throwing in the towel because contrary to my hopes and expectations, the city government is less transparent than it used to be and much of the information that is available makes it difficult to trust what is going on. Far too much information that should be readily available at council meetings just doesn't seem to be there any more. And no, a news release that ends up behind a pay wall on the Standard Times website is not where citizens should have to go for city public information.

I'm frustrated almost to the point of giving up. I'm not making any progress by "lecturing" city council or staff. At least that's what I've been told. I've been told by city staff and council members that they appreciate what I do but recently that comes across as being patronizing. Not sure if or when I'll post again but for now I needed to vent this one last unreasonably long lecture.


  1. Jim, I reposted the waste management part of your story to The San Angelo Connection. If there is any problems with doing so or how I posted it, let me know. I also included links back to this article and to your general blogspot page.

    I was thinking the same thing as you, when I read that Standard Times article. They missed a fundamental point.

    Thanks, Jim

  2. The link to the re-published article on The San Angelo Connection:

  3. You've pulled out every word in my head and put it in your blog. GREAT stuff Jim!!!

  4. It's up to City Manager Daniel Valenzuela to set a standard for City Council presentations and hold his people to it. Daniel promoted Ricky Dickson and Shane Kelton from within. Under their watch city water pipes and streets deteriorated to abysmal levels. I too have noted the lack of quality presentations, but I've seen that from the Assistant City Manager level as well. Michael Dane's MedHab update last year was paltry. Rick Weise's presentations on the Section 1115 waiver haven't been much better.

    I have to wonder if Ricky and Shane are able to anticipate questions and prepare slides/research prior to the meeting. They miss things a knowledgeable leader would've covered and look ambushed when asked.

    As for defensiveness, this has been a city trait for quite some time. Their latest trick is to ask the Texas Attorney General to keep information confidential, even that which the city freely shared in the past. I'm in the midst of this over the Hirschfeld economic incentive.

    The City sought a legal shield from citizen complaints regarding the Mejor Que Nada feral cat colony. I challenged the City's logic with the AG and won. I do know the city will twist my request in their AG submission and I have to write to inform the Attorney General's office of my intent and how I see it fitting under Texas law for Public Information.

    To sum up, I had a great relationship with PIO Ty Meighan. I'm sure he wasn't a fan of some of my pieces but I do believe he thought the city needed to share information with the public. I don't have the same sense now. I've written Daniel with concerns in the past and believe him to be good hearted. I also believe Mayor Morrison wants the city to be an ethical open organization. The devil is in the details, which you and I mine from time to time.

    Keep up the good work at whatever pace life allows. I'm a fan.

    1. One thing you have to remember about public information requests is that legally you don't need a reason for the request beyond the fact that you asked for it. The Public Information Handbook states "The Public Information Act prohibits a governmental body from inquiring into a requestor’s reasons or motives for requesting information. In addition, a governmental body must treat all requests for information uniformly." They can't really withhold information based on your "intent" (with a few exceptions such as if the requester or their agent is incarcerated.)

      If the city government (or any governmental body, as defined by the public information act) wants to withhold information from the public, they can only do so based on a ruling or opinion of the Attorney General. They can't withhold it on their own. Even then, a court can overrule an AG opinion. The government has to prove to the AG (and any court appeals) that the information falls into one the exceptions allowed by law.

      If you haven't checked it out yet, you really need to get familiar with the AG's open government web pages.
      Lots of information there, much of it is pretty dry and full of legalese. The Public information handbook, for example, is 312 pages long. Still it's important because that is where you will find all of the AG's open government related opinions and rulings.

      Of course completely different sets of rules apply when dealing with the court system or the legislature.

    2. And one more point. What I see in the presentations is a disconnect between city staff and the people in the world outside the walls of city hall. They get defensive when that disconnect gets exposed during the council meeting and they get left wondering why their presentations don't just sail through.


      I'm pretty sure you gave me the above link, which I used to challenge the city's first request to not make information public. I referenced it with my second challenge as well. Thank you for your coaching, in both the past and present.