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Edinburg school board president Carmen González on Tuesday, April 8, drew pieces of paper containing the names of fellow trustees Greg García, Jr. and Robert Peña, Jr. to determine the new length of their terms of office. The drawing of the names was authorized by a controversial new state law, according to school board attorney Jacques Treviño, that will eventually result in all seven school board trustees having their terms of office increase to four years from its current three-year length, and switch the month for school board elections to November from May. García, Peña and trustee Jaime Chavana have objected, contending the state law was voluntary, not mandatory, and that voters in the school districts should be the only one with the power to make those changes. González and the other three school board trustees say the new state law required the changes, whether they agree with the results or not, and that view has been supported by the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Secretary of State. The school board attorney, seen here, coordinated the drawing, which will be broadcast beginning of Friday, April 11, on the school district’s television channel on cable 17. García and Peña did not attend the special board meeting that was scheduled specifically for the drawing. See story later in this posting.

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Fern McClaugherty of Edinburg, a community activist who looks out for waste in government, on Tuesday, April 8, urged the Edinburg school board and area voters to reject two school construction bond issues that will be on the May 10 ballot. She express her sentiments with a card bearing the following theme against the two proposals, which involve almost $150 million in new debt: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Supporters of the bond issue contend that the bond election will provide facilities needed to improve educational attainment. Proposition 1 includes building four (4) elementary schools, two (2) middle schools; converting Harwell Middle School into a fourth high school; three (3) multi-purpose fine arts centers at each of the existing high schools; Brewster School addition/renovations, and land acquisition for a total of $111,920,000. Proposition II includes $37,675,000 of 1998 Lease Purchase Bonds to be converted into Series 2008 voter authorized IFA supported bonds.

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South Texas College is a winner of the 2008 MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award. The announcement was made Tuesday, April 8 at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention held in Philadelphia. The other national winner is The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland. As part of the award, each college receives a $30,000 grant to continue creating and implementing effective strategies for aiding underrepresented students, as well as using data to target and assess strategies to improve student outcomes. The two colleges were chosen based on their ability to demonstrate determined leadership, innovative programming and attention to outcomes. The result: clear improvements in meeting the varied learning needs of low-income, first-generation, immigrant and working students. Representatives from South Texas College accept the MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award. From left are Roy de Leon of the STC Board of Trustees, President Shirley A. Reed, and Irene García, chair of the STC board. See story later in this posting.

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Former Councilmember Eddie Cisneros-Johnson arrested on DWI, firearm, drug charges in McAllen

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Former City Councilmember Eddie Cisneros-Johnson, whose expertise as a vice-president with First National Bank helped spark unprecedented economic growth for the three-time All-America City from May 2003 to May 2006, has been charged by McAllen police with driving while intoxicated, possession of a controlled substance, and unlawfully carrying a weapon, according to the Edinburg Review.

If convicted of those charges, the episode would represent a serious setback for one of the community’s youngest residents in recent memory to be elected to a major political office.

He was only 31 when he was elected to the city council, and featured in a McAllen Monitor article as being representative of young citizens taking their rightful places in positions of political power.

Cisneros-Johnson was arrested Saturday morning, April 5, after being pulled over for a traffic violation, the newspaper quoted McAllen police.

According to the news account filed by the Edinburg Review’s Jere González:

Though he served only one three-year term as a councilman, Johnson played an active role in the community, said Councilman Gene Espinoza, who served with Cisneros-Johnson on the council. He added that he was saddened by the arrest.

“You hate to see this happen to anyone,” Espinoza said. “He was a nice guy and we got along. We had our differences from time to time on the council, but that was OK.”

After being stopped Saturday at 3:34 a.m. near the 1800 block of South 10th Street in McAllen for a “traffic infraction,” McAllen police believed that Cisneros-Johnson was under the influence, said Sgt. Joel Morales, who said officials found a loaded 9mm semi-automatic Smith & Wesson pistol and 2.5 grams of cocaine in Cisneros-Johnson’s vehicle.

The drug possession is a third-degree felony while the weapon possession and DWI are class A and class B misdemeanors, said Morales.

Cisneros-Johnson posted a $7,000 bond, said court officials.

The maximum penalty for the three charges is 12 years confinement and $16,000 in fines.

Cisneros-Johnson first gained prominence in local politics in May 2003, upsetting veteran Mayor Pro Tem Arnoldo F. Benavides.

He was part of the administration led by Mayor Richard García, who defeated longtime former Mayor Joe Ochoa during the same year, which also saw former Edinburg school board trustee Noé Garza defeat Councilmember Roy Peña.

In May 2006, Ochoa defeated García in a political rematch. Also in that May city election, Cisneros-Johnson was defeated by Gus García, Jr. (no relation to the former mayor).

Former Mayor García currently serves as president of the board of directors of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

Among his more notable accomplishments on the city council was the role Cisneros-Johnson played on the Planning and Zoning Commission, which has considerable power in deciding how the city’s commercial and residential neighborhoods are developed.

Cisneros-Johnson also supported televising the monthly meetings of the Planning and Zoning Commission on the city’s government channel, the Edinburg Cable Network, but so far, that idea has not been put into action. The Edinburg Cable Network does televise the meetings of the Edinburg City Council and the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.

In addition, Cisneros-Johnson was part of the Edinburg City Council that successfully pushed for the creation of several multi-million dollar government projects, including the soon-to-be completed Edinburg City Hall and the Daniel Sekula Memorial Library, which is located next to the First National Bank branch facility in which he worked at the time.

Also during Cisneros-Johnson tenure on the city council, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation awarded First National Bank the right to purchase, then develop, property owned by the local government into what will become a $100 million corporate headquarters for the financial institution.

In addition, Cisneros-Johnson supported the city council’s legislative agenda, which resulted in tens of millions of dollars in new state funding funneled from the Texas Legislature to the University of Texas-Pan American.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, whom Cisneros-Johnson endorsed in Peña’s first of two successful races against local civil engineer Eddie Sáenz, in mid-2003 filed a House resolution that provided insights into the character of Cisneros-Johnson.

The House resolution, which was approved unanimously by the House of Representatives, follows:

“WHEREAS, A great city is not judged by its size, power, or wealth, but by the kind of man it chooses as its leader; and

WHEREAS, The three-time All-America City of Edinburg has bestowed the honor and responsibility of leadership on Eddie Cisneros-Johnson, elected in the spring of 2003 as city council member by an informed and active constituency; and

WHEREAS, Councilman Cisneros-Johnson brings with him the strength of character forged by a lifetime of achievements and lessons learned, and in his new post he will continue building on

Edinburg’s reputation as a regional leader in our beloved state; and

WHEREAS, This dedicated public servant puts a high priority in the real objective of education, which is to give children resources that will endure as long as life endures; habits that time

will ameliorate, not destroy; occupations that will render sickness tolerable, solitude pleasant, age venerable, and life more dignified and useful; and

WHEREAS, Councilman Cisneros-Johnson’s vision of leadership is based on the belief that the best government is one that teaches us to govern ourselves, and he is and will be a key figure in the

economic and educational advances that will propel Edinburg into being one of the preeminent cities in Texas; and

WHEREAS, The foundation for a great city will be enhanced during his public service through a great emphasis on public safety, infrastructure, improvements, and government accountability to the people; and

WHEREAS, The hopes for a great city will be realized during his public service, including the planned opening of the $20 million University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center,

multimillion dollar expansions of The University of Texas-Pan American, and the further development of U.S. Expressway 281 into the future Interstate Highway 69; and

WHEREAS, While serving as a member of the Edinburg City Council, Eddie Cisneros-Johnson will set a high standard of leadership based on his noble goal of being truly esteemed by his fellow citizens by rendering himself worthy of their esteem; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 78th Texas Legislature hereby commend Eddie Cisneros-Johnson for his past and future service in behalf of Edinburg, the three-time All-America City; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Councilman Cisneros-Johnson as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.”

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ECISD president González draws lots to set new terms of office for absent trustees Peña, García

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg school board president Carmen González, supported by a simple majority of the trustees, on Tuesday, April 8, drew paper lots to determine the terms of office for fellow members Greg García, Jr. and Robert Peña, Jr., who did not attend the public meeting.

The action sets the stage for a possible legal challenge against a new state law which – depending on which trustee is asked – either required, or merely allowed, the unusual political lottery and key changes to the power of dozens of school boards statewide.

The April 8 drawing took place as part of a separate, but related, process that requires the U.S. Department of Justice to give or deny permission for the changes to take effect – an action known as obtaining pre-clearance. If pre-clearance is not given, the federal government can sue to block the planned changes to the local election.

The results of the April 8 special board includes changing the date of Edinburg school board elections. For many years, school board elections were held in May, along with Edinburg City Council elections. Now, the school board elections will be held during the November general elections. Eventually, the current three-year terms for all seven Edinburg school board trustees will be four years in length.

There were no comments made by the trustees during the vote, which was preceded by an explanation of the process by school board attorney Jacques Treviño, and witnessed by a packed house in the board room at the school district’s main administration building.

Only trustee Jaime Chavana voted against giving González the power to draw the lots for García and Peña.

Trustees Ciro Treviño (no relation to Jacques Treviño), Omar Palacios, and David Torres voted to allow González to draw for the changes to the terms of García and Peña.

The special meeting, which began at 5:40 p.m., was videotaped by the school district’s media department, and will be broadcast for the next few weeks, beginning on Friday, April 11, on the local cable channel 17, KATS-TV.

The two factions on the board have been battling over the election changes since last November, when for the first time, trustees met in open session to deal with Senate Bill 670, unanimously approved by state lawmakers last spring, which authorized dozens of school boards in Texas to approve a resolution to set the changes in motion.

There was a December 31, 2007 deadline for the school board to act, according to the new law.

González, based on the legal advice of the school board attorney, in open session drew the names, contained on two pieces of paper, and the terms of office, also contained on two piece of paper, from clasp envelopes.

As a result on the disputed drawing, García’s current three-year term will be extended to three-and-a-half years, while Peña’s current three-year term will be extended to five years. Then, García and Peña (or their successors) will begin serving four-year terms.

Meanwhile, González and Treviño, who would have been up for reelection in May, had their current three-year terms extended to three-and-a-half years as a result of the board moving their elections to November.

Then, González and Treviño (or their successors) will begin serving four year terms.

The three-year terms for Chavana, Palacios, and Torres were extended to four years.

For González and Treviño, the public dispute may provide ammunition for possible opponents in November, who could criticize them, Palacios, and Torres for grabbing political power without the consent of local voters.

But, that board majority has contended that the changes were forced by a new state law, whether or not they agreed with the mandate, that was designed to increase the turnout of voters in school board elections and reduce costs.

Following the special board meeting, the school board attorney acknowledged that the new state law created by Senate Bill 670 has created a controversy that has resulted in “a complicated mess that has lasted several months. For whatever reason, that’s what our Legislature decided to do, and they are elected officials.”

Treviño said the school district’s actions are based on the best advice available from other sources, but deal with an issue for which there is little guidance from the Legislature.

“I have been practicing law for 12 years, all involved with school districts in one way or another, and I think this is a unique situation,” Treviño reflected. “Perhaps our legislators didn’t forsee this may cause such a problem for school districts such as Edinburg. In fact, that particular state law was passed with one school district in mind in Houston. Somehow, a proposition or law intended for one school district has become a statewide issue.”

Treviño said, based on interpretations of the law by other qualified entities, the local school district could amend the application seeking federal approval, even if it occurred after the December 31, 2007 deadline set by Senate Bill 670.

“That was a topic of discussion that we did have with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office,” Treviño reported. “We are of the opinion that we met the requirements of that law. We did pass the resolution by December 31, 2007. The law is silent, and there have been no challenges because it is a new law, regarding whether we can amend it after December 31, 2007. We duly advised the Secretary of State’s Office and the Department of Justice that this would be taking place.”

The school board attorney added that the U.S. Department of Justice did not weigh in on the issue of the state-imposed December 31, 2007 deadline on passing the resolution changing the trustees terms and dates of elections.

“Their process is pretty much to ensure that we are complying with the Voting Rights Act,” Treviño said. “Their main concern is to look at issues such as racial discrimination. At the federal level, they did not give us an opinion whether or not it (amending the resolution after December 31, 2007) would impact pre-clearance. The Secretary of State’s Office did tell us they did not believe we would be violating the requirements of the new state law if we were to amend our resolution after December 31, 2007.”

Still, Treviño explained, the local political debate may be far from over.

“It is any taxpayer’s right to challenge any action done by the board of trustees, or perhaps even by any of the board trustees, who can do whatever they need to do,” Treviño noted.

A transcript of the interview with the school board attorney regarding the drawing follows:

Question:

Please provide a summary of the action that just took place.

Jacques Treviño:

On December 11, 2007, the Edinburg school board (on a 4-3 vote) passed a resolution authorizing a joint election with Hidalgo County to hold school elections beginning in November 2008. They will take place every even year from that point on, in accordance with the schedule set up by Hidalgo County. Because of a new House and Senate bill passed, and Section 11.0581 of the Texas Education Code, which requires this to take place, we consulted with the Texas Secretary of State.

We went through a process, and we had a public school board meeting last November 22, and it boiled down to the school board passing that resolution on December 11 that authorized Mrs. González and Mr. Treviño (no relation to the school board attorney) to go up for election in November 2008.

Mr. Chavana, Mr. Palacios and Mr. Torres will go up for election in 2010. One member – either Mr. García or Mr. Peña – would go up for election in 2012.

The information from the Texas Association of School Boards, the way the law was interpreted, was we could stagger the terms one time only. So the resolution staggered the terms. The complication is that there is another provision in the Texas Education Code – 11.059 – which was written years previous to this new law, and it states that if we are going to have elections every four years, no more than half of the board of trustees can be up for election at one given time. That’s why the staggering of the terms came in to play.

We will have two members up for election in 2008, we will have four members in 2010, and three members in 2012. From that point on, there will either be three members or four members going up for reelection. In 2010, we will be electing an entire majority of the school board.

We also have an Attorney General’s Opinion that dictated that we were required to go to four-year terms and we are required to go to a joint election with the county because we couldn’t hook up our elections with any municipalities. It’s a complicated mess that has lasted several months. For whatever reason, that’s what our Legislature decided to do, and they are elected officials.

Question:

You mentioned that four school board members will be up for election at one time in 2010. Is that more than a majority of the school board?

Jacques Treviño:

That is the majority of the school board.

Question:

But you can’t have more than a majority of the board up for election at one time?

Jacques Treviño:

We have to be as close to half of the board as possible. So because we have a seven-member board, we can’t split one trustee in half. Four trustees is as close as we can get. To be consistent with Section 11.059 of the Texas Education Code, four will be at one time and three at the other time. Beginning in 2010, that is the way the pattern will be going on.

Question:

Once these staggered terms are finished, then every trustee will have terms of four years?

Jacques Treviño:

When the resolution was passed last December, Mr. Peña, Mr. García, and Mr. Chavana voted against the resolution, but it was passed by a majority of the board.

If you want to call it controversy, because Mr. Peña, Mr. García and Mr. Chavana did not agree with it, they voted against it. I believe the rationalization, based on their comments, was they did not agree with the way that staggering of the terms would take place.

The resolution stated they (Peña and García) would draw in public view, but there were extenuating circumstances that did not allow it to happen. So, on the advice of the Texas Secretary of State, we submitted the resolution to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance, which is a requirement. A letter was written by Mr. García, Mr. Peña, and Mr. Chavana, opposing the resolution, saying it was incomplete.

On March 12, the Department of Justice in another letter said the resolution was incomplete. They weren’t denying us pre-clearance, but they were going to postpone the pre-clearance process until we resolved this specific matter. We didn’t go back to the drawing board; the only pending issue was what we were going to do with Places 4 and 5. (García and Peña). We consulted with the Texas Association of School Boards, with the Department of Justice, and the recommendation was to have some else choose for them (Peña and García).

Question:

The first two times the school district tried to draw the lots were in December. One time, it was held in the superintendent’s office, but there was no agenda posted for that, and the doors to the Administration Building were actually locked. Would that have qualified as a proper posting for that meeting?

Jacques Treviño:

Well, that wasn’t a meeting, it was just a drawing – just as when trustee candidates are running for election, there is a drawing held in Mr. (Mario) Salinas’ (Assistant Superintendent) office. It is not a meeting as defined under the Texas Open Meetings Act, and there was not a majority of the board there, so therefore, there was no need to post it.

It was not a meeting, it was just a drawing, so in my opinion, there was no need to post it.

As for the doors not being opened, I don’t know. The school district was shut down already (for Christmas vacation). I can’t explain why the doors were not opened.

Question:

The second attempt to draw lots was held a little later after that at the Administration Building. The doors to the administration building would have been open that time?

Jacques Treviño:

That’s right.

Question:

The deadline, under the new state law, to finish this process, was December 31. Even though this meeting is being held several months later, you are still meeting that deadline?

Jacques Treviño:

That was a topic of discussion that we did have with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. We are of the opinion that we met the requirements of that law. We did pass the resolution by December 31, 2007. The law is silent, and there have been no challenges because it is a new law, regarding whether we can amend it after December 31, 2007. We duly advised the Secretary of State’s Office and the Department of Justice that this would be taking place.

The Department of Justice did not give us an opinion because their process is pretty much to ensure that we are complying with the Voting Rights Act. Their main concern is to look at issues such as racial discrimination. At the federal level, they did not give us an opinion whether or not it (amending the resolution after December 31, 2007) would impact pre-clearance. The Secretary of State’s Office did tell us they did not believe we would be violating the requirements of the new state law if we were to amend our resolution after December 31, 2007.

Question:

What is the timetable?

Jacques Treviño:

The resolution, and it only involves the one sentence involving the drawing of lots in public view, will now be changed to state the board president was authorized by virtue of the meeting to draw for Mr. Peña and Mr. García, and the results of the drawing are as follows. That, in my opinion, will take care of the only concern that was presented to the school district by the Department of Justice.

It is real hard to work with new legislation because there is really very little guidance out there. It is subject to interpretation. It is not my opinion. I deferred getting opinions from the Department of Justice, the Texas Secretary of State, and the Texas Association of School Boards. Collectively, we chose this course of action.

I can’t predict whether or not it will be challenged. It is any taxpayer’s right to challenge any action done by the board of trustees, or perhaps even by any of the board trustees can do whatever they need to do.

Question:

Who received what terms?

Jacques Treviño:

Robert Peña will run in 2012 and Greg García will run in 2010.

Bill analysis of SB 670

The following summary of Senate Bill 670, provided by the Senate Research Center, an arm of the Texas Senate, follows:

AUTHOR’S / SPONSOR’S STATEMENT OF INTENT

House Bill 1, 79th Legislature, Third Called Session, mandated that school districts hold joint elections with a municipality, county, or the state. This will require 50 to 70 school districts to change from May to November elections, either because they are not part of a municipality with a May election, or because the district is not located in a municipality and therefore, will have to join with the county or state elections.

Alief ISD, located in part within the Houston city limits, currently holds elections each May, and about one-third of the trustees are elected to the school board each year for three-year terms. Because the district is required to change to a November election, trustees will be running for election in even-numbered presidential and non-presidential years and in odd-numbered Houston city election years. This would raise the costs of the elections for Alief ISD.

S.B. 670 authorizes a school district’s board of trustees to adopt a resolution changing the length of the terms of its trustees not later than December 31, 2007, to address the rising costs of multiple elections and the confusion among voter precincts.

RULEMAKING AUTHORITY

This bill does not expressly grant any additional rulemaking authority to a state officer, institution, or agency.

SECTION BY SECTION ANALYSIS

SECTION 1. Amends Section 11.059, Education Code, by adding Subsection (e), as follows:

(e) Authorizes the board of trustees of a school district to adopt a resolution changing the length of the terms of its trustees not later than December 31, 2007. Requires the resolution to provide for a term of either three or four years and to specify the manner in which the transition from the length of the former term to the modified term is made. Requires the transition to begin with the first regular election for trustees that occurs after January 1, 2008, and requires that a trustee who serves on that date serve the remainder of that term. Provides that this subsection expires January 1, 2013.

SECTION 2. Effective date: upon passage or September 1, 2007.

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Hidalgo County RMA awards $2.6 million contract for environmental work on Hidalgo County Loop

By JIM MOORE

The Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority (HCRMA) has hired the international environmental engineering firm of PBS&J to manage the environmental assessment of the county’s $650 million loop project. HCRMA commissioners approved a $2.6 million contract Thursday, April 10, for PBS&J to provide these environmental services for the Loop.

“PBS&J’s global experience and reputation are a perfect fit for this important project in Hidalgo County,” said HCRMA Chairman Dennis Burleson. “The loop is an essential economic development tool for this county and we want to make certain it is developed to the highest of standards, whether that is engineering or environmental. PBS&J is a great addition to the team we have put together for this exciting project.”

PBS&J’s responsibilities include examining potential impacts of the loop project on the natural environment, area neighborhoods, historic resources, as well as archaeological sites. According to Burleson, the firm will make certain that the best practices and administrative rules of TxDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are applied in identifying and mitigating project impacts and securing environmental clearance for the Project. PBS&J will also be taking part in a series of public information workshops scheduled to begin in mid-May in Hidalgo County.

“Hidalgo County’s RMA is taking a very innovative approach to funding and building a needed community roadway,” said Tracy Hill, project principal for PBS&J. “We’re pleased to be a part of this visionary group with the RMA and their developer, the Hidalgo County Road Builders. The RMA may have developed a blueprint for the way projects are handled in the future.”

Generally known as the Hidalgo Loop, the project is needed to help move truck traffic from the international bridges in Hidalgo County to the Free Trade Zone and away from the urban areas and to cities in the north. The HCRMA is paying for the project with a series of financial mechanisms that include tolling and the newly authorized Tax Reinvestment Zone (TRZ), which uses property values from new development prompted by the road to pay for its construction.

The first public information open house on the Hidalgo Loop is scheduled for Wednesday, May 14, from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at the Edinburg North High School Library.

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Edinburg school district CFO Aureliano Flores retires as voters prepare for major bond election

By DAVID A. DIAZ

Aureliano Flores, an Edinburg school board candidate several years ago, and longtime Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations with the local school district, on March 31 tendered his notice of retirement after more than 30 years with the district.

His letter of retirement was received by ECISD superintendent Gilbert Garza, Jr.

In his position, Flores was responsible for an estimated 700 employees in numerous departments, including maintenance and accounts payable.

His departure as the chief financial officer for the school district comes as the Edinburg school district is preparing for a major bond election on May 10.

Proposition 1 includes building four (4) elementary schools, two (2) middle schools; converting Harwell Middle School into a fourth high school; three (3) multi-purpose fine arts centers at each of the existing high schools; Brewster School addition/renovations, and land acquisition for a total of $111,920,000. Proposition II includes $37,675,000 of 1998 Lease Purchase Bonds to be converted into Series 2008 voter authorized IFA supported bonds.

According to a biographical sketch of Flores provided by the Edinburg school district:

During his time as the chief financial officer for the school district, Flores insisted that the district try to get more done for less with the financial resources the district had.

His philosophy centered around frugal and careful spending.

As a supervisor of 700 employees in school departments, Flores was regarded as being honest and fair to all staff persons regardless of their job titles and roles.

As the chief financial officer for the ECISD, he led the district and the school board:

• To adopt multi-million balanced school budgets that were funded with no tax rate increases

• To earn continuous “Superior Achievement” fiscal accountability ratings under Texas’ Schools FIRST financial accountability rating system over the last five years. The Superior Achievement rating is the state’s highest, demonstrating the quality of the ECISD’s financial management and reporting system.

• To end the school fiscal years with substantial fund balances that more than amply met the recommendation of the Texas Education Agency that a school district maintain a fund balance that presents 10 percent of its operating budget or the amount that would allow a school district to operate for three months.

• To construct several school facility projects, which were funded through a 1999 voter-approved bond issue and an $20 million in general fund monies, in order to build three new elementary schools (Carmen Avila, Anne Magee, Dr. Thomas Esparza schools) and make renovations in elementary and secondary schools and facilities across the district.

• To initiate a program of careful spending and increased tax collection goals to enable the school district to maximize its opportunity to fund educational initiatives and programs.

• To implement a district-wide incentive award program to go hand-in-hand with a district-wide truancy program that sought to increase and maintain the daily attendance of students. This move brought in millions of dollars in additional state aid for the ECISD that might otherwise have been lost if student attendance had not been increased and maintained.

• To implement a district-wide incentive award program to go hand-in-hand with the district’s Safety Program which was created to reduce Texas Worker’s Compensation cost figures to the district by millions of dollars through an aggressive safety program that includes a comprehensive accident prevention and safety program. The district-wide incentive program rewards schools and departments that remain accident-free because they implement and follow the district’s safety program guidelines.

Most recently, through his financial leadership, the Edinburg CISD recently received an $86,404 cash dividend from Property Casualty Alliance of Texas (PCAT), the insurance program which provides property and casualty insurance to the school district.

The dividend is part of $2 million in dividends approved by the PCAT Board of Trustees for distribution to 96 school districts who are members of the alliance. The PCAT board also approved a $1 million in dividends for Texas school districts for the 2009 year.

The ECISD’s tenure with PCAT determined the size of the dividends the school district will receive this year and in 2009. By partnering with PCAT, the Edinburg school district effectively stabilizes insurance funding and reduces the district’s ultimate property and casualty insurance costs.

The PCAT is a Texas interlocal governmental risk program representing nearly 100 Texas school districts and over $26 million in annual contributions. Formed in 2003, PCAT has grown to become the 13th largest property/casualty public entity pool in the U.S.

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Edinburg Economic Development Corporation sets April 22 deadline for proposals to develop 20-acre site being eyed by DPS

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

If anyone has a better offer than the Department of Public Safety to develop a 20-acre site owned by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, they have until April 22 to put in their bid.

That deadline, along with a comprehensive list of requirements, is part of the EEDC’s strategies to convert the vacant property, which is grassland with trees, but considered to be prime real estate, into an economic jewel for the city and its economy.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC’s five-member governing board includes Mayor Joe Ochoa; former Mayor Richard García, who is president of the EEDC board of directors; and Fred Palacios, Elias Longoria, Jr., and Dr. Glenn A. Martínez, Ph.D.

The issue of what to do with the property first publicly surfaced during an EEDC board meeting on January 22, when EEDC executive director Ramiro Garza confirmed that the Texas Department of Public Safety was serious about building a proposed $43.8 million DPS headquarters on that site.

Currently, DPS maintains an overburdened regional headquarters in McAllen.

State funds for the new project were included in Proposition 4, a constitutional amendment approved statewide by voters last November. Included in Proposition 4 was the issuance of bonds to build a $43.8 million Hidalgo County Crime Lab and Regional Office in the McAllen area.

According to Proposition 4, the goal of the new DPS regional headquarters is to improve the crime lab’s capacity and efficiency, expand the driver license office and parking, and accommodate growth for border security as part of a 105,000-square foot complex.

On January 22, the EEDC board decided to put the site up for proposals for commercial development to see if any better offers would be made by anyone else.

During the EEDC’s regular monthly board meeting in February, the issue was discussed in executive session, but no actions was taken. State law allows governmental entities to go behind closed doors for certain issues, including discussion potential litigation, personnel, and real estate transactions.

During the board’s March meeting, representatives from the DPS’s headquarters in Austin showed up because they were in the Valley on other matters, and had seen on the EEDC’s web site that board members were again scheduled to go behind closed doors to review the matter.

After the meeting, Garza met with the delegation of DPS administrators and told them the board would continue to request proposals from other entities, but urged DPS officials to put in their offer as well. Garza said it was in the best interests of the community to have as many offers on the table for consideration by the EEDC leadership.

Garza also said the EEDC board could take no action when it meets in late April, or board members could approve what they consider the best offer.

The site had been donated by the local government several years earlier to the federal government as part of a successful deal by the city to bring the U.S Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector Headquarters – and its jobs and economic spin-off – to Edinburg.

It involves public property that had been donated several years ago by the EEDC to the U.S. Border Patrol, which at the time had planned to build several major facilities in the three-time All-America City.

The site had been donated by the local government several years earlier to the federal government as part of a successful deal by the city to bring the U.S Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector Headquarters – and its jobs and economic spin-off – to Edinburg.

However, the Border Patrol – now a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – decided it did not need the second site after all, choosing to only build, beginning in April 2003, its current $18 million, 85,000-square-foot headquarters at 4400 South Expressway 281, about a mile east of the EEDC site.

The request for proposals issued by the EEDC follows:

General Background

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation (hereinafter the “EEDC”) presents this Request for Proposals (hereinafter “RFP”) for the sale and development of property located along the southeast side of Trenton Road and Professional Drive (hereinafter the “property” or ”site”). The purpose of this request is to solicit proposals from qualified land developers leading to the sale and immediate development of the property.

The property is being offered subject to the process outlined within this RFP and the EEDC reserves the right to reject any or all development proposals submitted. While all information furnished herein was gathered from sources deemed to be reliable, no representation or warranty is made as to the accuracy or completeness thereof and in no way does the Request for Proposals obligate the EEDC to select a developer and/or to sell the Property.

Site Description

The property contains a total of approximately 20 acres. The site fronts the south side of Trenton Road and the east side of Professional Drive.

The property is zoned Commercial General. The Property has excellent access and visibility from Trenton Road, east and west of this site. Trenton Road is a four-lane undivided thoroughfare with shoulders. Professional Drive is a two-lane road.

All utilities are available to the site including City of Edinburg water and sewer. Telephone service and electrical service are readily available from several providers.

Development Objectives

The EEDC has established the following goals and objectives:

• Development of the property should be completed within a reasonable time frame.

• Uses on the site should contribute to the improvement of the quality of life for the City of Edinburg residents and visitors.

• Development should have positive fiscal benefits for the City of Edinburg.

• The scale, character, density and use of proposed developments should be compatible with and add to the vitality of the City of Edinburg,

• The proposed development must be financially viable and not require operating subsidies from the City of Edinburg.

Designation Process

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation will contemplate the sale of this property following a review of development proposals to be submitted by developers to the EEDC and the negotiation of Development Agreement(s) with the designated developer(s).

Upon receipt of proposals, the executive director and staff will review the proposals for completeness. As part of the review, the EEDC staff may conduct interviews with project proponents and will rank the proposals in numerical order and make a recommendation, if applicable, for designation of a developer or developers to the EEDC Board of Directors.

The EEDC Board of Directors will then review the recommendations and make appropriate decisions regarding the ranking of the proposals. The executive director, with assistance of staff and outside consultants (as needed), will negotiate a Development Agreement(s),incorporating terms of sale, covenants, and other matters with the highest-ranked proposal. In the event that a Development

Agreement cannot be completed with the highest-ranked proposal, the EEDC Board of Directors may direct the Executive Director to negotiate with the second highest-ranked proposal. Remaining proposals may be considered based on their rank order if a Development Agreement cannot be completed with a higher-ranked proposal.

Selection Criteria

The following criteria will be used to evaluate the development proposals and select a developer(s):

1. Overall economic value including purchase price, tax revenue and secondary/tertiary economic benefit.

2. The time frame involved in developing the Property.

3. The level of investment that will be brought to the project.

4. Prospective developers should have prior experience in the successful development and operation of comparable projects.

5. Development proposals should demonstrate financial and economic viability and must provide evidence that the proponent has financial capacity including staff resources and managerial oversight to successfully carry out and operate the development project.

Anticipated Timetable

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation seeks to expedite the disposition process. The anticipated timetable for the process is:

Solicitation of Proposals: March 26, 2008

Proposal Submissions: April 22, 2008

Submission Requirements

An original and seven copies of the proposal should be submitted to:

Ramiro Garza, Jr.

Edinburg Economic Development Corporation

602 W. University Drive, Suite B

Edinburg, Texas 78539

All proposals must be received by 4:00 PM CST on April 22, 2008.

The submission must include the following elements:

1. The name and address of the prospective developer/sponsor and ownership entity, including identification of all principals.

2. The amount of the Site acquisition payment for the property and any terms of payment.

3. A narrative description of the specific development proposal for the Property, including all uses, gross building and land area by use, phasing and development timing including the anticipated commencement, and completion of each building and phase of the development.

4. The number of jobs projected to be created and a timetable for these jobs.

5. Total estimated capital investment to develop the Property.

6. If known, the identification of anticipated major tenants or users expected to occupy the finished project.

7. Development proposals shall include specific timetables and benchmark events to track project progress.

All contact with the EEDC, including further information and questions concerning the proposal, should be directed in writing to:

Ramiro Garza, Jr.

Executive Director

Edinburg Economic Development Corporation

602 W. University Drive, Suite B

Edinburg, Texas 78539

Telephone: (956) 383-7124

Facsimile: (956) 380-2738

Email: ramiro@edinburgedc.com

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South Texas College wins national ‘Excellence Award’ for leadership in meeting student needs

By JENNY CUMMINGS

South Texas College is a winner of the 2008 MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award. The announcement was made Tuesday, April 8 at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention held in Philadelphia. The other national winner is The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland.

As part of the award, each college receives a $30,000 grant to continue creating and implementing effective strategies for aiding underrepresented students, as well as using data to target and assess strategies to improve student outcomes.

The two colleges were chosen based on their ability to demonstrate determined leadership, innovative programming and attention to outcomes. The result: clear improvements in meeting the varied learning needs of low-income, first-generation, immigrant and working students.

South Texas College was established in 1993, and serves two Rio Grande Valley counties, Hidalgo and Starr. A champion of opportunity, the college has grown rapidly from serving 1,000 students at one location, to more than 20,000 across five campuses.

“Providing affordable access to higher education for all is an economic imperative for maintaining a competitive America in the global economy,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, founding president of South Texas College. “All of us at South Texas College have accepted the moral responsibility to do everything possible to help our students be successful and meet the high expectations established for them. We work relentlessly to help our students succeed, improve their lives, and subsequently transform future generations. It is an honor to be recognized by MetLife Foundation for doing the right thing and doing it very well.”

MetLife Foundation created the Community College Excellence Award to celebrate institutions that are helping low-skilled youth and adults to enter college and achieve their educational goals. The 2008 winners are among the strongest examples among the nearly 2,000 community colleges nationwide.

“We intend for the Community College Excellence Award to bring national attention to the important role community colleges play in providing educational access and opportunity to students of all backgrounds,” said MetLife Foundation president and CEO Sibyl Jacobson. “We commend South Texas College and The Community College of Baltimore County for their commitment, their increasing success, and the inspiring examples they provide for colleges, communities and the nation.”

From the outset, South Texas College leadership has strived to improve workforce quality and economic competitiveness, and establish high expectations, standards and outcomes for its students, Reed said. STC built on its commitment to access and made student success a top priority and goal. Reed sees this as critical in a community where earning college credentials is not a common experience for residents.

The college has become an effective collaborator, sponsoring annual summits on “College and Career Readiness” that bring together K-12 administrators, college representatives and residents. It has initiated a range of effective programs to support the transition to college, including tuition-free college courses for more than 6,000 “dual enrollment” high school students.

A fact sheet on community colleges and a brochure describing the award program, the two winning institutions, and four other finalists are available, along with additional information about the MetLife Foundation Community Excellence Award, at: wwwjff.org.

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UT System appoints Ellis to lead community college initiatives that ease transfers to UT campuses

By MATT FLORES

Longtime educator and administrator Martha M. Ellis was named on Friday, April 4, to the newly created position of associate vice chancellor for community college partnerships for The University of Texas System.

The post, which is overseen by Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs David B. Prior, was created primarily to increase student transfers from community colleges to the UT institutions. The appointment is effective July 1.

“Community college transfers represent the low-hanging fruit in the higher education world – statistics show us that those who pursue upper-division work are among the most successful to reach graduation,” UT System Chancellor Mark G. Yudof said. “There is a relatively low percentage of community college students who choose to continue their education toward the completion of an undergraduate degree, and we should be doing everything we can to make it easier for students to move on to four-year institutions.”

The appointment of Ellis to the leadership position signals the UT System’s commitment to improving community college transfer rates in the state. Among Ellis’ responsibilities will be coordinating the UT System community college transfer initiatives. The UT System – in collaboration with officials from the Texas Association of Community Colleges and the Texas A&M University System – is currently working to identify best practices and develop recommendations aimed at increasing the transfer rate of community college students to universities.

According to a recent study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, only 36 percent of community college students plan to transfer to a four-year institution, and only about half of them succeed. But of those who do transfer to four-year colleges, 70 percent complete a bachelor’s degree, the NCES found.

“These figures are particularly compelling when one considers the relatively high percentage of minority and first-generation college students who choose community colleges to begin their higher education experience,” Yudof added.

Increasing transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions could also help hasten the state’s “Closing the Gaps” goal of increasing higher education participation in Texas colleges, Prior said.

“Agreements between universities and community colleges aimed at increasing transfers exist, most have met with only partial success, leading us to conclude that we must strengthen our efforts of collaboration and cooperation to better engage students to continue their education at four-year institutions,” Prior said.

Ellis currently is president of Lee College in Baytown, a position she has held since 2002. She has 25 years of administrative leadership experience in higher education, including two years as president of Texas State Technical College in Waco and 13 years at Collin County Community College, where she was a faculty member and held the positions of provost, dean and director.

She is a former president of the Texas Community College Association and the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities and currently serves on the Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, is on the board of directors for the American Association of Community Colleges and is a commissioner for the American Council of Education.

Ellis earned a doctorate in higher education administration and research from the University of North Texas, a master’s degree in human development cognitive psychology from UT Dallas and a bachelor’s degree in religion and music with a minor in psychology at American Christian College.

“Dr. Ellis’ leadership activities in academia and on numerous higher education boards and commissions make her an outstanding choice for this new position – roles which will undoubtedly help us move forward with this important initiative,” Yudof said.

About the University of Texas System

Serving the educational and health care needs of Texans for more than 125 years, the UT System is one of the nation’s largest higher education systems with 15 campuses – including nine academic and six health institutions – and an annual operating budget of $10.7 billion (FY 2008). Student enrollment exceeded 194,000 in the 2007 academic year. The UT System confers one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and educates three-fourths of Texas health care professionals. With more than 80,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in Texas.

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U.S.News & World Report names Department of Rehabilitation one of the best in the country

By SANDRA GUZMÁN

The University of Texas-Pan American now has one of the Top Rehabilitation Counseling Programs in the nation according to the U.S.News & World Report 2009 edition of America’s Best Graduate Schools.

The UTPA Department of Rehabilitation ranked No. 24 in the magazine’s ranking of health programs in the field of rehabilitation counseling. The annual publication of the Best Graduate Schools was released March 31. To view the complete list of rankings visit http://www.usnews.com.

“The ranking assures our students and the community of the high quality educational experience offered by the Department of Rehabilitation. For the University, recognition through the ranking promotes our national reputation as an institution of excellence and gives clear indication that we are indeed becoming a student-centered research university. We anticipate the recognition associated with the ranking will result in greater opportunities for our students, faculty members, and colleagues,” Dr. Sandra Hansmann, assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation, said.

UTPA tied in the rankings with Florida State University, Portland State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of North Texas, University of Northern Colorado, and The University of Texas at Austin.

According to the U.S. News’ Web site, data was collected from more than 12,000 graduate programs to produce the annual rankings. Hansmann said the rankings were based on peer evaluations from academic experts in the field, who considered the program’s leadership, high quality faculty, research conducted, and the excellence of its students.

The program’s diverse faculty members, many of whom hold leadership positions in rehabilitation organizations, and are considered experts in the areas of public rehabilitation, private rehabilitation services, psychiatric disabilities, addictions, and assistive technology were major factors in the earning of the ranking Hansmann said. Many of the faculty members are recognized nationally as leaders in teaching, professional service, and research publications.

In addition, the program’s state and national professional involvement and successes in research and grant programs were also important contributing factors.

“We are one of the few highly ranked programs that doesn’t have a doctoral program, and we are very proud of gaining this level of prestige on the strength of our undergraduate and graduate programs,” Hansmann said.

Another factor in the program’s success is its students, many of whom go on to leadership positions after graduation, which also enhances the program’s reputation and prominence Hansmann said. Sixty graduate students and more than 400 undergraduate students are currently enrolled in the program.

“We have a very strong commitment to student success and offer a number of scholarships and other incentives to qualified students. Students are involved in research projects, in conferences, and in publications, and we provide excellent field-based experiences that often lead to successful employment. We have an award-winning undergraduate specialization in deaf rehabilitation, which is the only program of its kind in Texas. In addition, our department is committed to using cutting-edge technologies in teaching and learning to promote student success,” she said.

Dr. Cynthia J. Brown, interim vice provost for Academic Affairs for Graduate Programs and Academic Centers, said the Office of Graduate Studies is very proud of the ranking as it will increase community awareness of other UTPA graduate programs in health sciences and human services disciplines as well as the University’s 50 other master’s programs and two doctoral programs.

“The graduate programs at UTPA in the health sciences and human services areas are among the fastest growing at the University,” Brown said. “A significant portion of the local economy is driven by employment in the health sciences and human services area and we’re responding to the demand for graduate education from that sector.”

If interested in applying to the Department of Rehabilitation programs, the deadline to submit an application for fall 2008 is set for April 18. For a detailed description of various requirements and options, visit http://www.utpa.edu/dept/rehabser or call 956/316-7036.

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Congressman Hinojosa’s statements on legislation ensuring continued access to student loans

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, on Wednesday, April 9, released the following statement in support of H.R. 5715, the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act. On April 9, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the bipartisan legislation that would ensure that turmoil in the U.S. credit markets does not prevent students or parents from accessing federal student loan programs.

“Today, the Education and Labor Committee sent a clear message to students, families, colleges and universities, and the student loan industry: we will not allow the credit crisis in the financial markets to jeopardize the federal student loan programs. Millions of Americans rely on student loans to achieve a college education. The Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 signals that federal government will be prepared to use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure that the sub prime mortgage crisis does not precipitate a college access crisis.

“The credit crisis has dramatically decreased the availability and increased the cost of private loans, which many students and families have used to bridge the gap between their federal student aid and the actual cost of college. The Ensuring Continues Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 addresses this problem by increasing the amount that students may borrow under the unsubsidized federal student loan program. This legislation also eases access to and repayment for PLUS loans for parents.

“Lack of liquidity in the financial markets is threatening the ability of lenders in the student loan program to make loans. H.R. 5715 focuses on two mechanisms to ensure no student is denied a federal student loan because of a lack of available lenders. First, this legislation clarifies that the Secretary may advance funding to guaranty agencies in the student loan program so that, if called upon, they will be able to fulfill their role as lender of last resort as required under the Higher Education Act. Second, this legislation gives the Secretary temporary authority to purchase student loans and provide an avenue for liquidity for lenders in the federal student loan programs.

“These efforts represent the tools at the disposal of the Education and Labor Committee. However, more can and should be done. That is why the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act includes a Sense of Congress that calls upon Federal Financial Institutions, such as the Federal Reserve, and the Department of Treasury to use their authority to help ease the crisis in liquidity in the student loan marketplace.

“The challenges facing the student loan market place are not the result of lack standards or poor judgment by borrowers or lenders. Student loans are a solid investment. For individuals, a college education means higher earnings, greater career opportunities, and a better quality of life. For financial institutions, federal student loans are a sure bet. They carry a 97 percent guaranty from the federal government and default rates remain at historic lows.

“Today, on a bipartisan basis, the Education and Labor Committee took steps to restore confidence in the federal student loans programs for all stakeholders in the higher education community. In approving the Ensuring Continues Access to Student Loans Act of 2008, we will ensure that the federal student loan programs will be able to weather the storm in the financial markets and that no student will be denied a college education because of an inability to secure a federal student loan.

“I am proud to be an original cosponsor of this legislation and look forward to working with my colleagues to move it quickly through the legislative process and to the President’s desk.”

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Hidalgo County extends burn ban through July 6

By CARI LAMBRECHT

Due to continuing dry conditions, the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court on Monday, April 7, approved an extension of the burn ban that expired on Tuesday, April 7. The burn ban approved by the court on April 6 will be in effect for another 90 days, or until July 6.

“Hot and dry conditions pose the threat of large, dangerous and fast-moving wildfires like we had a few weeks ago in northern Hidalgo County,” said Tony Peña, the emergency management coordinator and fire marshal for Hidalgo County. “These fires have the potential to endanger lives and property so we felt it was necessary to extend the burn ban. We do this through declaring a state of emergency, which then gives the county the authority to impose controls on dangerous activities such as trash burning.”

The burn ban includes a ban against open-ground as well as in barrel trash burning. Prescribed burns may be authorized by the Fire Marshal, but that decision is made on a case by case basis. No unauthorized burning is allowed in the county for the next 90 days. Rural residents are encouraged to use trash collection stations in their precinct. Residents should call their precinct offices for details about hours of operation and what types and how much trash can be taken to the collection stations.

“The Hidalgo County fire marshals will be strictly enforcing the burn ban. Residents violating this order could face up to a $500 fine,” Peña said. “The burn ban has been issued to protect life and property from some of the worst fires this area has seen in a long time. Weather forecasters see no relief in sight, and until conditions change, the burn ban will stay in effect.”

For further questions, residents can contact the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office at (956) 318-2656.

For the latest Hidalgo County news, visit http://www.judgejd.com.

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Senate committee reviews flood insurance, evacuation policies in Texas

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES

Officials from the Texas Water Development Board testified Wednesday, April 10, before the Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations on the status of reforms made last session to flood insurance and emergency response policies.

According to Wes Birdwell of the Texas Floodplain Management Association, Texas historically ranks in the top three among states for flood damage costs. To address this problem, the 80th Session’s Senate Bill 1436 moved administration of the National Flood Insurance Program from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the Texas Water Development Board. This program allows communities to purchase insurance from the government to offset the cost of flood damage.

Carolyn Brittin, of the Texas Water Development Board, testified that the September 1st transition went smoothly. Localities have appealed to the TWDB for more training and technical aid for local floodplain administrators. Brittin added that the agency is increasing outreach to non-participating communities in Texas, and since the transfer, 15 more cities have joined the program.

The committee also heard suggestions from local authorities on what they need to ensure a fast and safe evacuation process in the event of a hurricane or other disaster. With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas coast in 2005, the state ordered the largest evacuation in American history. Traffic jams and fuel shortages meant a long, frustrating drive inland for evacuees. Tom Lambert, chief of the Houston Metro Transit Authority, submitted several suggestions Wednesday, April 9, for improving the coastal evacuation process.

He said the state needs a central authority to design a disaster plan, and to coordinate the various local and county emergency services, as well as alternate transportation from private companies, such as bus and taxi services. This authority would also conduct training and drills at the local and county levels. He also recommended a light rail system, used for commuting on normal days, that could add a direct and rapid method for escaping the path of a hurricane.

Rebecca Flores from the Houston Independent School District also testified as to the needs of school districts with respect to disaster evacuation. School districts, with access to facilities and bus pools, are often called on in times of disaster to provide shelter and transportation for evacuees. The state called last session for schools to designate and outfit certain schools as emergency disaster shelters.

Flores said her district, the largest in the state, is evaluating which facilities would best serve this purpose. She added, however, that districts need clarification on the liability districts face for loss or damage to facilities and busses. She also recommended provisions to place doctors and nurses at designated shelters.

In addition to Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, the Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations is made up of Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols, R-Jackonsville.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website’s audio and video archive pages.

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Sen. Cornyn backs new proposals to ensure greater transparency and accountability of tax dollars

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Vice-Chair of the Senate Republican Conference, on Thursday, April 3, offered his endorsement for new proposals from the Senate Republican Fiscal Reform Working Group aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability in federal spending.

“This much is clear — Congress must become better stewards of taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers in Texas, and across the country, deserve to see for themselves exactly how and where their tax dollars are being spent by elected officials in Washington,” said Cornyn. “Unfortunately, the Democratic majority in Congress has not shown the resolve needed to reform this broken earmark system. That is why Senate Republicans have put forward common-sense proposals which would begin to provide the transparency and accountability that I believe taxpayers deserve. I hope my Democratic colleagues will closely review these important proposals and I look forward to seeing what action, if any, they decide to take moving forward.”

The working group was formed in January by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in the wake of growing public concern over the earmark appropriations process and the failure of Senate Democrats to address it. In its report issued today, the working group recommended provisions making it easier to strip inappropriate earmarks, direct all savings of stripped earmarks to deficit reduction, ensure all proposed earmarks are transparent and available for public review prior to a vote, and increase congressional oversight of executive branch earmarks.

Specifically, the working group has recommended the following:

DEBT REDUCTION

Savings from stricken earmarks may be applied to the national debt rather than simply being spent elsewhere.

TRANSPARENCY

All earmarks in appropriations, authorization, and tax bills must be placed in the bill text. This gives greater opportunity to challenge and strike airdropped earmarks.

Members should make available on their websites information on successfully inserted earmarks. Also, requested earmarks should be made public in a searchable format at least 48 hours before floor consideration on the relevant committee’s website.

Senators must provide full justification for a requested earmark, and whether the requesting Member, Member’s family, staff, or staff’s family will benefit financially from the earmark.

OVERSIGHT

Congress insists the Executive Branch provide full justification and review for requested earmarks.

Executive Branch earmarks should be subject to the same scrutiny and guidelines as other earmarks, and should be subject to amendment to strike.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee’s Airland subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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Sen. Hutchison expresses concern over digital TV transition for Texas border residents

By MATT MACKOWIAK

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on Tuesday, April 8, at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee hearing, told Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin and Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Meredith Atwell Baker that Texans living along the border have not been adequately prepared for the digital television (DTV) transition that will take place on February 17, 2009.

“There’s confusion about which households are affected, how to obtain and redeem converter box coupons, and which retailers are carrying the converter boxes,” said Hutchison in her opening statement at the hearing. “We do have public service announcements – and that is important – but I don’t think that’s nearly enough. I certainly look forward to hearing ideas on other outreach activities that we can conduct as we move into this critical period leading up to the transition. The outreach has revealed some unique challenges in the border region. The Rio Grande Valley has more than 300,000 households and more than one-third of these rely on antennas for reception. Yet, according to the most recent Commerce Department data, only about 10,000 coupons have been ordered for this area.”

As part of her outreach efforts to raise awareness in border communities, Hutchison has produced public service announcements for television stations serving border consumers, has provided educational pamphlets in English and Spanish in border communities, and in March sent her staff to South Texas to meet with community leaders to answer questions and listen to their concerns about the transition.

Last year, Hutchison introduced S. 2507, the Digital Television Border Fix Act, which addresses the concerns of South Texas and border residents regarding the DTV transition by giving the FCC the ability to allow broadcasters along the border to continue analog broadcasts for five years, but maintains FCC authority to deny stations in the affected area the ability to simulcast in both analog and digital if it does not serve the public interest.

The legislation applies only to stations within 50 miles of the common border with Mexico, specifically including Texas cities Laredo, McAllen, and El Paso. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, is the chief co-sponsor of this legislation.

“The legislation that I have introduced will ensure that Texans living along the border will not lose access to public safety communication messages sent through television stations,” said Hutchison.

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Marine Military Academy honors Gov. Perry with Iwo Jima Leadership Award

The Marine Military Academy (MMA) in Harlingen on Friday, April 4, honored Gov. Rick Perry with the Iwo Jima Award. A veteran of the armed forces and a longtime public servant, Gov. Perry was honored for epitomizing leadership traits that were found during the battle of Iwo Jima.

“The Marine Military Academy is special to me because it represents a bastion of core values that is desperately needed in today’s world,” said Perry. “The unrelenting emphasis on honor, courage and commitment has propelled the academy to its prominence in the world of character formation and academic education.”

The Marine Military Academy established the Iwo Jima Leadership Award to recognize the contributions to our country by an outstanding citizen.

“Governor Perry’s steadfast support of the military, education, and fiscal restraint have improved the lives of all Texans, particularly those in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Marine Military Academy President BGen Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (Ret).

The MMA of Harlingen, Texas is a private, college preparatory, military school for young boys in grades 8 to 12 and one year of postgraduate study. Founded in 1963 by William A. Gary, rancher and retired U.S. Marine Corps Captain, the 142-acre academy is unique among all military secondary institutions. The academy enrolls male students in grades 8 through 12, with an additional year of postgraduate work offered. The current Corps of Cadets hail from 29 states and 6 foreign countries. All graduates are accepted to institutions of higher learning, and many attend U.S. service academies.

The heritage and ideals of the Marine Corps are passed on to the cadets at the Academy by a staff of former Marines who live by the principles of honor, courage and commitment. Achieving academic excellence is forefront, and the military setting eliminates distractions, improves personal accountability and enables cadets to establish and focus on their future goals.

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Attorney General Abbott takes emergency action to halt sale of fake driver’s licenses

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday, April 10, charged a Houston company with selling fake driver’s licenses to immigrants. An enforcement action filed by the Attorney General asked the court to stop the defendants from selling fake international driver’s licenses. Harris County District Judge Grant Dorfman granted the Attorney General’s request for a temporary restraining order, prohibiting the vendor from continuing to illegally manufacture and market the false licenses.

Court documents filed by the Attorney General charge the defendants, Centro de Identificaciones, and its owners, Guillermo R. Robles and Hernán C. Trujillo, with multiple violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). According to authorities, the defendants marketed fraudulent “International Driver’s Licenses,” which they sold for $225 each. Advertising that targeted the Hispanic community indicated that the defendants’ “licenses” were authentic and would enable purchasers to purchase, insure and drive vehicles legally.

These defendants are charged with unlawfully selling fake driver’s licenses to immigrants,” Abbott said. “The scheme preyed upon foreign nationals who reside in this country who were seeking a driver’s license. The fake licenses conferred a false appearance of legitimacy on those who are in the United States illegally.”

Centro de Identificaciones, which is Spanish for “Identifications Center,” made patently false statements in its Spanish-language advertising and marketed the illegal products in a campaign that spanned several states. The defendants’ advertisements claimed that the licenses are 100 percent legal and declared that the purchasers need not be state residents. Further, the defendants falsely indicated that their licenses would expedite buyers’ ability to purchase and insure motor vehicles. Finally, the defendants falsely assured buyers that the licenses are authorized under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

According to the Attorney General’s enforcement action, the defendants have never been authorized by the state of Texas, the U.S. government or the United Nations to sell and issue international driver’s licenses. The state charged the defendants with Texas DTPA violations because they falsely represented that their company is authorized to issue the licenses.

Under a 1949 treaty called the International Convention on Road Traffic (ICRT), only countries that have joined the treaty officially recognize international driver’s licenses. The United States is a party to the agreement, and only two organizations are permitted to sell the ICRT permits: the American Automobile Association and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Additionally, the treaty only allows the vendors to sell licenses to U.S. citizens who want to drive in foreign countries that participate in the treaty. Under the provisions of the treaty, non-U.S. citizens must acquire international driving permits in their home country. Finally, ICRT licenses issued to U.S. citizens are not valid in this country.

The Attorney General is seeking restitution for harmed individuals, as well as civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation and attorneys’ fees. Also requested are civil penalties of up to $250,000 if the defendants’ conduct was calculated to harm individuals aged 65 or older.

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Area TxDOT employees arrested for bribery involving sweeping contracts

An indictment charging three Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) employees for accepting bribes has been unsealed following their arrest, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle announced on Thursday, April 10.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

Each of the three TxDOT employees, Cresenciano “Chano” Falcón, 56, of Edinburg, a district maintenance administrator; Ray Llanes, 50, of San Benito, and Noé Beltrán, 42, of San Juan, each a highway inspector, is charged with one count of violating Title 18, U.S.C Section 666, accepting bribes regarding programs receiving federal funds.

TxDOT is a state agency which received more than $10,000 in federal funding in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Section 666 prohibits any employee of a state agency which receives in excess of $10,000 federal assistance in any given year from corruptly soliciting, demanding, accepting or agreeing to accept anything of value from any person intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business of the state agency valued at $5,000 or more. The indictment was returned under seal by a Houston grand jury April 2, 2008, and unsealed on April 10.

Falcón and Llanes are accused individually of corruptly soliciting, agreeing to accept and accepting $2,000 and $200 in cash, respectively, from a contractor for TxDOT sweeping contracts valued at more than $5,000 in November 2007.

Beltrán is accused of corruptly soliciting, agreeing to accept and accepting $200 in January 2008 from a contractor for TxDOT sweeping contracts having a value of $5,000.

If convicted, each faces up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.

The defendants were arrested today without incident. Beltrán and Falcón appeared before U.S. Magistrate Dorina Ramos and were released on bond. Llanes will make his initial appearance tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. also before Judge Ramos.

The prosecution is the result of an investigation conducted by the Texas Rangers and the McAllen office of the FBI into corruption and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jim McAlister.

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