Editorial hypocrisy produces Flores endorsement

Lubbock’s daily newspaper, we like to call it the Daily Nickel, has come out with its endorsements. They are notable but only for their hypocrisy.

Commissioner Sedeno

The Daily Nickel’s endorsement of former Commissioner Gilbert Flores for county commissioner over incumbent Bubba Sedeno in the Democratic Primary was, in its best light, a blatant act of doublespeak. It also renews questions about how relevant a daily newspaper can be when it is owned by a Georgia media conglomerate and has little or no corporate memory.

The argument for editorial hypocrisy is found in the editorial’s reference to Sedeno’s vote for a raise for commissioners. That vote was 4-1 for the raise and Commissioner Bill McCay, who received the Daily Nickel’s endorsement for Pct. 1 Republican Primary, also voted for the raise.

Flores made the motion for a twenty percent raise.

A further demonstration of the duplicity at work is found in a July 24, 2001 article in the Daily Nickel. There we learn that during his previous tenure on the commissioners court Flores himself made the motion for a larger, twenty percent pay raise. The commissioners approved that raise by a 4-1 vote also. McCay was not on the commissioners court at that time.

One of the underlying reasons for the Daily Nickel’s duplicity is found in its ignorance. Ignorance is a sad accusation to make of a media outlet however the Daily Nickel boasts a lack of any institutional memory of itself or the community it presumes to serve. imageTwo thirds of its editorial board are new transfers to Lubbock. Collectively, editorial board opinions are a vivid demonstration of the absence of any historical context.

This is the same publication that in its December 27, 2015 edition announced on the front page that it would soon feature a new column edited by a former Lubbockite who at the time also appeared on the state’s registered sex offender list. The article no longer appears on the paper’s website yet no retraction can be found.

One assumes that Daily Nickel management, when confronted with public outcry over the outrageous move, backed down and attempted to cover up all trace of the lapse. Had management merely looked up its new columnist in its own archives it would have learned the truth. Ignorance on the front page.

Sedeno refuses to be a token.

But ignorance is not the only reason behind the specious endorsement. Unlike his opponent, Bubba Sedeno refuses to be a token. He didn’t take office to get along with the rest of the commissioners. He has consistently challenged the status quo and boldly represented his district without apology.

The commissioners court has long been run by a Queen Commissioner and her Duke. Those two believe their districts, although equal in population to Sedeno’s, merit better and more attention from taxpayer dollars. For years, while Flores was commissioner and without his objection, those two commissioners ran the county with an iron fist behind a cloak of secrecy that produced questionable expenditures and backdoor raises to favored employees.

Commissioner Sedeno has fought for transparency. Unlike Flores, he’s not satisfied to merely collect a paycheck. But the power establishment at the county and the Daily Nickel abhor a minority who isn’t there to just get along.

The power establishment at the county and the Daily Nickel abhor a minority who isn’t there to just get along.

If Sedeno “erred” past offending the Queen and her Duke, both of whom have the ear of the editorial board, it was in cooperating with any media outlet except the Daily Nickel. The editorial board is punishing Sedeno for not realizing that the Daily Nickel and it’s ever shrinking circulation is the only game in town. Except it isn’t the only game in town and Sedeno made no mistake when he refused to bend his knee to the Queen and her Duke.

Whether on the front page or the editorial page, the Daily Nickel has become the marionette for establishment interests and the politicians who cater to it. That calls in question the legitimacy of every endorsement it makes.

They’re back…speeding cameras from ATS

They’re back. Perhaps taxpayers thought they’d rid themselves of the pestilence but like unwelcome relatives and seasonal influenza, traffic enforcement cameras from American Traffic Solutions are trying to make a comeback in Lubbock County.

This time it is in the form of school crossing zone cameras. Anything for the kids, right?

Tonight’s KCBD/Sandstorm Scholar Investigates report by Sarah-Blake Morgan focuses on American Traffic Solutions’ attempt to convince Lubbock County Commissioners to bring photo enforcement to Lubbock County’s school crossing zones.

Anything for the kids, right?

By some quirk of the Texas Constitution county commissioners are reportedly the final authority for installation of enforcement cameras in school crossing zones for both county roads and municipalities. The county commissioners we talked with were of mixed minds.

Commissioner Mark Heinrich had one response, “no.” His opponent for the Precinct 2 seat, Jon David Brugel, agreed.

Commissioner Bill McCay was more open-minded saying he felt he should talk to the school superintendents first to determine whether they believed there exists a problem of enforcement in school zones.

Then there is Bubba Sedeno, possibly the most conservative official in county government. Commissioner Sedeno was a little more colorful but his response was essentially the same: “no!” And no, the irony is not lost on us that the most conservative Republican in the courthouse may be a Democrat.

School zone speeding cameras are not the same as red light cameras. There does not exist the same data showing that speed zone cameras contribute to traffic accidents. Speeding is a cut and dried issue. You are or you aren’t.

The most conservative Republican in the courthouse may be a Democrat.

Traffic stops can be dangerous for enforcer and offender alike. And one can argue that if revenues are going to be raised it is better they come from fines than from taxes.

But this is Lubbock, America. We live here because there are certain elements in the rest of the country that we’d prefer to put off as long as possible. Photo traffic enforcement has clearly been one of those things.

There are constitutional issues involved with photo enforcement technology. And while we acknowledge that traffic stops are a dangerous part of an officer’s duties we are reminded it is at routine stops that some of law enforcement’s best interdiction work is done. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was caught by a state trooper in a traffic stop for no license plate. There is no substitute for the human element in law enforcement – even at the traffic enforcement level.

American Traffic Solutions sells itself on the safety issue but it has the purest of motives: profit. In exchange for 50% of the ticket revenues ATS proposes to provide the equipment, process the tickets, bill the offender and remit 50% to Lubbock County. That’s a virtual guarantee the program will have the best equipment and tightest enforcement standards possible. Sandstorm Scholar trusts a profit motive. It is the only motive we can consistently predict.

There is no substitute for the human element in law enforcement – even at the traffic level.

However if Lubbock County Commissioners expect to introduce school crossing zone radar enforcement cameras we hope they are prepared to commit the energy necessary to sell the public on the need for increased policing and value of photo enforcement. This requires a greater effort at persuasion and public interaction than the commissioners have traditionally shown the willingness to commit.

A vendor approached the commissioners and they are entertaining the solution. As Commissioner Bill McCay said, this is only in the beginning stages. But at the Sandstorm Scholar, we remain unconvinced.

Cost overruns and irregularities plague County Road 1440 project

Lubbock County did not follow its own road donation policy for the County Road 1440 project and now a contractor is out $23,178. But that may not be the worst of it.

What should have been a simple stretch of county road that taxpayers got for half-price is instead a headache for county officials and a frustration for residents. Along the way feelings have been hurt, safety issues have been raised, necessitating a County Commissioner to “bail them out.”

Click to enlarge

In April of 2012 residents who live near County Road 1440 at Cimarron South wanted to have 1440 paved even though many of them use County Road 1450. Traffic along 1440 kicks up dust which blows into their yards, and 1440 is susceptible to rain damage.

Email records indicate residents made an oral agreement with Commissioner Bill McCay which was later ratified by the rest of the County Commissioner’s Court. Residents would pay half, and the county would pay half for a 2.2 mile stretch of County Road 1440 and a nearby section of County Road 7700.

McCay said, “The oral agreement was only to place the item on the Commissioner’s Court Agenda, not approval of the project.”

“County Road 1440 is the third most traveled [unpaved] road in Lubbock County,” McCay told the Sandstorm Scholar. “This was a road we were going to pave anyway.”

Then why take $156,000 of people’s money if it was going to be paved anyway?

“It was a way to move the project up and get it done sooner,” McCay said.

Road Donation Policy:

quote5But nothing in the county’s road donation policy allows for a 50-50 split. Instead the policy calls for residents to donate land for the right-of-way and donate “sufficient funds to pay for the cost to complete all elements of the project.”

The policy also says resident can hire their own contractor “at the landowners’ sole cost and expense.”

“There’s some ambiguity in the language of the policy,” said McCay. McCay asked Commissioners to examine the policy for possible changes, but so far the policy stands as adopted back in November of 2007.

Specifically, officials raised concerns internally on how to handle a 50-50 split in the purchasing department. The county was hoping its half of the project would be materials and homeowner’s cash would cover the other half – namely the cost of contractors. It didn’t work out that way.

A handmade sign marks CR 1440 today.

Budget records from 2012 indicate that the projected cost in 2013 would be $295,000 – not including an engineering study. Many property owners donated land for the right-of-way and roughly half the estimated cost – $156,000 cash. Based on official records from November 2012, an engineering study should have brought the estimated cost up to $315,000.

When asked about these figures McCay said, “That’s not right. We’ve spent about $60,000,” McCay said in August. Technically, he was right with out-of-pocket expenses being $64,000 as of Sept 9. But it’s far from the whole story.

Expenses & Concerns:

The county is now on the hook for property damages, a drainage study, and utility relocation that are estimated to total $108,000. A lot (but not all) of that $108,000 is headed right back to the same residents wquote8ho donated money for the project.

Other expenses include $88,000 that will go into the fiscal year 2014 budget to fix a drainage problem. There might be another $100,000 in materials still to come.

With one notable exception, residents are thrilled to learn the road will be paved.

Dr. Thomas McGill wrote an email to his neighbors in November saying the county was not following its own policy. He also raised safety concerns. McGill said according to his research a road with a 60 mph speed limit should have the right-of-way 100 feet wide. The plan was only for 55 feet.

McGill asked his neighbors, “Who will accept the liability of building an unsafe road?”

McCay said, “The right-of-way ranges from 55 feet to 110 feet depending on the Hugo Reed report.” It was widened in some sections for drainage and safety concerns.

CR 1440 is a dusty nuisance for residents.

Officials say McGill eventually changed his mind and volunteered to give up the right-of-way along his property. But emails show even the residents who support the project are frustrated and confused by the county’s handling of things.

Resident Mike McCauley wrote an email to McCay in June saying, “… This makes very little sense to me.”

“Contrary to the vote of the court, the county has changed the structure of the project on several occasions; however, the representation to the residents and the money collected and spent based on [the agreement] … has not changed.”

Contractor Not Fully Paid:

One of the residents, Craig Wallace, had taken the lead in organizing the money and the private contractors.

On August 9, he wrote to McCay in frustration, accusing him and Public Works Director Nick Olenik of not knowing the “rules” – and by rules he meant state law.

Wallace summarized the events including the county’s refusal to pay one contractor, Lonestar Dirt and Paving, for any amount in excess of $50,000. A second contractor, Campbell West, would not get one penny from the County. Why?

State law says the county cannot pay more than $50,000 for a project without a public bid.

McCay said, “The County goes out for bids on road supplies and materials.” But there is no bid for the work.

quote9Even though public records clearly state the estimated cost would be $295,000 plus the cost of an engineering study,

Lubbock County never went out for bid.

Campbell West was paid $141,000 by the residents. But that leaves more than $23,000 still unpaid.

The residents also paid for the engineering study, certain accidental damages to property, and fence removal. Their $156,000 is gone.

But, because they paid more than $50,000 the county has “no legal way of paying” Campbell West the $23,000 that the company is still owed.

Why not go out for bids? “It wasn’t a county project,” McCay said. “We did not have a contract with the Contractor, the residents did.”

Bail Them Out:

Maybe it wasn’t a county project. But it is now. The County’s Consolidated Road & Bridge Department has taken over the work.

Some of the county’s public records include handwritten notes – most likely written by Olenik. Notes dated on May 31 say, “pay CW, Bail them out. Bill wants to take it over.”

Indeed, Wallace’s August 9 email says McCay tried to stop Campbell West from doing any more work. It was too late. C.W. had essentially completed its portion of the job by the time McCay intervened.

More ROW Problems:

Construction has been underway since February even though the county did not own the complete right of way. The county did not complete a right-of-way study until April. As of the Commissioners Court September 9 meeting the county was still collecting right-of-way.

Two Commissioners at the meeting raised the issue of not acquiring right-of-way. Bubba Sedeno voted against paying damages to residents and said the right-of-way should have been donated first. What he means is that the county does not have to pay damages on its own right-of-way. The land should have been donated first to eliminate the need for paying damages.

The south end of CR 1440 is complete.

Commissioner Patty Jones agreed but was more forgiving.

“That was right of way that should have been acquired but it wasn’t, and it hadn’t come to light.” When she said “had not come to light” Jones was making reference to a March 28 drainage study.

“It’s not wide enough to carry the water,” Jones said. “That’s where all this started.”

It is true that neither the county nor residents knew about drainage problems at first. But the drainage study was done well after the engineering study and after work had already been started.

McCay said, “The Hugo Reed [drainage] study indicated that there was ample right-of-way to pave this road. The additional right-of-way will provide a safer road.”

The Rubicon:

Commissioners are now legally obligated to keep going. Regardless of cost there is no backing down from the road itself or for the $88,000 drainage structure along one specific section of CR 1440.

Resident Mike McCauley donated land for the right-of-way and for the drainage on the condition that both be completed within 12 months. If it’s not done on time his donation becomes “null and void.” Commissioners raised questions. But on a motion from Bill McCay,

Commissioners approved McCauley’s donation. Sedeno was the lone no-vote.

“Road safety is Lubbock County’s primary concern,” McCay said to Sandstorm Scholar after the September 9 meeting. “The drainage structure will make travel on the road safer and ensure a longer lasting road.”

Reaction From Craig Wallace:quote6

Craig Wallace was reluctant to say anything for a news article. “I don’t want this to get off track as a political issue.”

He was willing to say, “I’m working with a lot of good folks, my neighbors, who put their money where their mouth is.”

Will Campbell West be paid the remaining money that is owed? “That is still a matter of discussion”

Wallace said to the Sandstorm Scholar, “As far as the private money, that is tapped out.”

Wallace also quoted Mr. West in his August 9 email: “What is the right thing to do, to pay someone for work they have done that is not totally by the book, or not pay someone for work they have done?”


He Really Said That…

You’ve got to love Lubbock County Commissioner Bill McCay. Just when you think a story is dead he hands one to you on a platter. In a local news source this morning we find this quote.

McCay said the gathering are a chance for him and Tech officials to visit one-on-one in an informal setting.

McCay noted he reports the gathering as a contribution on his regular filing to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The reader needs no comment to understand that. We do wonder, Commissioner, however well intentioned your attention to detail may be, is that a corporate contribution you’re reporting?

Postscript: The Sandstorm Scholar spoke with Commissioner McCay who clarified this for us. “I report the tickets as a gift on my annual personal financial statement filing with the Texas Ethics Commission.”

Two things to note here. First, as we understand it, that is the correct procedure for accounting for gifts. The tickets are not campaign contributions. Second, the County Commissioners are not subject to the provisions of the City Charter and are not prohibited from accepting such things.