CRYSTAL CITY — In several ways, Councilman Joel Barajas has been completely alone.
After federal agents last week arrested most of this South Texas town’s top elected officials in an alleged kickback scheme, Barajas is the only city council member not facing the prospect of years in prison. Those charged include the mayor, city manager, two current councilmen and a former member. Another councilman was charged last month in a human smuggling case.
Even before an early-morning raid by federal agents shined an unflattering spotlight on his town, Barajas often felt like a team of one on the council.
He says his colleagues froze him out from the moment he took office nine months ago. The council veterans didn't like anyone — inside or outside the government — asking questions about the way they ran the city. They refused to share basic public records, like budgeting figures, said Barajas, who runs a fire extinguisher business for his day job. He even had to fight for a copy of the city charter. Sometimes, he was the only one to show up for public meetings.
“They would never go for bids or announce in papers they were going to do something with some projects,” he said. “They would just pass it. They wouldn’t let me know anything.”
But Barajas has plenty of company on one front: He and hundreds of others in this town of 7,500 are fed up. Distrust of City Hall has brewed here for years. But now, amid Crystal City's rock-bottom moment of government dysfunction, some say they see that anger turning into activism. And as residents pursue a recall effort against some of the indicted officials, they talk of better things to come.
“The citizens are tired, you know, and they really want something to happen,” Barajas said.
On Tuesday morning, the air of civic engagement permeated a wood-paneled hearing room at a courthouse here. There, a state district judge heard arguments related to a citizen-led attempt to recall Mayor Ricardo Lopez and Councilmen Rogelio Mata and Marco Rodriguez — an effort launched before the arrests that identifies many grievances. For months, the city clerk had refused to verify the roughly 1,200 signatures that petitioners submitted in November.
The courtroom overflowed with residents — many taking time away from their jobs. They closely followed technical arguments over wording in the city charter. Some onlookers claimed their spots on the courtroom’s benches more than an hour before the proceedings began.
And most left cheering, after the judge ordered the clerk to verify the signatures, restarting the recall effort.
“We are here to see that justice is done,” said Cindy Martinez-Rivera, Zavala County tax assessor.
Last week, the FBI showed up for the same reason. Agents arrested City Manager William James Jonas III, Lopez, Councilmen Roel and Rogelio Mata, former councilman Gilbert Urrabazo, and businessman Ngoc Tri Nguyen, known as "Mr. T," who operates “8-liner” gaming rooms. Jonas and Urrabazo have pleaded not guilty. The rest have yet to file a plea. All are free on bail and remain in office — for now.
Jonas, who is also the city attorney, is accused of overseeing a kickback scheme that allegedly involved paying Lopez thousands of dollars for various decisions to help Nguyen, including waving certain taxes and tainting city inspections to his benefit. The indictment also alleges that the four councilmen accepted bribes totaling more than $12,000 from a contractor in exchange for votes.
The councilmen are accused of repaying Jonas by awarding him an annual salary of nearly $220,000 — a huge chunk of the budget of the small town, which is struggling economically.
“Public corruption is one of the most insidious crimes confronting our communities today,” Christopher Combs, who leads the FBI’s San Antonio Division, said last week in a statement on the case. “It contributes to the cynicism we are seeing from members of the public who often feel as though all politicians are corrupt and the government does not serve the needs of those citizens who can’t pay for access to their elected officials.”
Lopez, the mayor, won't talk about the indictments, but he told told KENS 5, a San Antonio TV station, that he had no plans to resign.
For his part, Jonas is not talking, but appears to be blaming his political woes on the "failure of Chicano political movement," according to a self-written publicity bio obtained by the San Antonio Express-News. The newspaper reported that he planned to circulate it to conservative news outlets.
In 1970, a group of Latinos in Crystal City formed La Raza Unida Party as an attempt to gain government representation in a community where they made up the majority but had little political power. For a few years, the party went on to influence Texas politics more broadly.
Jonas' bio, according to the newspaper, blamed the party for "machinations, corruption and influence that keeps poor communities poor and steeped in crime.”
Last week's arrests weren’t the first for the current city council.
In January, Rodriguez was charged with human smuggling. Found with three undocumented immigrants in his car, he allegedly admitted to a U.S. Border Patrol agent that someone hired him to drive them. He has pleaded not guilty.
Frank Moreno, who was Crystal City’s mayor from 1998 through 2000 and has decided to run again, called the arrests traumatizing and embarrassing to a community that proudly bills itself the “Spinach Capital of the World.”
At the same time, he sees residents’ surge of civic interest as a potential bright side.
“I think it has made them more aware of the way to vote and the individuals they vote for,” he said. “I think they’re going to be more selective and more informed.”
Richard Diaz, an income tax preparer involved in the recall effort, agrees.
“I have a feeling that a great number of people more are going to come out to vote," he said. “Finally, little by little, the people started breaking away from them, and we’re thinking of a good way to correct the situation.”
Barajas said he wasn’t always politically engaged. But last year, his growing frustration with Crystal City’s leaders prompted him to run for the unpaid council seat.
“I decided on running to see if I could do anything different — or just get information about what was going on,” he said.
His goal, he said, is to make sure residents have a chance to speak at public meetings, where in the past the council shut them out.
But Barajas still has no power. The indicted officials remain in office. Residents are trying to force his hand through the recall effort, now restarted.
A petition created by five citizens — and signed by hundreds— offered a litany of complaints against three of the officials, including approving Jonas’ hefty salary, ignoring public records law, raising taxes without public input, and allowing streets and water lines to deteriorate.
“The majority of the people have lost confidence in the public officials,” the petition states, threatening the city with “immediate irreparable and substantial harm” if they linger in office.
On Tuesday, State District Judge Amado Abascal restarted that recall effort by order the clerk to verify the signatures by Thursday.
Proponents of the petition saw the ruling as a first step toward healing.
If the clerk verifies the petition and the officials do not resign within five days, the council would be responsible for setting a recall election date.
But Barajas can’t do that alone. Those following the saga expect to gather in Abascal’s courtroom once again. He could order an election if no one else does.
“We are in unchartered territory. This doesn’t happen,” said Javier Villalobos, an attorney representing one of the petitioners. “We’re hoping they do the honorable thing and resign.”