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No State Help for Crystal City Council Meltdown

After most of its elected officials were arrested, questions swirled about whether — and how — Crystal City's government can function in the coming months. This much is clear, experts agree: The city must wade through the mess largely on its own.

A look at City Hall in Crystal City, which bills itself the "Spinach Capital of the World."

CRYSTAL CITY — Standing outside the Zavala County courthouse this week, attorney Buck Wood said he’s observed more than his fair share of government dysfunction in Texas during some 45 years involved in ethics, school finance and election law.

“I often say I’ve seen it all,” the Austin-based lawyer said after arguing his latest case — a successful effort to force a recall election against the mayor and two councilmen in this relatively poor South Texas town.

But four of five city councilmen indicted on federal charges? “I haven’t seen anything close to it.”

Wood isn’t alone. Lawmakers, state officials and other local government experts say they can’t recall a crisis of government like what has struck Crystal City, which, in brighter days, was known for its prominent homages to Popeye and claim to being the world’s “Spinach Capital.”

In January, Councilman Marco Rodriguez was indicted on human smuggling charges. And last week, federal agents rounded up Mayor Ricardo Lopez, City Manager James Jonas (who is also the city attorney and city lobbyist), along with two current councilmen, a former councilman and gaming room operator Ngoc Tri Nguyen, who also goes by “Mr. T.” They are alleged to have operated a cash-for-votes scheme.

Since then, questions have swirled about whether — and how — the government in this town of roughly 7,500 will function in the coming months. But this much is clear, experts agree: The city must wade through the mess largely on its own.

“There’s no state agency that monitors this type of thing,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

As of Friday afternoon, only Councilman Roel Mata had resigned from office, according to media reports. His colleagues can remain in office until they are either convicted or recalled. And since they've bonded out of jail, they may attend council meetings.  

Meanwhile, city officials say that department staffers will continue to deliver basic services.

Still, the town could spend significant time without enough council members to reach a quorum, depending on where the chips fall in a fast-moving situation. And if that happens, the city would have no way to take actions on its roughly $3 million annual budget or make new hires.

Residents should know more by Tuesday, when the council is next scheduled to meet. A key agenda item is setting a recall election for Rodriguez, the mayor and Councilman Rogelio Mata, the brother of former councilman Roel Mata.

The recall effort was launched months before the indictments rained down. On Tuesday, state District Judge Amado Abascal ordered the city clerk to verify more than 12,000 signatures on a recall petition after she had refused to do so for more than three months. On Thursday, she finally validated the petition.

But will enough councilmen — three — show up to hold a meeting? A few times in recent months, they’ve failed to gather a quorum.

Joel Barajas, the only councilman not facing the prospect of years in federal prison, said he plans to be there. But he’s not sure about his colleagues’ plans. “Sometimes I think they won’t show up, and the last two days, I think they will," he said Friday.

Jonas, the city manager, said he was hoping the councilmen would show, at least to vote on another agenda item giving voters a change to renew a street maintenance fund.

“I would hope that regardless of other concerns or other issues, that the business of the city would take precedence,” he told the Texas Tribune Friday.

Jonas declined to comment on charges he faces. The federal government accuses him of overseeing the alleged kickback scheme involving Nguyen and the others. He has pleaded not guilty. 

But if the councilmen do show up, will they actually set a date for folks to vote on their recall? That’s also unclear. If they refuse, their opponents would take them to court.

If Crystal City voters oust the men from office, the city would spend at least some time with too few council members to meet, awaiting another election for replacements — however long that might take. 

Though not particularly common, other Texas cities have navigated stretches without lawmakers. Mass recalls, Sandlin saidleave some Texas town without a quorum every few years.

“You just have to wait for the next election,” he said.

After voters in the Central Texas city of Killeen ousted five city councilors in 2011 following another’s resignation, for instance, its council couldn’t meet for six months. (Its city spokeswoman then and now did not return a message Friday seeking information about how the town managed.) 

Two years before, Copperas Cove, just outside of Killeen, booted four members, leaving its council without enough bodies for four months. 

Andrea Gardner, that town's city manager then and now, told the Killeen Daily Herald in 2011 that the town managed the rough patch by planning ahead when the vacancies looked imminent. She did not respond to a message Friday.

One Texas lawmaker says the Legislature might want to consider whether it could help local governments that descend into such turmoil — at least to ensure that bills get paid and services stay on.

“You hate to create state legislation by crisis — on one single incident — because that’s not always completely successful,” said Rep. Tracy King, whose district includes Crystal City. “But I absolutely think that the Legislature should look into creating some sort of mechanism to help communities that find themselves in this situation.”

If the Legislature does examine whether the state has a role in righting struggling towns like Crystal City, King acknowledged that any action could prove tricky in a state where questions about local control can spark fierce debates.

“Cities traditionally fight to maintain that autonomy, and they’re real happy about it until they have an implosion like this,” he said.  

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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