Bully Pulpit

Pushy, driven, and fearless, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer is Bush's big man on the border. But is he tough enough to cut through the red tape snarling efforts to help the poor people living in the colonias?

In the past decade, former Attorney General Dan Morales was the closest thing to an unofficial state czar on colonias. He successfully pushed for legislation in 1993 that gave his office the right to sue colonias developers. A bill passed in 1995, drafted by his office, is aimed at stopping the proliferation of colonias by banning developments without water and wastewater services.

Morales created the superhero-sounding Colonias Strike Force in his office. The team of lawyers initiated several dozen enforcement actions against developers; the most highly touted was against former Starr County Judge Blas Chapa and his business partner, Elias Lopez. While damages and civil penalties from the suits total in the multimillions, Attorney General John Cornyn's office confirms that the judgments have yielded chump change. Typically, the developers were either penniless or long gone by the time Morales got to them.

Morales has said the cases still are significant because they serve as deterrents. The cases also served as great public relations tools for Morales. His case against Chapa garnered him publicity, as did an appearance on 60 Minutes in 1995 in which he was depicted as a kind of colonias terminator. (Morales has noted that the producers of the show contacted him, not the other way around.)

Cornyn, who inherits the enforcement authority, says his office will continue to seek injunctions to shut down illegal developments even if there is no money to be recovered. But he says he disagrees with the notion that "getting a good headline is an end unto itself. My goal is to combine any publicity with follow-through and any sort of punitive action we can obtain through judgments or injunctions. That way, you've gotten the public's attention and you've put someone out of business too."

Valley Interfaith officials say better coordination is a step in the right direction, but the main obstacle in accelerating water and sewer projects in colonias is a lack of political will by local officials. That is illustrated in one project that has remained stuck in an embryonic planning stage for at least eight years, says Janie Rangel, a Valley Interfaith organizer. The $40 million project is supposed to bring water and wastewater service to about 20,000 colonia residents in western Hidalgo County, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

That project and others experiencing long delays tend to get dragged down by small-town politics, Valley Interfaith members say. Although the state doles out the money for construction, cities, counties, or water districts build the projects.

Greed can play a part as different local entities argue over the jurisdictional right to provide the services. Those fights can take years to resolve.

The local entity in charge gets to select the project engineer. Engineers sometimes are picked more for their political and family ties than for their qualifications. The result is further delay.

"The politics can change almost daily," Rangel says. "You have to be very organized just to keep up."

Ray Rodriguez, Socorro's mayor, says it is unfair for state officials and local advocates to place the blame on local politics when government red tape is often responsible for holding things up.

"When we are going to spend federal and state moneys to service these people, we have to follow the government's processes, and that legal system will tie you up," he says. "But I guess they'd rather blame somebody else."

When Bomer met with Valley Interfaith, the group recommended legislation that would let the Water Development Board go over the heads of local authorities by firing an incompetent engineer and hiring its own. The board currently can take that hard-line approach only on the rare project that is financed entirely through federal money. Bomer took the idea to Bush, and it now is a key part of the bill that already has passed the Senate. The board would welcome the new oversight authority.

"We are in the unenviable position of being held accountable even though we're not the ones doing the projects," says Craig Pedersen, board executive director. Although his agency has been limited by legal constraints, Pedersen admits it was too passive in the past in dealing with local officials and engineers in charge of the projects.

"Where I think we've come up short is that we've been too nice to too many people for too long," he says. "We held their hands to get them through the process when we should have held their feet to the fire."

Bomer is far better at the latter than the former, and that fact is not lost on Pedersen. In the Water Development Board's defense, moving along projects impeded by politics takes more political savvy than an agency made up of engineers can be expected to possess. Bomer has that savvy. For years, the board satisfied itself by just identifying problems to local authorities. Bomer, however, demands solutions.

"The colonia problem doesn't lend itself to quick results; no one knows that better than me," says Pedersen, who has been on the job since July 1991. "But Secretary Bomer's impatience has been infectious. For some of us, we had gotten so immersed in the problems, we probably weren't forcing the solutions as vigorously as we could have. His impatience has made me less patient. I think that's a good strategy."

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