As it turns out the irate Little League mothers, coaches, and volunteers who for an hour held the attention of District VII Council member George Altgelt at Monday’s City Council meeting were a tame presence in comparison to what would unfold thereafter.
As the meeting went longer, so it seemed dialogue and exchanges grew darker in the march of many minutes to deal with the most onerous and weighted agenda item — whether or not to place City Manager Jesus Olivares on paid administrative leave while the recently opened FBI investigation into City business with Dannenbaum Engineering runs its course.
In answer to an agenda item placed by District V Council member Nelly Vielma, there were the discourses of Marcus Holliman and Saul Villarreal of Laredo Baseball Holdings (LBH).
Their time at the podium went long. Virtuosos of many trades, all in Laredo over the last several years — recycling, minority share minor league baseball team ownership, hired deck hands to clean up ineptitude, international jet air advisors, and possible consultants for the sale of old, decrepit hospitals — the two dragged back to Council the composting corpse of the Laredo Lemurs. And in doing so they elicited not the willingness of Council members to listen their tale of woe, but rather reminded the public of its two white elephant monuments to fiscal irresponsibility and poor attendance — a baseball stadium and an arena.
Holliman said that he was before Council in the spirit of transparency to clarify that he and partner Villarreal had not obstructed the city auditor by withholding financial information of Laredo Baseball Holdings (LBH), owners of the recently defunct Laredo Lemurs baseball team.
Holliman said that when LBH majority owner Arianna Torres vacated the membership of the Laredo Lemurs without approval of the City, the Council, or the board of LBH on May 1, 2017, her actions ended the Lemurs’ 2017 season. The City thereafter terminated the lease and operation agreement contract with LBH on May 8.
Holliman said Council’s action did not address more than $500,000 in liabilities owed by the Lemurs and wiped out secondary contracts and obligations that sponsors, vendors, and employees had with the Lemurs.
Holliman asked to be placed on a future Council agenda. His comments prompted Council member Altgelt to ask, “Can you return that money back to your sponsors?”
Holliman answered, “That money has been spent. That money is no longer available. There were tons of negative numbers.”
“Are your proposing that the City come in and bail out this $500,000 worth of debt?” Altgelt asked.
Holliman said that the first thing he was proposing was that perhaps the City had made a snap decision without having all the facts to make an informed decision.
“Is that what you’re saying now, that we’re the ones in charge of this $500,000 debt?” Altgelt asked.
City attorney Kristina Hale advised Altgelt he was deviating from the agenda item.
“I’m prepared to answer the question,” Holliman said, elaborating on the operating lease agreement. “The City is involved in all the decisions of contracts, approvals, and accountabilities. The city is a partner. It owns a community asset, which is the Lemurs. It owns the upside as well as the downside.”
“There’s anticipation of litigation here,” Mayor Saenz interjected.
“Let me just leave it at this. What I’m asking for is the opportunity to address some options that you don’t have to consider today,” Holliman said
Hale advised, “Council has already addressed this at the last Council meeting, and it is not on the agenda today.”
All business, Council member Vielma addressed Holliman. “Last time we were asking about the $750,000 that this Council had previously approved to pay to your Laredo Baseball Holdings, and in the auditor’s report there was nothing substantial explaining how that money was spent. So that is the purpose of this item to see whether or not the liability that was told to the Council was paid. The request is for complete accounting with receipts as to where that money was encumbered or spent. If you can submit that report to the City attorney.”
Saul Villarreal joined Holliman at the podium, telling Council he could clear up the confusion.
“There was $500,000 of left-over liabilities since 2014, these are not new liabilities — $340,000 in taxes, $45,000 in payroll to employees that didn’t get paid since January up to now. They are not new liabilities,” Villarreal stated.
“Are these IRS taxes? How is it conceivably imaginable that the City of Laredo would be responsible for the private tax debt of your LBH entity?” Altgelt asked.
“You’re right,” Villarreal said, continuing, “The money that was given from the City to the LBH was not for the new ownership. It was for the debt of the previous ownership. The previous ownership had a debt of $1.7 million. When we were hired to clean the mess that was made in 2013, that was our job to do. Saul Villarreal and Marcus Holliman were hired to come to clean liabilities pending, lawsuits, litigation from 2013 and 2015.”
Villarreal confirmed that there was tax debt left over from the previous entity. “We came in as advisors. The City agreed to clean the mess so that the Lemurs could continue. There was new owners.”
Altgelt asked why those taxes weren’t paid?
Villarreal said they had been hired as advisors to clean the mess of the previous owners of the Lemurs. “The City agreed to clean the mess because they had no idea what was going on with the previous ownership, which had debt, liabilities, and taxes. For the Lemurs to come in, we found new owners. The City contributed half of those liabilities, and the new owners the other half. That’s why the City gave $750,000, but it wasn’t this year. It was to clean previous liabilities.”
“Why weren’t those liabilities paid?” Altgelt asked Villarreal.
“Most of those liabilities were paid. The only ones that were not paid were the 941 taxes. There were no records, no accountability, no invoices, no paper trail. Even the City tried to get an audit, but there was nothing. That’s what we did for a year and half,” Villarreal explained.
Mayor Pete Saenz asked City Manager Jesus Olivares for clarification if the $750,000 cleared the City of liability. “So why are we coming back? Our hands are clean. We don’t need to worry about that,” he said.
Altgelt asked Villarreal who had asked them “to come in to clean up?”
He said they were hired as advisers by City staff.
“And that was based on previous experience in running a baseball team?” Altgelt pressed.
“No, sir. We were hired by the City of Laredo about three years ago as advisors. We came in and had a contract with the City of Laredo to provide some advising for the airport and the Lemurs,” Villarreal answered.
“Those seem like two pretty specific areas of expertise,” Altgelt noted.
“I was working on bringing an international flight to Laredo, Interjet. That’s why I was hired.” Villarreal added that he was approached by the City to find an investor for the Laredo Lemurs.”
“By whom?” Altgelt asked him. “Can you name somebody?”
“Sure, I was approached by Carlos Villarreal to find an investor,” Villarreal answered, adding, “I was approached to find an investor for the Lemurs. That was my job to do, to save this season.”
“So this saving the season is a recurring nightmare?” Altgelt continued.
“The investor was not a good fit for us. I was approached by Mark Schuster to mediate with the City of Laredo to clean all those messes,” Villarreal answered.
Altgelt questioned how much of $1.7 million went to administrative fees.
Villarreal said it went to clear out all responsibilities. “Mark Schuster (former owner of the Lemurs) paid us on a monthly basis to become a mediator to come to a settlement with the City. We got all documentation constructed, all the legal behind it, and all paperwork. They came up with a number.”
Altgelt asked Villarreal if he had met with anyone about the old Mercy Hospital.
“They called. We were contacted,” he answered.
Villarreal told the Council he was asking for the opportunity “to defend my honor. I have the proof.”
They left the meeting, it seemed, having been unable to get traction for another shot at explaining themselves.
The Council heard from citizens in public comments, all but one not asking that City Manager Olivares either step down or be placed on administrative leave with pay.
They cited their reasons — the FBI investigation with his name on the warrant’s A List, the “Targeted Subjects;” the unfolding Lemurs debacle; allegations of questionable dealings; allegations that he was un-fit to manage a city that was a half-billion-dollar business.
Juan Avila, the one who didn’t ask for Olivares’ resignation or leave with pay, came to the podium politely, and then said things that don’t merit repeating, assailing some of the Council members and the Mayor with nasty, personal references, alluding to the “personal closet” of each and violating the Council imposed rule for citizen comments free of derogatory remarks.
Addressing himself to the City Manager “con todo respeto,” he told Olivares he had warned him of this moment. “This is the Mayor’s thing, and I’m going to tell you who’s with him.”
For a silver-tongued fellow wearing a shroud woven from so many “con todo respetos” (albeit embarrados con lodo), he was plainly disrespectful in ad hominem attacks on most of the Council members. He told the Mayor that his bid for a second term would fail, and it sounded as though he uttered that “Raulito” was waiting in the wings.
Council members went into executive session at about 8:40 and returned close to 10:15 with the news that they had taken no action. City Manager Jesus Olivares announced, “Effective immediately, I am retiring.” He thanked the Council for the opportunity to serve the City.
Mayor Saenz asked Olivares if he wanted to elaborate on the details of that decision, and Olivares answered swiftly, “No” and walked out of Council chambers holding a single manila folder.
Olivares will receive his full salary of $252,000 for the next year and insurance benefits, and will be reimbursed for attorneys fees.
Following a subsequent executive session, the Council announced that it had named Assistant City Manager Horacio De Leon to the position of acting City Manager. They also voted to hire outside legal counsel for how to navigate through City business while the FBI investigation into City dealings with Dannenbaum Engineering is underway, and to “if necessary make recommendations on changes to the City’s rules, procedures, and ordinances to avoid any ethical and/or legal pitfalls.”
The Council postponed decisions on naming a Chief of Police, a City Attorney, and the Clerk for Municipal Court.
Council member Altgelt gets an earful of feedback from coaches, parents and volunteers regarding rental, maintenance of City ballparks
Quicksand under the level playing field
City Council proceedings Monday night took an early turn to the confrontational as the parents of Little League, Pony League, and girls softball players, coaches, volunteers, and one high-profile grandmother —County Clerk Margie Ramirez Ibarra — challenged District VII Council member George Altgelt’s exploratory directives to a.) make those who use the City’s playing fields pay fees and maintain the park and to b.) direct staff to stop maintaining Uni-Trade Stadium and Pony League activities.
In Council chambers packed with children who play ball and those who wanted to address Altgelt, the Council member got a one-hour earful in response to what he said prompted the agenda item and his explanation for “how Austin does it.”
He said the maintenance of parks is the City of Laredo’s third largest expense after police and fire services, and that a City athletic director could schedule the use of fields and assess fees. He suggested sending the item to the parks and leisure board and to have input from parents, coaches, league officials, and concessionaires.
Women in the audience made some of the most compelling arguments against Altgelt’s agenda items, citing the lack of funds as an impediment to pay a user fee for a playing field. They also challenged the effectiveness of City park employees in maintaining the parks. They spoke of broken locks and stolen locks on the field gates and theft of bathroom supplies.
Ramirez Ibarra said, “My granddaughter plays in the league. We are cleaning up the parks. We are picking up. The bathrooms are really dirty all the time. I do understand we have staff that are supposed to clean, we are supposed to have staff, but I just see them riding around. Really, we are the ones who maintain the park. I speak for the all the kids who cannot afford anything. We try to help them, we try to encourage them, because it’s our youth. This is what we are going to have in Laredo in the future. And I’m sorry, City Council member Altgelt, but we are not in Austin, we are in Laredo, and we need to think like Laredoans.”
Mireya Mancha, a 27-year volunteer in girls softball leagues, spoke emotionally of parks without benches or a concession stand, parks with filthy and broken restrooms. “We clean bathrooms. We pick up trash. We do the dirty work. We are here for them,” she said, gesturing to team members. She said she waives the $60 registration fee when a player cannot come up with the money.
Lisa Peterson, a coach of 37 girls on three teams, told the Council. “I’m a board member, I clean restrooms, I paint lines. Your employees don’t. They don’t pick up trash. They don’t clean the bathrooms. She reiterated Ramirez Ibarra’s message to Council member Altgelt, “This is Laredo, this is not Austin. You need to talk to us…let us show you what we do.” She invited members of the Council to meet her at the field.
José Luis Maldonado, president of Northside Little League, spoke of inequity and discrimination. He said he has asked for scoreboard repairs, but none were forthcoming. He also said he reported bad conditions on the field that also were not addressed.
Maldonado said that though other organizations and schools had been allowed to play at Uni-Trade Stadium, that his 200-member league has asked but has not been allowed to play there. “Don’t rent the parks,” he said.
Remy Salinas addressed concessions awarded to private individuals and said getting financials from them was a near-impossible feat. He said that adult leagues should pay for the use of City parks and fields.
Altgelt conceded that a Laredo solution needed to be found to improve equitable park use and maintenance and that input from the leagues, coaches, and parents was to be part of a discussion of the parks and leisure board.
He re-worded his motion to direct the parks and leisure board to come up with a fair way for the use of the fields; to not include fees; to require leagues to have insurance and 501c3 status; and to have the City auditor determine that monies collected benefit children on the teams.
There are three unrelated points I’d like to make about the May 15 Council meeting.
One is to give a nod to District II Council member Vidal Rodriguez for his collaboration with TAMIU’s Dean of the College of Education Dr. James O’Meara to implement the free online learning program Skoolbo for all City recreation centers and public libraries.
The second is to ask “Where in the world is Mark Schuster, former owner of the Lemurs?” He’s opening state-of-the-art multi-use ballparks in “underserved” Waco and Bellmead, Texas. (https://ballparkbiz.wordpress.com)
And the last is to say that in all the years I have followed Council meetings and listened to comments from the public, I’ve not ever heard anyone as hateful as Juan Avila, nor have I ever witnessed a human being diminish himself in stature or dignity by the words coming from his own mouth.