Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Body Shop Show - Girls Night Out

I know this is late notice, but I am having a show on Monday, Feb. 6. The new catalog just came out and has a lot of new stuff in it, plus they have redone some of the product to make it even better. I have been having a wonderful time with the product myself and have almost completed my wish list by hosting shows. If you can't come, take a look at the website or let me know if you want to place an outside order. I would like to turn in all orders and money on the same night if possible. I fyou want to host your own show to earn free product, let me know as well and I will bring a hostess packet to you. There are always great hosetess specials and it is worthwhile to take advantage of them to get your own wish list filled.
 
 
If you want something to be here by Valentine's day you need to order it this week, no later than Friday probably. It does take 6-7 business days for orders to get to you, if there are no issues.
 
If you have any questions you can email me or call me at 534-3457.
 
Hope to hear from you,
Carina

Monday, January 30, 2006

Surveillance video shows woman accused of theft

PALMHURST – Police are looking for a purse snatcher that was seen in Wal-Mart there.

Investigators say the woman stole another lady's purse and later used the victim’s credit card at the store and charged up huge bills. Surveillance video captured images of the alleged purse snatcher.

If you have any information, call Mission Crimestoppers at 581-8477.

Watch video.

Peels On Parade

January 27,2006
Travis M. Whitehead
The Monitor

Texas Citrus Fiesta Kicks Off

MISSION — Sara Valdez and her friends have been working diligently on a dress made of congealed orange juice.

"We are going to use other products, possibly cenizo leaves, sunflower leaves, petals," said Valdez, whose daughter Rachel will model her "product" costume dress tonight at the Mission High School gym on 1802 Cleo Dawson.

The product costume show is part of the Texas Citrus Fiesta. The event kicked off Thursday night with the coronation of Summer Marie Flowers, 18, as Queen Citrianna. This year’s King Citrus was also chosen.

Berta Peña, executive director, said Thursday’s festivities also included a competition for the 2007 Queen Citrianna. That competition included young women dressed in ball gowns which resemble an agricultural product from their hometowns. For example, the contestant from Mission was the Duchess of Star Ruby. Other contestants included the Duchess of Lemon from Weslaco and the Duchess of Papaya from Pharr.

"A lot of them have sequins and rhinestones," Peña said. "Some people spend $6,000 to $7,000. The dresses are embellished with laces or appliqué."

The winner of that competition also will be announced tonight.

Peña was in the middle of preparations last week for the fiesta, which concludes Saturday with the Parade of Oranges and the Fiesta Fun Fair.

"It’s going good, thank God," she said. "Hopefully it’s going to be bigger and better. We have a couple of things at the Fun Fair that are new."

One of those new things will be a juvenile diabetes information unit, a semi tractor-trailer which will open into a series of booths will information about diabetes. This presentation will encourage children to be more active. Another booth will encourage dental health by providing places for people to brush their teeth. They will also give away tooth brushes and toothpaste.

The parade — consisting of many colorful floats — begins at 12:30 p.m. at Farm-to-Market Road 495 and Conway Avenue. The floats will compete in various contests, including the product category. Floats in this category must be made of 85 percent product, such as orange peels or other materials.

"That’s the biggest contest," Peña said. "First prize is $1,000."

Why such a big prize?

Peña said the citrus fiesta is trying to encourage more people to get involved. Participation has died down in recent years because of heavy work loads and other commitments. Other prize money will go to Winter Texan R.V. parks that have the best float.

Anyone wishing to see these colorful floats can stand along the Conway Avenue on Saturday afternoon and watch the parade head south to 4th Street. By that time, however, the Fiesta Fun Fair at Market Square on 115 West 10th Street will be in full swing; it will start at 10 a.m. and end at about 8:30 p.m.

"We will have entertainment throughout the day, arts and crafts, all kinds of food," Peña said. "We also have a vaquero cook-off. One of the meats has to be presented with citrus."

———

Travis Whitehead covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach him at 683-4452.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Natural Look

January 27,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — Dried fruit, leaves and seeds are things most people would brush off a dress.

But Mary Virginia Gerlach actually goes out of her way to find them so she can put them on a dress.

The painstaking time she spends making the garments is a habit she just can’t break.

She’s tried. She’s reminded herself of the long hours it takes to design, glue and dye. She’s remembered how allergic the plants make her feel and the mess they make in her garage. And she’s remembered the embarrassing lengths to which she’s gone to get it all done — like the strange looks she gets while swiping spare onion skins from the grocery store.

Each year, though, a few weeks before the Texas Citrus Fiesta’s product costume show rolls around, she caves:

"It’s a passion — that’s all I can say," is how Gerlach explains her dedication to the craft.

For 37 years, Gerlach has been one of the product costume show’s most devoted costume-makers, piecing together an average of three or four costumes each year for the contest, which celebrates the Rio Grande Valley’s citrus industry through elaborately themed costumes covered entirely in native product.

The contest once garnered dozens of entries, but Gerlach and her decorating partner, daughter-in-law Cori Gerlach, are two of just a handful of designers who will exhibit costumes at today’s show.

Citrus Director Berta Peña said Tuesday she expected about 10 costumes for the show’s five categories.

Dwindling participation in the contest is unfortunate, Peña said, but it may be inevitable in a society where most women work and even teenagers have jam-packed schedules.

"It’s a dying art," she said. "The kids don’t have time anymore, and neither do the moms."

Gerlach, who works full time, agreed.

She fondly recalls the "garden club ladies" who made the fantastical, intricate costumes she remembers from her childhood and teenage years. But she also acknowledges the toll crafting costumes takes.

Displaying her costumes at her Mission home Tuesday evening, she apologized profusely for the Christmas decorations that still decked the living room, and for the state of her garage, which was crowded with freezers to store dried product, half-finished costumes and containers of glitter, more dried product and glue.

During Fiesta season, cars stay in the driveway Gerlach explained, sighing as she surveyed the jammed garage.

But her eyes lit up as she held up the costumes-in-progress, which include a deep pink colored dress made of native red and purple bougainvillea, a T-shirt covered with dried avocado and flower and butterfly-shaped decorations made of pumpkin seeds and glitter.

Cori Gerlach, for her part, confessed she had been sick lately and less involved in costume-making than she has been in recent years. But even when she’s trying to take it easy, she seems to have trouble resisting her hobby — she greeted her mother-in-law Tuesday evening with a special present: bougainvilleas from her yard.

"Aren’t they beautiful?" she exclaimed, lamenting that it might be too late for her mother-in-law to use them, but saying she couldn’t resist picking them.

Luckily for the Gerlach women, the rest of the family is filled with good sports about their obsession. Mary Virginia’s son, Brian, and husband, Ted, pitch in by chopping the product in the blender. And during fiesta season, Mary Virginia says Ted makes dinner.

Even the smallest in the family get involved.

Gerlach used to cajole her friends’ and neighbors’ children and grandchildren to model her costumes.

"But then I got grandchildren," she explained. "So I had my built-in models."

This year, all four are modeling — one in each division. Their grandmother, in typical doting fashion, has costumes to fit them to a tee.

____

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Prepare to Peel


January 26,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


Participants put finishing touches on preparations for Citrus Fiesta

MISSION — Things have been a little hectic lately for the organizers of the 69th Texas Citrus Fiesta.

OK, maybe more than a little.

"People don’t realize how much work goes into this. It takes a whole year to get it (together)," sighed Berta Peña, the fiesta’s executive director, as she fielded phone calls and inquiries from volunteers in her crowded Mission office Tuesday.

"But it’s worth it, OK? It’s once a year."

This evening, Peña and her team of organizers will start to see their long hours of labor come to fruition at two of the annual festival’s most beloved and time-honored events — the coronation of this year’s royal citrus court and crowning of the 70th Queen Citrianna. King Citrus will also be announced in the elaborate ceremony scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. in Mission High School’s Neuhaus gym.

As per tradition, the citrus king is usually a well-known member of the community, while Queen Citrianna and her royal court are chosen from a group of high-school age girls who compete, beauty-pageant style, for their titles.

At judging for the Queen Citrianna contest Tuesday night, some two dozen girls, each representing a Rio Grande Valley city and bearing a title of "Duchess," clustered in the Mission High School gym for interviews with judges, as well as a practice run-through for Thursday’s coronation ceremony.

Wearing dressy suits and heels, as well as ample make-up and meticulously coiffed hair-dos, the girls practiced curtseying and walking across the stage with their pages. The pages, who by contest rules must be seven-year-old boys, carried banners bearing the special town crests. An audience made up mostly of parents and siblings sat in the bleachers while Peña and other citrus fiesta organizers bustled about.

Despite the seemingly high-stakes nature of the night — the contest keeps competitors’ names secret until Thursday to avoid allegations of judges’ favoritism and has a certified public accountant tally the votes — contestants professed to be competing for other reasons than just victory.

"I guess I’m here to make new friends and to get out of a little town and broaden my horizons," said a Rio Grande City High School freshman representing Roma. The high schooler, who was forbidden by contest rules to give her name, confessed to being nervous as she waited for her interview with the judges.

Others were all smiles and relaxed good cheer.

"Win or lose, it’s a wonderful experience," said a La Joya Senior High School junior representing Sullivan City. The girl was waiting for her page outside the men’s bathroom.

Such poise, Peña said, is typical of today’s contestants.

"In my generation, you just sat there and you didn’t speak. It was ‘yes sir,’ or ‘no sir,’" she said of her days as a teenager in the 1970s. "They’re smarter, they’re wittier, they’re much more charming, much more mature."

The fiesta continues Friday with the product costume show, where contestants will model outfits covered with native plants and fruits. A parade through downtown Mission follows on Saturday.

____

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mission employee arraigned after drug bust

January 24,2006
Cari Hammerstrom
The Monitor


MISSION — A Mission city employee was arraigned in Peter Ormsby’s McAllen federal court Friday after U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents discovered enough cocaine at his home Wednesday night to fetch more than $800,000 in McAllen.

The DEA received information that drugs were stored at the residence of Mission water department billing manager Albert Hugo Peña, said Will Glaspy, DEA assistant special agent in charge for South Texas.

According to court documents, a "cooperating source" informed agents that drugs would be delivered to Peña’s house. The residence’s address is listed as Route 21 Box 111 C-2.

"Agents established surveillance in the immediate area and observed several individuals come and go from the residence for several hours," reads the complaint, which lays out the reasons for Peña’s arrest.

Glaspy then said that agents did what they call a "knock and talk," in which agents do not have a search warrant but ask to search the residence. Peña allowed the agents to come inside the house, he said.

"He showed us where the drugs were," Glaspy continued.

Agents seized 100.5 kilograms of cocaine. The street value of the drugs in McAllen is estimated at about $80 per gram, Glaspy said. This load, had it stayed in McAllen, and not been transported anywhere else where it would have been worth more, would have sold for slightly more than $800,000.

Glaspy said it was likely such a large load was headed north. Peña told DEA agents that his house was used as a holding center until other unknown individuals transferred the load elsewhere, the complaint reads. Investigators are conducting a follow-up investigation to see where the shipment was going.

Luis Cesar Vargas, a Mexican national, was also arrested in connection with the cocaine bust. He allegedly cited economic hardship as the reason for engaging in criminal activity. It is not clear at this time how Vargas and Peña are affiliated.

According to the city of Mission’s Web site, Peña graduated from Mission High School in 1979 and began working for the city in 1980. In March 1994, he became the water department’s billing manager, handling billing complaints.

Mission City Manager Julio Cerda said personnel issues prohibited him from discussing whether Peña was still employed with the city.

———

Cari Hammerstrom covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4424.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Unanswered Prayers


January 23,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


Iconic La Lomita falling into ruin as repair plans delayed

It’s the city of Mission’s namesake, one of its most beloved historical landmarks, a popular tourist destination and a cherished spot for prayer and meditation.

But the more than 100-year-old La Lomita Mission is looking shabby — close to four years after local politicians and city officials first vowed to fix it.

And a collection of historically minded tourists and Rio Grande Valley residents are upset.

"We drove by recently, and it was in deplorable condition," said Henry Von Savage, a Pharr resident who married his second wife, Yuvonne, at the chapel in 1992.

"I think this is just awful because it’s a historical attraction and a tourist destination."

The city says it understands people’s emotional attachment to the landmark but that the deteriorating structure needs more than just a patch-up job.

The small sandstone chapel is a rebuilt version of the original 1865 chapel ranchers and Oblate priests who settled the region in the mid-19th century constructed and established. It gave Mission its name.

Designated a state historical landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the chapel is owned by the Brownsville Catholic diocese but is leased to the city of Mission, which handles maintenance, according to city officials.

The chapel is decorated with religious iconography, including children’s drawings, as well as plastic flowers and prayer candles. Two well-worn guest books contain the names — and sometimes the very personal prayers — of the hundreds of annual visitors who come to soak in some local history, pray or just sit in the neighboring city park.

But the white plaster coating the building is crumbling badly, paint is peeling off the doors and the wooden shingled roof is full of chinks. On a windy day last week, fake flowers from an outdoor shrine to the Virgin Mary lay strewn on the grass, cigarettes littered the ground near the chapel’s front entrance and a welcome mat lay crumpled against a shrub several feet from the chapel door.

Repairs have been a long time coming.

State Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Mission, announced excitedly in 2002 that the Texas Historical Commission had awarded the city $20,000 to fix La Lomita. A year and a half later, Mission officials declared plans to begin repairs in the summer of 2004.

But after the commission toured the site a few months later and indicated adequate repairs would require more than $40,000 worth of work, the city decided to hold off on the renovation, said city Grants Manager Chris Duque.

According to the most recent estimates from architects, Duque said, it will cost about $120,000 to overhaul the building — including leveling out the floor, refinishing the walls and putting in new electrical wiring and new wooden prayer benches.

The city will find the money somehow, he promised — and soon.

"This is a very important project for the city," he said "The chapel is probably the thing the city of Mission is most known for.

"But I think we’d rather do the job completely than just in pieces. That does take a little bit more time and a little bit more money, but the commitment is there."

Tourists who had come to the site last week for a repeat visit said they had noticed the chapel was looking more and more run-down each time they returned.

"It’s in bad shape, but they probably don’t have the money to take care of it," mused Pat Freihoefer to her husband, Art, and her sister and brother-in-law, as they all inspected the chapel’s crumbling exterior.

At least one worshipper was also concerned about the chapel’s fate.

"Dear God," read an entry from the 2005 guestbook that is simply signed ‘Valerie Gonzalez.’ "Please watch over this church don’t let anyone tear it down."

———

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mission Has Ties to Conan

I was just reading a blog by RGV Mack where he writes about how Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian while visiting the RGV west of Mission, Tx. This is something that I did not know about our town. I thought I'd share it with the community.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Helping Out an Exchange Student

I received an email from a French couple whose daughter, Pauline, goes to school here in Mission. They have asked if I can help find another host family for their daughter by the end of the month.

She is in Mission until june and she wants to go to the end of her stay in the
valley. But on the moment we think that she doesn't feel very well. We think she
is stressed. So she needs to get an other environnement, to know new people and
to live a new situation. But we don't know how to find a new host family, and it
will be very difficult to find a new one.
Perhaps you have got some news or
you can send to us some useful information.
Sorry to take
your time once more, we thank you for your attention with our unusual
request.


Merci beaucoup, au plaisir de vous lire, à
bientôt Marie et Marcelin in France
So, if you are interested in hosting and exchange student until June, contact Marie and Marcelin at marcelin.petit2@wanadoo.fr.

Residents worry dust blowing into their homes may be contaminated

January 18,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — The strong winds whipping the Rio Grande Valley on Monday night and Tuesday were a hazard for some expressway drivers struggling to keep their cars from swerving, and a nuisance for business people who gripped stacks of papers tightly to their chests and long-haired women who had to push stray locks out of their eyes.

For the residents near the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant in Mission, though, the 30- to 40-mph winds were downright alarming.

It had been less than a week since the Environmental Protection Agency released a report revealing chemical contamination more than 100 times the state’s standard just one foot beneath the surface of the soil around the former pesticide plant.

Residents worry the fine brown dust that blew under doors and pooled in yards and gutters is something worse than plain dirt.

"It was like a sandstorm last night, but it was the contaminated dust," said Lupita Garcia, who suffers from asthma, among other health problems, including cancer. She attributes her poor health to more than 60 years of living a block from the plant.

Garcia and neighbors, many of whom also suffer medical ailments they blame on the plant, said the dust was not only making it harder to breathe, it was feeding into their fears of exposure.

Rolando Vallejo and his next-door neighbor, Norma Baugus, were in their front yards across the street from the Hayes-Sammons site Tuesday morning, trying to kill a giant bug buzzing around Vallejo’s front door, as winds blew around them. Baugus is also Vallejo’s home-care nurse.

Vallejo, who suffers from cancer, kidney failure and asthma, said he was breathing with a little more difficulty than usual Tuesday. But since his house’s air system was circulating the dust from outside, there was no sense in being cooped up all day, he said.

Still, people should minimize their time outside, say scientists and health experts, even as they are hesitant to speculate about the exact risks residents might be facing because of potentially toxic particles in the air — the EPA report did not include comprehensive testing of surface dust.

"EPA said there’s no hazard, but frankly with the high levels of pesticides that are down in the soil, very, very close to the surface, I would just recommend that people keep their doors and their windows shut," said Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector for industrial sites and director of the Texas Sierra club’s clean air program.

The Hidalgo County Health Department was recommending that anyone with asthma or other breathing problems avoid spending too much time outside, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality air monitors were showing elevated dust levels throughout South Texas, said Brian Lambeth, a senior meteorologist at the agency.

The instrument that usually measures larger air particles at TCEQ’s Mission monitoring site was broken Monday and Tuesday, but Lambeth said that dry weather and winds gusting above 25 mph would be plenty to stir dust into the air. According to the National Weather Service in Brownsville, peak winds at McAllen-Miller International Airport reached 45 mph Monday night and 33 mph Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, residents were left to their own devices.

Garcia donned a face mask before going out to survey the accumulated piles in her yard Tuesday morning, and had a cleaning lady sweep what had blown inside from under the door.

She also tried to make sure her granddaughter didn’t play in it.

"Stand up, mihijita, it’s dirt in there," she told 3-year-old Mary Giselle as she removed her own face mask and shut the door against the wind.

_____

Kaitin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

DA candidate’s deal may defy Texas Bar law

January 15,2006
Brittney Booth and Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


Mauro Reyna III signed with figure in Mission’s chemical plant scandal

MISSION — A signed agreement bearing the name of a challenger in the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s race indicates a deal strictly prohibited under state bar regulations.

Lawyer Mauro Reyna III’s signature on the agreement to share attorney fees with Mission resident Ester Salinas is prohibited by the Texas State Bar because Salinas is not an attorney.

The agreement concerns class-action lawsuits filed in connection with contamination at the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant on Holland Avenue in Mission.

Salinas has been one of the most prominent voices in the call for compensation from Hayes-Sammons and some 30 other companies. Thousands of south Mission residents who live, or have lived, near the former chemical plant are involved.

Reyna said he signed the agreement in 1999.

Mentioned in the agreement is Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, a lawyer who is leading one of the class-action lawsuits for a majority of the plaintiffs and ultimately benefits from the case’s success.Garcia said he was not involved, in any way, with drafting the document in question. Reyna is one of 11 attorneys who work on Hayes-Sammons cases with him, he said.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with me," Garcia said. "I’m not involved in their dispute. I don’t want to be involved in their dispute. What (Reyna) does with his money is his business."

In the Hayes-Sammons class-action lawsuit, hundreds of plaintiffs, including Salinas, charge they suffered serious medical problems from working at or living near the former pesticide manufacturing and processing facility.

Reyna and Salinas agreed they would refer cases to Garcia’s law office and that Garcia would be the lead attorney in all cases, according to the signed document.

"It is understood and agreed between the parties to this Agreement that the Hayes-Sammons cases are referred to the Law Office of Ramon Garcia, P.C. and that Ramon Garcia will be the attorney in charge of these cases," the 1999 agreement reads. "It is understood and agreed further that Ramon Garcia will receive as his share of all attorney’s (sic) fees collected on these "Hayes-Sammons" cases seventy-five percent (75%) of all attorneys’ fees … the undersigned parties agree they will split 50/50 the twenty-five (25%) of attorney’s (sic) fees payable to Mauro Reyna, III on the Hayes-Sammons matter."

The agreement does say "Ramon Garcia is not a party to this Agreement, since this Agreement is between the undersigned parties only and concerns the twenty-five (25%) attorney’s fees not payable to Ramon Garcia…"

Asked about the agreement, Reyna and Salinas accused each other of either leaking the document or orchestrating its leak.

Reyna said after he signed the agreement he realized the agreement was illegal, and therefore void. He says that because the agreement was not legal under Texas Bar rules, the agreement is not valid.

Reyna said he told Salinas he would not follow the agreement, but agreed to pay her on an hourly basis and to reimburse her for expenses in return for her help in signing up people to join the lawsuit.

"I told her it was invalid. I can’t pay her attorney fees, she is not a lawyer," he said, but "I have paid her a lot of money."

Reyna did not say how much he paid Salinas.

Lawyers cannot pay a non-lawyer to solicit prospective clients or refer clients to any lawyer or firm, other than reasonable fees for advertising and public relations services, according to rule 7.03(b) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules define how licensed attorneys can operate.

And lawyers are also prohibited from sharing attorney fees with non-attorneys, according to rule 5.04.

"The principal reasons for these limitations are to prevent solicitation by lay persons of clients for lawyers and to avoid encouraging or assisting non-lawyers in the practice of law," the rule states.

Violating a rule could result in disciplinary action if the state bar’s grievance committee determines it is warranted, with punishments ranging from public sanctions to bar license suspension and disbarment, depending on the violation, said Texas Bar Association spokeswoman Kim Davey.

However, the state bar would not comment on the legality of the agreement or whether they were investigating the matter, said Mark Pinckard, projects director for the state bar’s disciplinary counsel.

The Agreement’s Origins

Just exactly how the agreement between Reyna and Salinas came to be is not clear.

Reyna said Salinas drafted the agreement and brought it to him to sign.

Salinas, who claims it was Reyna’s office that produced the agreement for her to sign, only says it is "entirely possible" she may have signed it. In an emotional telephone interview Thursday afternoon, she said she never claimed to be an attorney.

"If anything was drafted up, that was from their office. I have been set up, tricked, whatever you want to call it. My number one objective is as an activist, to help, and get the people out of here," Salinas said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first filed a lawsuit against certain chemical companies to clean up the Hayes-Sammons plant in the early 1980s. After a settlement and clean-up, questions around the plant’s contamination and its health hazards for humans persisted.

Residents and former employees began filing class-action lawsuits in the late 1990s, and since then Salinas has lobbied government officials, organized and attended countless meetings and written extensively on the subject on a Web site she maintains and in other activist publications. Many residents credit her with bringing the lawsuit to court in the first place.

Salinas would not answer questions Thursday about whether she had worked with Reyna to refer cases or whether she had received any payments from the attorneys. She hung up the phone in tears.

On Friday, she referred all questions to state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, whom she has retained as her lawyer.

Hinojosa would not confirm or deny whether Salinas received any money in connection with the agreement. But he did say his client is a private citizen who did nothing wrong. Any responsibility rests with Reyna, he said.

"Mauro said he paid her a lot of money. That’s an admission (of guilt on Reyna’s part)," Hinojosa said.

Reyna’s argument is that the agreement is not binding because the agreement is illegal, and because he never paid Salinas actual attorney fees.

"Generally, contracts to do things illegally are considered void and unenforceable," said Richard M. Alderman, director of the Consumer Law Center and the Dwight Olds Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.

"It’s really complicated. A contract to perform an illegal act is void, but it depends on what the illegality is and how illegal it is and what the equities would be," Alderman said.

However, lawyers are supposed to know the ethical codes that bind them to their profession, he said.

"This is not a common practice. It has been a rule for a long time," he said, referring to rules prohibiting attorneys from sharing fees with non-attorneys.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said he will not investigate whether Reyna, who is running against him in the March 7 Democratic primary, or Salinas broke any state laws until after the election.

But he did say he believes the agreement could constitute barratry on Reyna’s part. Barratry is a third degree felony offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"Any time you solicit a case in exchange for money, that is considered barratry, as far as the classical definition of the word," Guerra said.

Once the district attorney’s Democratic primary race in which Guerra and Reyna are candidates is over in March, Guerra says he would consider pursuing an investigation. Guerra did say the matter should be looked into by an outside agency, such as the Texas Rangers, Texas Attorney General’s Office or the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"My general policy is, I don’t investigate candidates during the campaign," he said, adding, "I cannot stop anybody going to a grand jury and asking a grand jury to investigate allegations against anybody."

———

Brittney Booth covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can call her at (956) 683-4437

———

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can call her at (956) 683-4446.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Chemical plant report public

January 13,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — Four chemicals soaked into the soil at the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant are more than 100 times what the state calls safe for industrial sites, according to a long-awaited report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, soil at the plant contains concentrations of at least 13 chemical compounds that exceed levels the state deems safe for human exposure, according to the report released Thursday.

The several-hundred-page report, which includes lots of numbers but little analysis, culls data EPA contractors took in late August from the six-acre site. The contractors tested soil at different depths below the surface, vapors in above-ground storage tanks, air in two locations and swabs from inside three buildings. The testing was done to determine whether 21 pesticide chemical compounds known to have been present when the plant on Holland Avenue closed in 1972 still remained.

Although the plant sits across from homes, the EPA used the state standard for industrial contamination, not the stricter standard that applies to residential areas.

The EPA’s director on the project, Scott Harris, cautioned people not to assume the elevated chemical levels are necessarily hazardous.

"The number means nothing if you don’t know what the exposure is," said Harris, who is based in the Dallas area, during a telephone interview. "If you’re not exposed to something, it can’t hurt you."

Elected officials, community activists and neighborhood residents who claim to have suffered medical problems from chemical exposure hailed the report as long-delayed evidence that the site remained dangerously contaminated.

"All of this confirms the suspicion we’ve had that this is still a very toxic site," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who distributed the report at a press conference at his McAllen office on North 15th Street.

But, Doggett said, the report does not answer the most important questions: whether the chemicals are present in dangerous levels in people who worked at the plant or lived nearby, and whether they caused serious medical problems and death.

"It looked at dirt. It didn’t look at people," Doggett said. Harris said it was not the report’s intent to measure chemical levels in people.

Doggett has been battling with EPA officials for some time now, pushing them first for testing and then to release the report they had originally promised for October. On Wednesday, EPA officials didn’t appear as if they would release the report this week, saying Doggett’s plans for a press conference Thursday wouldn’t affect their timeline. Yet, the EPA posted the report on its Web site the morning of Doggett’s press conference.

At the press conference, Doggett blasted the EPA for dragging its feet in releasing the report and reiterated prior calls for remediation of the site, further testing in surrounding neighborhoods and compensation for neighborhood residents.

The EPA also should do more testing of the air, said the congressman to a crowd of several dozen people who included lawyers involved in class action and other lawsuits regarding the site.

Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector whom Doggett brought to explain the report’s findings, described the findings as troubling and the testing as inadequate.

"These pesticides are known to interfere and block the hormone systems in the body," said Carman, who for 12 years inspected industrial plants for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and now heads the Clean Air Division for Sierra Club’s Texas division.

Carman said the on-site chemicals, which belong to a class called organochlorines, can cause serious reproductive, as well as pituitary and thyroid problems.

He said he trusted the data itself but criticized the EPA for only taking dust samples from the air on a single day, rather than over a longer period of time — possibly explaining why scientists did not find toxic amounts of chemicals in the dust they tested.

In the report, contractors reported a swab taken from the wood ceiling in one of the site’s buildings contains twice the maximum amount the state allows for toxaphene when it is found in soil. Toxaphene is a pesticide the EPA banned in 1990 because of studies that linked it to reproductive and central nervous system damage, among other ailments.

However, there is no official benchmark for toxaphene levels found in buildings, to adequately say whether the chemical’s presence in the wood is truly hazardous. The report noted the wood is unlikely to pose a threat to humans now, but that it could in the future if the building deteriorates further and bits of wood fall to the ground.

Neighborhood residents reacted emotionally to the results as presented to them at Doggett’s press conference. Several thanked Doggett profusely for his help and dedication and shared stories about themselves or family members who they say suffered cancers or other serious medical problems because of the chemical fumes coming from Hayes-Sammons.

Doggett said he intended to continue pressing the EPA for more action, including a cleanup. But he cautioned that it would be overly optimistic to expect much help from the agency, which he said has displayed a "conscious indifference" to environmental issues in recent years.

The EPA has promised to release a second report detailing its recommendations for site remediation within a few weeks. First, it will hold a community meeting soliciting feedback from community residents on Jan. 26, Harris said.

_____

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

City, owner idle after EPA report’s unveiling

January 14,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


Officials awaiting analysis of results before acting on Hayes-Sammons site

MISSION — An Environmental Protection Agency report indicating chemical contamination levels at the old Hayes-Sammons site are more than 100 times above what the state allows drew little reaction Friday from city officials and the site’s owner.

The report, which sampled soil, buildings and air at the former pesticide manufacturing plant on Holland Avenue, was released Thursday.

Of 21 chemicals EPA contractors tested, 13 were found to be in concentrations higher than what the state deems safe for industrial sites. And four were at more than 100 times what the state designates as safe.

Mission’s mayor, city manager and the site’s owner all said they hadn’t made up their minds yet about what the results meant and that they were waiting for EPA officials to explain the report’s findings to them and make recommendations on what to do next.

"As far as upsetting, I can’t say it’s upsetting," Mission City Manager Julio Cerda said of the contamination findings. "Whatever recommendations come from them, I guess they’re the ones who should know what to do next, and we’ll follow their lead."

Mayor Beto Salinas said he trusts the EPA to do what is best for the city.

Thursday’s report did not include recommendations for how to clean up or otherwise handle the site. EPA officials have said they will make plans about what to do after gathering feedback from the public at an open meeting scheduled for Jan. 26 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission.

For now, neither the city nor site owner John Hinojosa says they have plans to block off the site or otherwise restrict public access.

Hinojosa keeps the site’s three buildings locked but has repeatedly expressed concerns about vandals and thieves. Graffiti covers the buildings, and Hinojosa says trailers and pieces of machinery have been stolen.

There is no fence around the property, and neighborhood residents say they regularly see children playing amid the weeds and trash that cover the cracked asphalt parking lot. The contaminated soil sampled in the report for the most part lies less than three feet from the surface.

Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector for industrial plants whom U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) has enlisted to help interpret the report, said people should exercise extreme caution around the property.

"I wouldn’t recommend anybody going on there unless they have full protective gear and breathing apparatus," said Carman, who is now director of the Sierra Club’s clean air program for Texas. "There should really be a fence around it."

Hinojosa said Carman’s warning did not trouble him.

"We’re here in this world and everything is contaminated, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear. They use chemicals for everything," he said. "When it’s your time, it’s your time."

_____

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Chemical plant report public

January 13,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — Four chemicals soaked into the soil at the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant are more than 100 times what the state calls safe for industrial sites, according to a long-awaited report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, soil at the plant contains concentrations of at least 13 chemical compounds that exceed levels the state deems safe for human exposure, according to the report released Thursday.

The several-hundred-page report, which includes lots of numbers but little analysis, culls data EPA contractors took in late August from the six-acre site. The contractors tested soil at different depths below the surface, vapors in above-ground storage tanks, air in two locations and swabs from inside three buildings. The testing was done to determine whether 21 pesticide chemical compounds known to have been present when the plant on Holland Avenue closed in 1972 still remained.

Although the plant sits across from homes, the EPA used the state standard for industrial contamination, not the stricter standard that applies to residential areas.

The EPA’s director on the project, Scott Harris, cautioned people not to assume the elevated chemical levels are necessarily hazardous.

"The number means nothing if you don’t know what the exposure is," said Harris, who is based in the Dallas area, during a telephone interview. "If you’re not exposed to something, it can’t hurt you."

Elected officials, community activists and neighborhood residents who claim to have suffered medical problems from chemical exposure hailed the report as long-delayed evidence that the site remained dangerously contaminated.

"All of this confirms the suspicion we’ve had that this is still a very toxic site," said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who distributed the report at a press conference at his McAllen office on North 15th Street.

But, Doggett said, the report does not answer the most important questions: whether the chemicals are present in dangerous levels in people who worked at the plant or lived nearby, and whether they caused serious medical problems and death.

"It looked at dirt. It didn’t look at people," Doggett said. Harris said it was not the report’s intent to measure chemical levels in people.

Doggett has been battling with EPA officials for some time now, pushing them first for testing and then to release the report they had originally promised for October. On Wednesday, EPA officials didn’t appear as if they would release the report this week, saying Doggett’s plans for a press conference Thursday wouldn’t affect their timeline. Yet, the EPA posted the report on its Web site the morning of Doggett’s press conference.

At the press conference, Doggett blasted the EPA for dragging its feet in releasing the report and reiterated prior calls for remediation of the site, further testing in surrounding neighborhoods and compensation for neighborhood residents.

The EPA also should do more testing of the air, said the congressman to a crowd of several dozen people who included lawyers involved in class action and other lawsuits regarding the site.

Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector whom Doggett brought to explain the report’s findings, described the findings as troubling and the testing as inadequate.

"These pesticides are known to interfere and block the hormone systems in the body," said Carman, who for 12 years inspected industrial plants for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and now heads the Clean Air Division for Sierra Club’s Texas division.

Carman said the on-site chemicals, which belong to a class called organochlorines, can cause serious reproductive, as well as pituitary and thyroid problems.

He said he trusted the data itself but criticized the EPA for only taking dust samples from the air on a single day, rather than over a longer period of time — possibly explaining why scientists did not find toxic amounts of chemicals in the dust they tested.

In the report, contractors reported a swab taken from the wood ceiling in one of the site’s buildings contains twice the maximum amount the state allows for toxaphene when it is found in soil. Toxaphene is a pesticide the EPA banned in 1990 because of studies that linked it to reproductive and central nervous system damage, among other ailments.

However, there is no official benchmark for toxaphene levels found in buildings, to adequately say whether the chemical’s presence in the wood is truly hazardous. The report noted the wood is unlikely to pose a threat to humans now, but that it could in the future if the building deteriorates further and bits of wood fall to the ground.

Neighborhood residents reacted emotionally to the results as presented to them at Doggett’s press conference. Several thanked Doggett profusely for his help and dedication and shared stories about themselves or family members who they say suffered cancers or other serious medical problems because of the chemical fumes coming from Hayes-Sammons.

Doggett said he intended to continue pressing the EPA for more action, including a cleanup. But he cautioned that it would be overly optimistic to expect much help from the agency, which he said has displayed a "conscious indifference" to environmental issues in recent years.

The EPA has promised to release a second report detailing its recommendations for site remediation within a few weeks. First, it will hold a community meeting soliciting feedback from community residents on Jan. 26, Harris said.

_____

Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Progress Times Election Summary

Here is a summary of candidates in this year's election cycle. You can read more at www.rgvlife.blogspot.com.

La Joya city secretary arraigned

January 07,2006 Marc B. Geller The Monitor

EDINBURG — La Joya’s city secretary is free after posting bond Friday following her arraignment earlier in the day on one count of tampering with a governmental record.
Julianita R. Sabala, 55, of La Joya, pleaded not guilty to the state jail felony during the morning arraignment before Judge Noe Gonzalez in 370th state District Court.

A grand jury out of the 275th state District Court indicted Sabala, a lifelong Hidalgo County resident, on Dec. 21 after it found she had signed the name of her daughter, a college student in Austin, to an application for a mail-in ballot for the city’s May 7 general election.

Sabala faces a jail term of 180 days to two years and a possible fine of up to $10,000 if convicted of the charge. She has retained attorney Felipe Garcia Jr., brother of Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, to handle her defense.

"Basically, there’s been no crime committed," Felipe Garcia Jr. said after the arraignment. "We’re looking forward to her day in court."

Prosecuting attorney Joseph Orendain did not return a message seeking comment.
Generally, tampering with a governmental record is a Class A misdemeanor, but the offense rises to the level of a state jail felony if the person’s intent is to defraud or harm someone.
Felipe Garcia Jr. said Sabala was acting "in an unofficial capacity," as a private citizen, when she signed her daughter’s name to the mail-in ballot application. He said his client immediately accepted responsibility for her action as soon as she realized she had done something wrong.
The revelation came when the ballot board for the city’s May 7 election decided that the signature on the carrier envelope in which the daughter mailed in her ballot did not match the signature on the mail-in ballot application the city previously received. Ultimately, the daughter’s vote wasn’t counted.

"They questioned the signature’s comparison, and she immediately told them, ‘Well, that’s because I signed it.’ She said, ‘I signed it because my daughter’s in Austin, and she wanted to vote, and I wanted her to vote, so she asked me to request (the mail-in ballot) for her, and I did.’"

State law prescribes that the city secretary is the early voting clerk for an election ordered by an authority of a city and is responsible for conducting the early voting in each of that city’s elections.

Sabala declined to comment after her arraignment, but attorney Garcia said his client had cooperated fully with the grand jury and anyone who questioned her about signing her daughter’s signature.

"I think that she must have believed in her heart that because it involved her child, and the child was requesting it, that it was all right," he said. "And I guess she realized later very quickly that it wasn’t, but she quickly let everybody know how it came about."

He said he would have liked to see some prosecutorial discretion exercised in Sabala’s favor and noted that one of the elements of the indictment is the claim that Sabala intended to defraud or harm the voters of La Joya.

"Well, clearly her only intent was that her daughter vote. Did she make a mistake? Yes. But is it a crime? I don’t believe so. And that’s basically the position we’re taking."

The grand jury’s indictment of Sabala came at the conclusion of a term that lasted more than five months and coincided with indictments of nine other people in connection with the McAllen general election. Among those were Othal Eugene Brand Jr., son of former five-term McAllen mayor Othal Brand Sr. and manager of the elder Brand’s mayoral campaign in that election.
"I don’t know if the timing is coincidental with anything," Felipe Garcia Jr. said of Sabala’s indictment. "But it certainly seems like the indictment was rather late in coming."

During the arraignment Friday, the attorney told the court that Sabala had never had any trouble with the law prior to her indictment and successfully lobbied for a personal recognizance bond, which the court set at $5,000. The court also permitted him to drive Sabala to the county jail for processing before she posted bond.

The case is set to go to trial Jan. 17.
———
Marc B. Geller covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4445

Winter Texans thwart suspect’s escape

January 07,2006 Cari Hammerstrom The Monitor
MISSION — If Bentsen Palm Village RV Park manager Star Weidman didn’t smoke, drink, eavesdrop and play poker, 20-year-old Humberto Garza might have pulled off the great escape.
At the intersection of Old Military Highway and Schuerbach Road on Thursday night — which is near the RV park — law enforcement agencies orchestrated a massive search for Garza, Roel Gonzalez and another fugitive from the law. The men had allegedly broken into a home in Pharr about 7:30 p.m. and then led police on a high-speed chase to the area near the park where they bailed out of the vehicle and ran away on foot.

Weidman, 58 and originally from upstate New York, said she was in the park’s clubhouse playing poker with her husband, Wally, and their friends when they heard the police sirens outside and saw a helicopter flying overhead, shining its bright spotlight into treelines and scrub.
The park residents figured police were searching for an illegal immigrant who had crossed the Rio Grande, she said, which is less than a mile away from the park.

So Weidman gingerly walked to the porch for a smoke. There, she recalled, she saw a young man sitting in one of the park’s large blonde-wood rocking chairs.

"He said real calm and collected, ‘You enjoying yourself tonight?’" she said.
The young man told her he was staying with his grandmother in the park. Weidman said she thought nothing of it. Wally then asked her to bring him a beer, so she drove the golf cart to their house, or "casita," at the back of the park and returned to the clubhouse, cold one in hand.
The young man was now inside the clubhouse, where residents sat around circular tables playing cards and dominoes. He flipped eagerly through a phone book, and seemed like he wanted the woman who was on the free phone to get off of it in a hurry.

"I heard him say his mom was staying here," Weidman said, instead of his grandmother as he had previously told her. She admitted to eavesdropping on his conversation.

Weidman became suspicious.

"He was only 19, 20, 21," she said. "And his stories didn’t match. That alerted me."
She quickly ran to a resident’s home — the resident is some kind of retired federal agent, she said, not wanting to reveal any more information — and he came to the clubhouse and started questioning the young man.

How did you get in? they asked.

Through the gate, he said.

So, what’s the combination? they asked.

Hmmm… he said.

The resident then asked the man for some identification and the man gave him his driver’s license. Garza was his last name. Weidman didn’t recall any Garza registered at the RV park.
"He was real cool, real calm. He was trying to blend," she said. But it didn’t work.

The resident sat the young man, later identified as Humberto Garza, in one of the chairs and called the police.

The tire tracks are still visible in the lawn where Mission police drove up to the clubhouse. The officers came inside, Weidman said, and handcuffed Garza.

He was one of the men police had been looking for all night long. It is highly unlikely they would have found him if it hadn’t been for the Weidmans’ intuition.

"Nobody even realized what was happening," she said. "I didn’t want to panic anybody."
But Ben and Janie Peek, who have only been at the resort for a few days, were outside when police arrived. Panicked they were.

"He said, ‘POLICE! Get inside and lock your doors,’ and he kept running," Peek said, remembering when an officer wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an AK-47 went running by him in the dark. "And I thought that was a wise idea,"

Most of the residents at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park did not even know the next day that their park manager helped police catch a fugitive, but once they do find out, Weidman will likely be hailed a hero.

"It’s part of the job," she said. "To keep residents happy."

Garza and Gonzalez, the other man police captured in a field that night, were each arraigned at Pharr Municipal Court Friday on one charge of aggravated robbery and evading arrest, said Pharr police spokesman Lt. Guadalupe Salinas. Their bonds were each set at a total of $1.05 million.

Police are still on the lookout for four suspects — three of whom escaped the robbery scene in a white Chevy Caprice.

Anyone with additional information on this case is asked to call Pharr Crime Stoppers at (956) 778-TIPS (8477).

McAllen-Mission Garden Club

The McAllen-Mission Garden Club meets at 9 am the second Wednesday of each month through May at the Mission Historical Museum, 900 Doherty. For more information on joining the Garden Club, call Jeanne Galloway at 581-3959.

Texas Citrus Fiesta Fun Run

Mission Parks and Recreation is now accepting registration for the Texas Citrus Fiesta Fun Run to be held at 7 a.m. Jan. 28. The race will start and finish at Tom Landry Stadium in Mission. Early registration will be $10 through Jan. 28 at 5 pm. To register early come by the Mission Parks and Recreation Building at 721 N. Bryan Rd. Late registration at the race will be $12 starting at 6 am. For more information, call 580-8760.

Mission AARP

Mission Chapter No. 3054 of AARP will meet at 6 pm. Thursday at Kika de la Garza Building, 921 E 12th St, for a potluck dinner. Guests are always welcome to join and learn more about AARP membership benefits. For more information, call P.H. King at 585-9937 or R. Furnia at 972-1705.

Woman killed in morning rollover; husband blamed

January 10,2006 Cari Hammerstrom The Monitor
MISSION — A husband has been charged in his wife’s death following a one-vehicle rollover Monday morning.

Noe Herrera, of Mission, was driving a 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer southbound on Bentsen Palm Drive near Farm-to-Market Road 2221 at about 8 a.m. when he ran off the road, overcorrected and went into a side skid toward a ditch, according to Texas Department of Public Safety trooper and spokesman Johnny Hernandez.

He and his wife, 26-year-old Esmeralda Herrera, had recently dropped their children off at school.

After the car hit the embankment, the TrailBlazer flipped once, hit a chain link fence and flipped again. The vehicle came to a rest upside down.

Mr. Herrera was wearing his seatbelt, but Mrs. Herrera was not, Hernandez said.
She was thrown from the vehicle and died as a result of her injuries.

Hernandez said excessive speed may have been a factor in the wreck; therefore, troopers charged Noe Herrera with criminal negligent manslaughter in connection with the death of his wife. He was also arrested on an unrelated warrant, Hernandez said.

Speed may have contributed to Mrs. Herrera’s death, but Hernandez also said her not wearing a seat belt was part of the problem.

"If she would have worn a safety belt, the outcome could have been different," he said.
Hernandez said he did not know what would happen with the couple’s children at this time.
———
Cari Hammerstrom covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4424.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mission Graduate Running for County Clerk

Recently, I had the good fortune of running into Balde Morales at an Hidalgo County Democrats event. I picked up one of the push cards and saw that he was a former Mission High School student. Obviously, he lived here. So, here is more information I got from the push card.


Education

  • Mission High School
  • University of Texas-Pan American
    • BBA-Finance
    • BA Political Science
    • MBA-Master of Business Administration

Experience

  • Hidalgo County Clerk-Courts Manager
  • Banking and financial institution
  • Home Construction Business
  • Adjunct Professor-South Texas College

Community Involvement

  • Sharyland Lion's Club
  • NSHMBA (National Society of Hispanic MBAs)
  • Baptist Temple McAllen, Texas.

Balde may be one of those former residents worth watching. No doubt he has accomplished much and will continue to do more.