OPINION — The opening moments of Tuesday’s San Angelo City Council meeting were weird, and there were a few moving parts in how this happened. Let me explain.
The show began when former City of San Angelo Development Corporation Vice Chair John Bariou, with his long white beard and businesslike red Christmas attire, staged his grand comeback – not for money, mind you, but for the sheer thrill of civic engagement.
He went in front of the council and delivered an ultimatum and a threat. Bariou was not re-appointed to COSA-DC back in February 2023 and has since been plotting his next big move. The crazy thing is that Bariou makes no money off of his efforts. The mayor doesn’t make much more considering all of the time and abuse. The City pays her $4,200 per year.
Bariou claimed that the city was supposed to be a city manager-city council centric form of government, as set forth in San Angelo’s ordinances. Instead, he alleged, the city has become a strong mayor form of government because the mayor directs everything. Let’s watch:
What Bariou alleges without mentioning names is that Mayor Brenda Gunter rules the City with an iron fist, overshadowing the leadership of City Manager Daniel Valenzuela, and subjectively, this is against the city charter. In Bariou’s mind, an example of a strong mayor form of city government that works as designed and is legally that way is the City of Houston where Mayor Sylvester Turner rules Houston, with a much larger salary and responsibilities than a city manager would have in any other Texas city.
As a side note, Turner’s term is almost up, and guess who is running to replace him? Sheila Jackson Lee, the congresswoman who was caught on tape cussing out a staffer. That staffer was later found dead. She also has compared the Tea Party Movement to the Ku Klux Klan. And, even though she represents the city where the NASA Space Center is located, she once asked if the Mars Pathfinder robot had taken a picture of the US flag left there by Astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969. The flag was planted on the Moon, not Mars.
Gunter is no Sheila Jackson Lee or Sylvester Turner. In fact, she is the opposite. She’s smart and generally pretty conservative and knows the difference between Mars and the Moon. Gunter has pushed for bigger tax cuts than the council would agree to. In 2021, after she declared that taxpayers have been screwed over for years and deserve a big property tax break, the city manager whispered to her, and by the next meeting, she demurred, praising government workers who were underpaid. Gunter’s desire for deeper tax cuts was juxtaposed against city employee pay raises — and the payroll is the biggest piece of the general revenue budget. Despite her iron fist ways, she walked back her lower tax rhetoric to tend to the needs of city workers because the city manager made a convincing argument that the City was 30-40 percent undermanned and recruitment during the trans-post COVID environment was miserably bad.
Bariou is beside himself because Gunter opposed his tenure on COSA-DC where, towards the end of his public service there, and before he was not asked to return, he alleged a financial scheme that would make Ponzi blush, where the city was overcharging the half-cent sales tax pot of money to the tune of over $300,000 a year to prop up salaries of the top managers at the city. Of course, the city staff denies this, why wouldn’t they? Yet, since the demise of Bariou’s term on COSA-DC, no one has seriously looked into the financial tricks used to tap economic development funds for higher pay for city bosses. Bariou was replaced by Gunter’s lap dog, Rick Mantooth, whose entire existence on earth is defined by a giant sucking sound, or kissing sound. Choose your metaphor.
Now, Bariou has returned to demand Gunter stop being the mayor and instead fold back into the background and let City Manager Valenzuela call the shots with council approval. Hyperbole doesn’t begin to describe Bariou’s demands and the dreadful consequences. Let’s watch some more:
Bariou basically claims that he has a multitude of citizen activists who stand ready to conduct a recall election if the “council-manager” form of government doesn’t emerge before January 1, 2024. Bariou's deadline for this governmental makeover is just around the corner, and transforming San Angelo's governance in five weeks is like asking Santa to slim down by Christmas Eve.
Bariou will need to exert significant effort to gather enough signatures for a recall election of the mayor. The City charter requires that the recall petition be signed in front of the person collecting the signatures and that person must notarize the sheet. You can’t just post a petition on the bulletin board at H-E-B or conduct a change.org online petition. The petition sheets have to be supplied by the city clerk and are officially numbered, too. The signors of the petition have to supply their address, date of birth, and voter identification number.
Under these strict requirements, which resemble a bureaucratic obstacle course rather than a recall petition, obtaining enough signatures to amount to 30 percent of the number of votes cast in the 2021 mayoral election means Bariou and his hidden army of activists have to get about 1,803 signatures — there were 6,009 votes cast in the 2021 mayoral election. Folks, that’s a bunch of signatures to collect! I’ll go ahead and make the prediction that Bariou will fall short.
A recall petition isn’t the problem. Rather, it is the perception this side show at Tuesday's council meeting can make among casual observers of city government.
Bariou’s declaration can be interpreted as a default judgment, so to speak, allowing many to assume the worst of our elected leaders and the city manager’s staff. If Santa Claus says you are corrupt, well, you must be corrupt until proven otherwise.
City Manager Daniel Valenzuela tried to answer Bariou’s allegations, declaring that the institution he leads — with or without Mayor Brenda Gunter — is not corrupt.
Valenzuela is right. The city does touch many parts of everyday life in San Angelo — including water, municipal court, public safety, parks, basketball leagues, and even entertainment venues. And, like most local governments swirling around in post-COVID cash, the city does have a healthy fund balance.
San Angeloans should pay particularly close attention when Valenzuela suggested that indiscriminately firing the mayor or council members is not a solution to anything. I couldn’t agree more. Not because I love politicians but because I have no visibility into whom Bariou plans to replace Mayor Gunter with. I mean, the last time Gunter ran for mayor, she was opposed by who Fred Contrares, head of the Pachyderm Club, claimed was a “stripper." Has Bariou been to Desiree's yet in search of Gunter’s replacement? I must know that answer before I jump "all-in" on the recall effort. Recall ‘em all is a great slogan until you ask the next question: with whom do we replace our mayor?
Here’s how the mayor responded to Bariou’s assault:
Gunter, under fire for just about everything, interrupted the Bariou controversy to proclaim that she doesn’t want police to write more tickets and she wanted to solve the canine chaos on Jackson Street. It was almost surreal unless you understand Gunter. Her remarks were intended to show that she was ignoring Bariou. If you’ve watched her at city council for any length of time, you’d have to chuckle.
I watched the budget session when Gunter inquired as to why the revenue from municipal court was trending downward over a number of years. She asked a legitimate question. The police union (that doesn’t want to be called a union), called the San Angelo Police Officers’ Coalition (SAPOC), pounced and declared that Gunter was asking police to break the law and meet ticket-writing quotas. The background of SAPOC’s protest was that at the time, the city manager and SAPOC were deadlocked in salary negotiations. Publicly advertising the misinterpretation of Gunter’s ticket-writing remarks was swirling around in their effort to get more money for police from the taxpayers.
Still, voters were concerned about their chances of paying for more traffic tickets. The answer we have from the police department is that the department maximizes the use of warnings and does not have a reduction in citizen engagements. Tickets are used less often, and of course, the police department is monitoring traffic safety, which is, they say, doing fine. Okay. We can go along with that because no one wants a $200 traffic ticket for traveling 37 mph in a 35 mph zone.
What the police would not say on the record is that the 2020 BLM riots have somewhat subdued policing not just in San Angelo but everywhere. No police officer wants to be accused of doing something “politically incorrect,” and police also desire for the citizens to love them again. Fewer traffic tickets are the trade for better goodwill. When was the last time Police Chief Frank Carter unleashed the radar cops on the overpass of the Houston Harte expressway? I don’t fault the mayor for asking the question. No one else on council was brave enough to ask that question, and it was a pretty good one!
But the police thing had nothing to do with Bariou. And that was the mayor’s point. She was saying she had more important issues to worry about than Bariou’s ‘consequences.’ After all, big mean dogs are eating little dogs on Jackson Street, and we need to solve that problem, she also proclaimed.
The biggest news of this weird exchange at council on Tuesday came from Councilman Tom Thompson. He asked City Attorney Theresa James if Mayor Gunter could run for a third term even though San Angelo City Council members and the mayor are term-limited to two four-year terms.
Mayor Gunter’s term is up in May 2025. What Thompson’s purpose may have been was to warn Bariou and his (so far invisible) army of activists standing at the ready with recall petitions that Gunter could resign as mayor days prior to her current term and run for what could effectively be a third term. I highly doubt Gunter would do that. But Thompson was playing chess while Bariou was waiting for someone to make the next move in his game of checkers.