Image ©John Branch for the Rivard Report, 2017.

I felt like Rip Van Winkle when I emerged from the fog of spinal surgery and a too-long hospital stay, only to find a different world than the one I left behind on Valentine’s Day.

Van Winkle, the invention of Washington Irving, lived in a small Dutch settlement in the Catskills outside New York City at the time of the Revolutionary War. The unambitious villager wandered off one day and fell asleep under a tree. He awoke 20 years later to a different world.

My departure from reality was less than 20 days, but someone must have thought it would be amusing to have me wake up to Fox News playing on the television in my hospital room after several days of a morphine-induced haze.

The headlines focused on President Trump’s speech in Florida the previous evening, sounding the alarm that his administration would never allow “what’s happening last night in Sweden” to happen here.

What catastrophe had struck Sweden? I reached for my iPad, and buzzed my on-duty nurse. “What do you mean, what happened in Sweden?” she asked, giving me an odd look and checking my IV drip. It took a while to learn that nothing had happened in Sweden. Fake news.

Yet plenty had happened at home as I began a chronological online journey through my lost days.

The esteemed Ricardo Romo, president of my alma mater UTSA who was mere months away from what promised to be a celebrated retirement, had been placed on administrative leave “pending a review of allegations related to his conduct” on the very day of my surgery.

“It is my duty to inform you that University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo has been placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, pending a review of allegations related to his conduct,” UT System Chancellor William McRaven wrote in a Feb. 14 email. Retired U.S. Navy Adm. McRaven, who led the U.S. Special Operations Command before taking the top job at UT, owes the public more than that.

Your duty, Mr. Chancellor? This isn’t the military relieving an officer of command. Romo is the president of the system’s fastest-growing campus. What about your duty to the taxpayers and the tens of thousands of students, faculty, and administrators at UTSA? It might be a “personnel matter” to litigation-sensitive university officials, but Romo is a public figure whose reputation is tied closely to that of the university.

McRaven is the decorated former commander of the Navy SEALs who oversaw the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Some months ago, I called his office to seek comment for a story about informal discussions of a possible merger between UTSA and UT-Health San Antonio, a bold proposition which would put the combined university on the same footing as UT-Austin and the new Dell Medical School. It was a proposition that generated considerable local support and opposition as it was discussed outside of public hearing.

McRaven’s media and external relations director, Jenny LaCoste Caputo, a former Express-News education writer and editor hired during my tenure as editor at the newspaper, took my phone number, but I never heard back from McRaven on a story that continues to be of particular importance to San Antonio.

UT might be a taxpayer-supported university system, but it often operates without public accountability when faced with sensitive situations where transparency would generate greater public confidence and a sense of fairness to all involved. For Romo, who has served in his position since 1999 and elevated UTSA far above where it stood back then, tough luck.

(Disclosure: I am not a bystander to Romo’s legacy. Monika Maeckle, my wife, and I chaired the annual Great Conversation fundraiser for UTSA’s Honors College some years ago. It coincided with Romo’s 10th anniversary as president. We led an additional fundraising effort to endow a chair in Romo’s name.)

Romo wasn’t the only surprise headline as I played catch-up. Two days after his suspension of duties, a handcuffed Olga Hernandez, a longtime school board trustee in the San Antonio Independent School District, was arraigned on criminal charges of accepting cash, jewelry, and free travel from contractors seeking insurance business from SAISD. The charge covers a six-year period from 2009-2015.

I live in the district and have watched it closely for some years. I was unsurprised by charges of public corruption; what baffled me is that the charges came now, two years into the administration of Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who is leading impressive reform efforts in the district.

In contrast to UT, the SAISD board under President Patti Radle acted swiftly and openly to accept Hernandez’s resignation and invite the community to a second public meeting to discuss options for replacing her. In the end, it was agreed that the district will take applications for the vacant District 6 seat and its two-year unexpired term.

In the case of SAISD, crisis should become opportunity. Hernandez was the school board’s second longest-serving member and its most ardent defender of a deeply entrenched culture where trustees long have meddled in everything from selection of principals and teachers to awarding lucrative contracts.

FBI and IRS agents were busy elsewhere in the city last week raiding the law offices of State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio). It’s a complex story first reported by the Express-News and summarized in this Texas Tribune article. The federal investigation is said to focus on Uresti’s financial involvement in FourWinds Logistics, a now-bankrupt fracking sand company. The newspaper’s investigation also uncovered allegations that Uresti, a personal injury attorney, advised clients to invest in FourWinds without disclosing that he had a financial interest in the company. One client allegedly lost most of a $900,000 wrongful-death settlement by following Uresti’s advice, unaware that he earned a 10% commission on her investment at the same time he was representing her in the lawsuit.

If the Hernandez and Uresti developments were not enough to sustain local news reports, Mayor Ivy Taylor provided additional drama on Feb. 17 with a late Friday email to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, effectively killing a decade-long process to seek an operator for the new fleet of electric River Walk barges in time for the city’s Tricentennial celebrations in May 2018.

In the email, Taylor questioned the integrity of the process undertaken by Sculley’s staff in reviewing and grading the bids of the four finalists. The top finisher, San Antonio River Cruises, which is owned by Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises, was represented by attorney and former mayor Phil Hardberger.

The distance between the mayor’s office and the city manager’s office can be covered on foot in seconds, but in a campaign season where she is facing a re-election challenge from City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina, the mayor opted for email instead, which was then released to the media.

Sculley, who lives a short walk south of City Hall, must have thought the formal work week was over until she arrived home and checked her email. Instead she spent the weekend with staff crafting her own written reply to the mayor, which also was released to the media by someone on the chain. That finally led to the release of the entire back and forth sequence.

San Antonio is arguably the best-managed city in the country with its city manager form of government. Under Sculley’s decade-long time here, conservative fiscal management and a devotion to ethical conduct have been the hallmarks of her administration.

In a city without term limits, Hardberger might still be mayor. Instead, he stepped down after four years in office from 2005-2009, revered by citizens as a folksy wiseman who got things done and made San Antonio a better city. That included opening the city’s gates to thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims just as he completed the recruitment of Sculley from Phoenix.

All to say that Sculley and Hardberger make for very small targets on inferences of unethical conduct or acting without fairness and transparency. From my view, few were buying the mayor’s purported reasons for an eleventh-hour maneuver to prevent Entertainment Cruises from winning the contract and instead breathing new life into the other finalists, all of whom are local bidders.

The City will now repeat the process and allow the same bidders and any newcomers to enter the fray. Such delays cost money but win votes, and it would not surprise me to see members of City Council ignore staff’s professional assessments and – in this election season with their own seats on the line – vote in favor of the mayor’s choice.

Too bad. We talk a good game about becoming a bigger, better, more sophisticated city, but when push comes to shove, it’s business as usual. Entertainment Cruises, the largest dining cruise company in the country with operations in at least nine cities, is owned by the Pritzker family, one of the wealthiest in the country. The Pritzkers control Hyatt Hotels, invest in a wide array of manufacturing businesses and in historic conservation in their home city of Chicago, and fund the Pritzker Prize, the highest architecture award in the land.

Who knows what could come of the Pritzkers making a deeper investment in San Antonio beyond the existing Hyatt Regency or Grand Hyatt?

It could still happen. City Council will accept new bids in March and city staff will have until the end of April to grade them. A vote should come in May. The May 6 General Election ballot includes the mayoral race, all 10 City Council seats, and the landmark $850 million municipal bond. The river barge contract is now a campaign issue and, inevitably, a wedge that has been driven into the relationship between Taylor and Sculley.

That relationship is a symbiotic one. Like marriage, it depends on a foundation of mutual trust and goodwill. Public governance by email is a poor substitute. For me, it was quite the wake-up call.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Olga Hernandez was the longest-tenured SAISD trustee. James Howard is the longest-serving member with 18 years, Hernandez second with 11 years. 

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.