Full map Crash with one or more injuries. Crash with no injuries.
Braylon Nelson is one of the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet. Like any other 2-year-old boy with an insatiable curiosity, he asks a million questions and loves stories. When I visited him, a 400-page book of fairy tales was on his bed near the medical equipment that helps him breathe and eat.
Braylon’s father was driving him home from daycare last year when a Ford F-150 crashed into their small Saturn SL2. Witnesses said the truck driver had been speeding during a dispute with another motorist, and police blamed the accident on road rage.
The Nelsons had nothing to do with the altercation, but Braylon was paralyzed from the neck down.
That’s according to a public database of every vehicle accident in the state. The information comes from police accident reports, known as CR-3 forms, and are compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation in a massive database called the Crash Records Information System.
Why does Bexar County have so many road rage crashes? It’s unclear whether we have more angry drivers, or whether San Antonio police are more apt to cite road rage than officers in other jurisdictions.
When I met with police officials about these statistics, they said they couldn’t comment on the reporting practices in other cities. But about 12 years ago they recognized San Antonio had a growing problem with aggressive drivers, and police started a program in which officers drive in unmarked cars to catch speeders, tailgaters, and other unsafe motorists like the ones accused of paralyzing Braylon.
I’ve seen some crazy drivers in San Antonio, and when I was working on this story, it seemed like every day I saw someone driving like a maniac.
If you want to learn more about road rage, you can check out the data for yourself in this interactive map that shows crashes in your neighborhood. You can also download the raw numbers here.
Veteran observers of San Antonio politics experienced a deja vu moment the other night when a familiar story graced their TV screens. WOAI Trouble Shooter Brian Collister told viewers that Bexar County judges are using a flawed process to appoint lawyers to indigent defendants. If this story rings a bell, it should — Collister broke a similar story in 2002 about then County-Court-at-Law Judge M’Liss Christian giving David Garcia, a lawyer and city councilman at the time, most of Garcia’s indigent defense work at the courthouse.
This was an interesting fact, considering how Christian and Garcia were rumored to be a romantic item.
In 2002, the Express-News and other San Antonio news organizations scrambled to keep up with Collister’s bombshell coverage of Christian and Garcia. But for this more recent court story, Collister did something weird — the hyper competitive TV reporter asked if the Express-News wanted to team up.
It was an important story. If you’re poor and accused of a crime in Texas, you’re entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. That lawyer is supposed to be randomly appointed to your case from a rotating pool of eligible lawyers. But in Bexar County, judges were appointing hundreds of lawyers who weren’t even on the approved list, and a small number of lawyers had amassed the most work and income.
The state report obtained by Chasnoff did not identify the lawyers who got the most work. But Collister had already obtained a county database that named names. It identified the lawyers receiving court appointments; how much they were paid; and the judges that gave out the work. A handful of attorneys were making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This is where things get interesting.
In the old days, Collister would have done his own story in an effort to compete with the Express-News. But times have changed in journalism. There are fewer warm bodies in newsrooms, and while there’s still heated competition between news organizations in Texas, there’s also a new willingness to pool resources, collaborate on stories, and reach wider audiences.
So Collister approached the Express-News and asked if it wanted to team up for a detailed story about court-appointed lawyers.
“The idea was, ‘You have a piece of the puzzle, I have a piece of the puzzle. Let’s work together and make a better story,’” Collister told me. “The days of there being cutthroat competition, to a point, are over.”
It was an odd sight watching Collister hanging out in the Express-News, hovering over Chasnoff’s desk and collaborating like it was the most natural thing in the world.
I asked Chasnoff what it was like working with Collister. Chasnoff said he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t encounter the heavy handed reporter on TV who shoves fuzzy microphones in people’s faces during ambush interviews. Collister had good ideas, and his court data saved Chasnoff a lot of time. Before they teamed up, Chasnoff had requested similar data from the county, so partnering with Collister meant Chasnoff didn’t have to waste time waiting for the information. “He had the goods,” Chasnoff said.
The top earner, lawyer Hilda Valadez, earned more than $400,000 in the past three years, hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the average court-appointed attorney.
In at least one courtroom, the inequity appears rooted in cronyism. Attorney Edward Adams, who contributed the most in the past year to the failed re-election campaign of County Court Judge Monica Guerrero, also was appointed the most cases and earned by far the most money in Guerrero’s court in the past three years.
Both news organizations brought different strengths to the table. WOAI told the story with pictures and audio, while the newspaper story went into greater depth and detail. Collister said he was pleased by the long, nuanced newspaper article. In most TV stories, he has to leave a lot of good material on the cutting room floor — that’s the nature of the beast in TV news, which is always crunched for time. So it was nice to have the newspaper story include points that he didn’t have a chance to air.
“To see it all get out there is just really gratifying,” Collister said.
I like news scoops as much as the next guy. But I’m starting to warm up to the notion that there’s a benefit to teaming up, every once in awhile, with other news organizations to pool resources and reach a broader audience.
Even after the stories ran, the teamwork between Collister and Chasnoff continued. The stories generated interesting tips from readers and viewers. Chasnoff said he and Collister have been sharing tips, and they might work on follow-up stories together.
“His attitude is, we stay unified,” Chasnoff said, “and we push the story forward.”
Construction workers on the River Walk's Mission Reach
Our latest story about the stimulus is about how much federal money is flowing to Bexar County, what kind of projects are being funded, and what will the lasting impact be?
Stimulus money is fixing headstones at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, building new playgrounds, painting buildings at Lackland AFB, paying for 50 new police officers and reshaping the San Antonio River.
It’s funding high-profile projects that will benefit future generations — and paying for obscure work that hardly will be noticed.
Sometimes, it feels like the biggest beneficiaries of the Recovery Act are companies that make the outlandishly sized checks for ribbon-cuttings, where politicians frequently take credit for stimulus projects.
But behind the photo ops are a large number of companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations that were awarded 775 grants and contracts in Bexar County worth more than $850 million, according to spending reports released last week by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Another $60 million in stimulus money is being loaned to local businesses.
We’ve been spending a few months examining the local impact of the Recovery Act — past stories are here and here. I’ve also been bookmarking useful resources through Diigo — feel free to check out my real-time list of handy websites.
For the latest story, we mostly relied on data you can download directly from Recovery.gov, the website of the Recovery Board. The data doesn’t have a “county” category, but you can match the zip code of each award with the zip codes of your county. If you’re simply interested in seeing what kind of stimulus projects are being funded in your county or neighborhood, the Recovery Board offers an interactive map that lets you drill down to the street level. Each stimulus project shows up as a dot — click on it to learn more details.
Hand it to Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson — his feud with the Texas Attorney General and the San Antonio Express-News is, at the very least, exposing a flaw in the state’s open-records law.
Adkisson doesn’t want to release private e-mails in which he discussed public business. The attorney general’s office told him he has to release the e-mails. However, there’s an important caveat: Adkisson is the one who’s responsible for identifying the e-mails that pertain to the public’s business.
Adkisson. The guy who doesn’t want to give up any e-mails. He’s the one who’s supposed to go through his Hotmail account or whatever and turn over copies of e-mails that can be deleted with a mouse click.
In related news, a public interest group, the Corrupt Regime of Associated Politicians (C.R.A.P.) announced today that they’ll be conducting all business on Yahoo! e-mail accounts.
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson refuses to comply with a Texas attorney general’s ruling that ordered him to release e-mails in his private accounts that contain public information. This week he instructed the Bexar County district attorney’s office to sue the AG.
The San Antonio Express-News submitted an open-records request under the Texas Public Information Act on Feb. 17, seeking all e-mails between Adkisson and grass-roots toll opponent Terri Hall regarding business of Bexar County and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, of which Adkisson is chairman.
The request sought e-mail correspondence from Adkisson’s county-provided e-mail address as well as from two private accounts he maintains. The newspaper is seeking the e-mails because they would offer insight into Adkisson’s management style at the MPO.
The story raises two issues that ought to trouble open-records advocates:
One is that public officials are keenly aware that their government e-mails are public documents, and they are turning to private e-mail accounts to conduct government business.
The other is Adkisson’s explanation for seeking to withhold his e-mails from the newspaper: He believes the Express-News is biased and has a pro-toll road agenda.
Even if Adkisson’s claim were true, the point is irrelevant when it comes to public information. In Texas, a government record is either public, or it isn’t. In order for an agency to withhold a record, it must cite a legal exemption. For example, a section of the Texas Public Information Act says investigative files of law enforcement agencies don’t have to be made public.
The motives of the person requesting the information has no bearing on whether a document is public. In fact, under the law, officials aren’t even supposed to ask why someone wants the information. Otherwise, government officials could withhold everything from the public simply by saying they don’t trust the people asking for the information. Or they could play favorites and give information to preferred journalists and bloggers.
So now the county is going to spend taxpayer money on a legal effort to withhold information from taxpayers. Maybe Josh can find out how much money the county will spend on the case — assuming no one questions his motives for asking.
A few months ago reporter Karisa King got a tip that Michael Amezquita’s job was in danger. Amezquita is the chief appraiser for the Bexar County Appraisal District, the agency that appraises the value of all property in the county, which affects the tax bills of landowners.
Except not all landowners pay property taxes. Case in point: Some nonprofit housing developers get tax breaks under a program to provide affordable housing to the poor.
Amezquita claimed some developers weren’t fulfilling their end of the bargain. “They rent to poor people, but they’re not giving them a break in the rent,” Amezquita said. He revoked the tax exemption status for 42 housing developments, sparking an outcry from developers who claimed Amezquita was out of line. Some board members of the appraisal district sided with the developers.
Karisa’s first story about the conflict ran in April. It was a good primer on the controversy, but Karisa didn’t have much information about the housing developers benefiting from the tax exemptions.
“That begged the question, what’s going on with these housing groups?” Karisa told me when I asked her how she got involved in the story.
So for the next eight weeks, Karisa dived into the arcane world of government housing programs for the poor. The results of what she learned appeared on Sunday’s front page this week: A nonprofit organization called American Opportunity had applied for the most exemptions last year in Bexar County — 22 apartment complexes that could save $4.8 million in taxes in return for providing affordable rent for poor families.
But Karisa learned that Texas sets no caps on the amount of rent that can be charged. She learned American Opportunity, chaired by developer David Starr, was often charging families rents that were higher than they could afford:
To meet financing requirements for some properties, American Opportunity rents to many low-income families. But the state law that created the exemption imposed no rent limits, allowing the group to charge more than fair-market rent and caps used in other affordable housing programs.
Loopholes in state laws and a lack of oversight mean nonprofit groups can exploit the tax incentive without providing housing that is affordable for low-income people.
Struggling families paid as much as $1,040 a month in rent last year for a three-bedroom apartment. For some, making the rent means skimping on groceries, turning off the air conditioning and pinching other basic needs, the kind of hardship that affordable housing is supposed to relieve.
Meanwhile, American Opportunity paid $1.1 million to private companies run by Starr and his family in 2008.
“I learned a whole lot about the world of affordable housing,” Karisa said. “How important it is when lawmakers create these kinds of exemptions to tie it to some kind of test — something that allows you to test whether or not there’s a real public benefit that’s gained.”
For students, bloggers and journalists who look into a complicated topic like this, Karisa said the best thing to do is figure out what kind of documentation exists and then get your hands on it. In this case, Karisa wanted to find out if low-income tenants were truly paying affordable rents. She learned about public reports that showed many tenants were actually paying market-rate rents.
“I totally would not have had any story if there hadn’t been those records,” Karisa said. “It hinges on the documentation.”
One of the cool features of Bexar County’s digital archive is that you can do crazy keyword searches for people like “David Crockett” and other historic figures in San Antonio to discover deeds and other public records filed in their name. Some of these records document important events in the city’s history.
Out of curiosity, I ran a search for “Daughters of the Republic of Texas” and sorted the results by date to look for deeds filed in 1905, when the nonprofit group became the custodians of the Alamo.
I found this deed describing how the Daughters, with the financial help of Texas lawmakers and wealthy benefactor Clara Driscoll, had paid $75,000 to the merchants who owned the Long Barrack on the Alamo grounds. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.8 million in today’s dollars.
The deed says the Daughters were incorporated for “the patriotic purpose of acquiring historic ground and perpetuating the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved and maintained the independence of Texas and cherishing and preserving the unity of Texas.” The deed describes how the Daughters released the property to the state of Texas. The state owns the Alamo; the Daughters take care of it.
If you’re a history buff, you could enjoy hours of nerdy fun finding these kinds of primary documents.
Notice how this record is just a piece of the story. Clara Driscoll helped save the Alamo’s Long Barrack by opening her pocketbook, so her name is in the deed. But there’s no mention of Adina De Zavala, who persuaded Driscoll to join the cause of preserving the Alamo, and later famously clashed with Driscoll about what to do with it.
For tips about looking up historical records on the county’s Web site, there’s a FAQ page that offers search tips, and I blogged here about some pointers.
Thanks for the great feedback about the history of my 85-year-old house. Brian Chasnoff told me he spent an hour looking up records for his own house. But Brian and another blog visitor who e-mailed me said they had trouble using Bexar County’s Web page set up by County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff to look up public records. Here are a few tips to get started.
When you visit the site, you have to register for free. Once that’s done you can log in and you’ll see this intro page:
The old but well-constructed houses in my neighborhood near Woodlawn Lake have always interested me. The homes are all different — my house is stucco, while my neighbor’s house is brick. But they share stylistic touches, like the tiny octangular bathroom tiles, the smooth fireplaces, and the phone nooks built in the walls. There must have been a skilled builder who constructed a wide variety of homes in my neighborhood that all bore his subtle signature.
My cousin and his girlfriend were in town this weekend. (This is my cousin — John Gronbeck-Tedesco. The Tedesco clan calls him “Primo.”) While I schooled them in a game of Texas hold ‘em, we talked about the neighborhood, which was developed in the 1920s. I mentioned we can look up the historic deeds to the properties on the county’s Web site. Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff set up a free, searchable archive of digitized public records that go back to the 1800s.
This morning Primo and I hopped online and we found a pdf of the original deed to my house, written in 1925. The home was sold by Busby Building Corp. to G.A. Wiegand:
Someone named L.S. Busby owned Busby Building Corp., so he’s the guy who built my cool house. Or at least he bossed around the people who built it. We found other deeds with his name on other properties around here. Busby was most likely the person who put his personal touch on this unique neighborhood.
The deed states that Wiegand paid Busby’s company $2,857.95 in cash up front. It looks like Wiegand also got a loan of $5,142.05 for the house. $142.05 went to the Uvalde Rock Asphalt Co. to pay for the construction of the street — West Summit. The remaining $5,000 of the loan was to be repaid at 8 percent interest.
So the price tag of the house and property came out to $8,142.05. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you adjust that amount for inflation, it’s nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars. This was a nice neighborhood — one of the first suburbs of San Antonio.
If you know San Antonio, then you know that historically, the city grew along racial lines. Most black residents lived on the East Side. Most Hispanic residents lived on the South and West side. And most White residents lived on the North side.
This pattern didn’t occur by accident, as the 1925 deed to my house shows:
There’s a deed restriction that says the homeowner is prohibited from selling or leasing the house to black people. The deed goes on to say that if this prohibition is violated, the owner can lose the house.
I was aware racial deed restrictions were the norm back then. It’s mind-blowing to read it in black-and-white in a deed tied to a property I own today.
Primo got his doctorate in American Studies and he told me about a 1948 Supreme Court case that ended deed restrictions based on race: Shelley v. Kraemer. The lawyer who won the case? Thurgood Marshall.