Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ahumada: City commissioners cut DHS border fence deal behind my back

Rio Grande Guardian
February 7, 2009
by Steve Taylor

AUSTIN, February 7 - Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada has accused city commissioners of cutting a deal behind his back with the Department of Homeland Security to allow a temporary border fence to be built in the city.

Ahumada is urging opponents of the border wall to “make their voices heard” at a hearing next Thursday when the issue will be discussed. The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. in the city chambers.

“Discussion and negotiations were held with DHS representatives without my participation or knowledge. I have found out about these discussions by repeatedly asking to be kept informed,” Ahumada told the Guardian.

“I am urging all patriots to attend next Thursday’s hearing to make sure their voice is heard by the city commission and DHS.”

Ahumada said he is concerned that much of the discussions at Thursday’s meeting will be held behind closed doors, thereby curtailing public involvement.

“The item will be discussed in executive session but will have to be acted on during the public session. I, for one, believe that this subject matter should be discussed entirely in open session,” he said.

Details of the exact location of the temporary border fence have not been made public. Ahumada said he understands the agreement between the City and DHS would allow for the removal of a temporary border fence in specific areas once the City has completed certain economic development projects.

“Based on the information received, this agreement would return title and possession of this property to the City upon removal of the fence. It was stated that the federal government gained title to this property through condemnation proceedings filed on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security,” Ahumada said.

“Neither the citizens of Brownsville nor I had previously been informed that the federal government had gained title to any city property, information which obviously was withheld by this commission and city management who, it appears, allowed this to happen through continued secret negotiations with DHS.”

Ahumada said such a move runs counter to the strong opposition to the border fence plan voiced by Brownsville residents at a public meeting on July 1, 2008.

Brownsville Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Atkinson and City Manager Charlie Cabler defended their role in the DHS negotiations in exclusive interviews with the Guardian during Brownsville Day at the state Capitol earlier this week.

“DHS has met with the city manager,” Atkinson confirmed. “Basically, they laid it on the line. Either we put up a permanent fence or you come up with another option.”

Atkinson said he and other city commissioners had no alternative but to come up with another option.

“We are trying to build our East Loop that goes from Veterans Bridge to the Port of Brownsville to get the trucks out of the inner city. They (DHS) have conceded to us that we can have a temporary fence. They (DHS) said once you have built the East Loop you can take it (the border fence) out. They will put that in writing to us.”

The alternative, Atkinson said, was stark. “DHS builds a permanent fence and they take the land. Those are the only two options we have.”

Atkinson said he “appreciates” the concerns of Brownsville residents opposed to the border fence.

“Nobody wants a fence in Brownsville. Nobody does. But when the federal government has you the way they have you, you have got to work with what you have. That’s what we are trying to do,” Atkinson said.

“I know the mayor stands on the border and says gimme no fence, I want no fence, but we have been lucky to talk to DHS and keep them away from Brownsville for this long.”

Atkinson said other border cities that did not negotiate with DHS have not fared as well as Brownsville. He cited Eagle Pass, where a border fence has already been built. “All those cities that fought against the fence got the fence first. It’s like the federal government says, ‘Oh, you want to fight against me, bam’.”

City Manager Cabler agreed. “We are the last location for them (DHS) to identify the fence and where they are going to put it. They have already done that. We need to, through the city commission, get people to understand whether you want this or you want that,” he said.

Cabler explained how the negotiations with DHS transpired.

“We have negotiated with Homeland Security for the last few years. The last meeting we had, they made clear to us that have ownership of the property already. Not possession, but ownership. There’s a difference, right? Possession is nine tenths of the law,” Cabler said.

“Our negotiations with them have been to find a way for us not to lose the property for ever. They then introduced the idea of having some type of a temporary barrier or fence, probably a fence.”

Cabler explained that the border fence would come down once one or two key economic development projects start.

“We need to decide on two issues,” Cabler said. “We say no and we lose a property, they (DHS) say forever, because once the federal government takes a property it’s gone or we agree to a temporary fence that can be removed at the time we are ready to do construction, either the downtown revitalization project or the East Loop project.”

Ahumada questioned what guarantees the City has that DHS will honor any agreement to remove the fence at some point in the future. “Given the current state of the economy and the exorbitant cost of the construction of the border wall, does it make any sense for DHS to spend so much time, money, and effort building a wall, only to tear it down? The citizens of Brownsville expected this commission to defend and protect their property rights and these developments are an outright betrayal of that trust,” Ahumada said.

Ahumada said he would be laying out his opposition to any deal with DHS at Thursday’s meeting. He said any deals agreed with DHS would undermine the City’s decision to join a lawsuit filed against DHS over the border fence. Last month, the City wrote a friend-of-the-court brief supporting El Paso County in its lawsuit challenging Homeland Security’s efforts to build a border wall.

“I strongly oppose the fence and any agreement that will allow the fence to be built for the many reasons I will state at the meeting. To name a few, it will cause irreparable harm to our ecological corridor, adversely impact future development of our river walk and eliminate our damage claims should the fence be built by force. It will also affect the federal lawsuit filed by TBC and the amicus brief by El Paso,” Ahumada said.

Among the community groups expected to attend Thursday’s meeting are the church-based Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity and Action (CASA) and the No Border Wall coalition. These groups are particularly concerned that Hope Park, the downtown city park overlooking the Rio Grande, could be sacrificed to DHS.

Elizabeth Garcia, founder of CASA, said Hope Park has become a “symbol” for Brownsville’s opposition to the border wall.

“These are our elected officials, and they should be representing the concerns of their constituents,” Garcia said. “This community is still overwhelmingly opposed to the border wall, and our city government should support that sentiment.”

Garcia said that if the City wants to “compromise” with DHS, it should do so in federal court, just like the University of Texas at Brownsville and dozens of landowners have done.

“We hope that, just as UTB did, our commissioners will fight before they compromise. It will be wrong for them to reach a deal behind closed doors, without informing the public and without giving the community at large the opportunity for some input,” Garcia said.

Garcia pointed out that Brownsville residents have forced the City to stop negotiations with DHS in the past.

“Last summer, the Brownsville City Commission considered a contract, drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have turned over $93,500 worth of municipal property to build the wall,” Garcia said.

“One clause of the contract would have allowed the federal government to condemn the city’s property, and force the City to assist the government in the condemnation rather than fight to keep their property. When word of the contract was leaked, outraged Brownsville residents packed the city commission meeting, forcing them to table the deal.”

Merriwood Ferguson, a Brownsville resident and No Border Wall coalition member said any elected official who refuses to stand up for the citizenry against the border wall would “have no backbone.”

Ferguson said landowners are “standing up for their rights against the condemnation of their property” and that the precedent they have set should be matched by city commissioners.

“We did not elect them to have them give up Hope Park without a fight,” Ferguson said.

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