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Pakistani-Born Mayor Repairs, and Wins, Texans’ Hearts
PARIS, TEXAS (July 27, 2012) — This charming, droopy city needed new fire trucks not long ago, but, like many American municipalities today, couldn’t necessarily afford them. The mayor, a small-government Republican, dithered: to buy or not to buy? He turned to the natural choice for advice on running a Texan city: Pervez Musharraf, the exiled ex-president of Pakistan.
Mr. Musharraf may seem an unlikely adviser to the mayor of a Southern town where crickets chirp shrilly and the leafy streets are dominated by places pledging to fix your truck. But even more unlikely is the man he advised: Mayor Arjumand Hashmi, a Pakistani-born cardiologist who has become one of the United States’ most improbable politicians.
He is like the opening line of a joke: “So a Texan, a Muslim, a Republican, a doctor and the mayor of Paris are sitting at a bar …” Except that he is, by himself, all of the people in the joke.
America seems to be an ever more divided, bitter country. Lost amid those divisions is the story of how a down-on-its-luck town in Texas struck its own little blow for unity. A little more than a year ago, this city of 25,000 — overwhelmingly white and Christian — made a Muslim outsider their mayor. (Dr. Hashmi had campaigned to be one of seven city councilors and, having won, was voted mayor by the council.)
The mayor swept into office with an immigrant’s zeal: planting hundreds of crepe myrtle trees on the loop around the city; surprising local agencies with impromptu visits during his lunch hour; interrupting the “brother-in-law deals,” as they’re called in the South, that gave contracts to the wrong people; using tax abatements to lure businesses to Paris.
All this while serving as a cardiologist and leader of a local hospital catheterization laboratory that is often the only thing standing between the chicken-fried steaks that patients keep on eating and the deaths they nonetheless wish to defer.
Which is why Dr. Hashmi, who is in his early 50s, wakes up at 3:30 a.m. most days. He prays the first of his customary three daily prayers. (He maxes out to the prescribed five when he can, but says he’s pretty sure Allah wouldn’t want him stopping to pray when he’s got a catheter up someone’s groin.) Then he alternates throughout the day between doctor and mayor, doctor and mayor.
At 10:53 a.m. on a recent morning, wearing a muscle T-shirt and cowboy boots and clutching two phones, he rushed into a hospital lounge and dictated a report. His next patient wasn’t ready, so he got in his BMW (he’s also got a Bentley and a Lamborghini and many other cars) and drove to his mechanic to check on the black S.U.V. he plans to use to host visiting dignitaries. Ten minutes later, he was again at the hospital, pumping dark dye into a sedated woman’s heart, searching for blockages. Fifteen minutes later, he was inspecting Paris’s water plant.
When he was first running, the town erupted with all the predictable whispers: that he was trying to drive Christianity out of Paris, that he was a rich doctor trying to buy the town, that he would build a mosque, that he was a terrorist.
Today he has won over much of the city. (His first council election was 4-3 in his favor; he was re-elected this year 7-0.) Local citizens speak of him variously as a blood transfusion and a breath of fresh air, even though some in the old guard retain their anxieties.
Part of his strategy has been to embrace his newness to the city, where he arrived in 2006 after many years in Tampa, Florida. He says that, because he is an outsider, no one in Paris is his cousin or classmate, and that he is thus free to govern by reason. He says he is trying to save the city from the cronyism that he has seen strangle his own country: “In most of third world countries, yes, there are rules and laws and regulations. But it ends up that related people get things done,” he said. He saw that same phenomenon afflicting Paris. “I have lived it personally and seen why it doesn’t work,” he said.
U.S. politicians are wont to conceal the complexity and worldliness in their backgrounds — as with Mitt Romney’s ability to speak French or President Barack Obama’s early years in Indonesia. Dr. Hashmi takes a different approach, speaking Urdu to friends or family in front of his colleagues, answering the phones with “Salaam aleikum” at times and at times with “How ya doin’?” His Pakistani accent remains strong.
Just after 11 p.m. that same night, after a full day’s work twice over, he was sitting on a sofa at home with his family and some friends, nibbling on flaky cookies specially bought in Lahore.
His beeper sounded. A middle-aged man was at the hospital with chest pains, and the emergency room doctor wanted his advice. He asked for an electrocardiogram to be texted to his iPhone. When he saw it, he concluded that the man needed him. He told the doctor to prepare the catheter, and he drove away down a dark country road into his Paris.
By CHARLES RICHARDS
Several weeks ago, Mayor AJ Hashmi wondered out loud why the Paris Economic Development Corporation is paying $60,000 a year to the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce to lease the former Santa Fe-Frisco Depot on Bonham Street.
Since 2002, the City of Paris had been leasing the same city-owned building to the chamber for $1 a year.
Monday night, the Paris City Council decided to end that arrangement when the PEDC’s sublease to the chamber expires in August. In its place, the city will make the Depot available to the PEDC at no cost.
Presumably the research library of the Lamar County Genealogical Society, which occupies the south end of the Depot, will continue to occupy its space at no cost.
In exchange for the $60,000 a year from the PEDC, the chamber maintained the building at a cost of $45,000 to $48,000 a year, city manager John Godwin said.
The PEDC had signaled its willingness to move elsewhere.
“It’s a great old facility. It looks real good. I hate to see that building not used productively by somebody for something, so I’d encourage everyone to work toward a solution to have somebody in there,” Godwin said.
“My feeling is we should let the PEDC have the building for $1 a year, or for that matter for no money at all. The PEDC is part of the city, and the city has to maintain the building just like any other city-owned property. That will certainly help cut some of the PEDC’s overhead,” Hashmi said
“If at some point, the PEDC overhead drops and they want to contribute to the electric bill or something, that would be OK, but I think the PEDC should be in the building without cost,” Hashmi said.
Other council members agreed.
“We’ll take care of it and make it happen,” Godwin said.
Jake Street, a director of the Paris Chamber of Commerce – a rival group to the Lamar Avenue Chamber of Commerce — wrote in a newsletter on Tuesday that he made an open records request to the City of Paris in May for “all past and present rental or lease agreements” on the Depot.
Paragraph 20 of the original $1-a-year lease from the city to the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce stated: “Lessee will not sublet the rented premises, or any part thereof, without the consent, in writing, of Lessor first.”
The only sub-lease that city officials provided him was from the chamber to the Lamar County Genealogical Society, Street said.
Either the chamber’s sublease to the PEDC never officially existed and was illegal or the City of Paris failed to turn over all the paperwork in his open records request, he said.
Further, Street wrote, the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce defaulted on its $1-a-year lease to the city by voluntarily vacating the Depot several years ago and moving to offices at 8 West Plaza.
The Kiamichi Railroad gave the Depot and 1.92 acres of land to the City of Paris on the condition provided the city restore it to original condition, Street wrote.
“The city used tax money and convict labor from the Bonham prison unit to do so. Taxpayers have over a million dollars in the property,” Street added.
Taxpayers have been paying the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce $60,000 a year for property that isn’t theirs and that they are legally in default on.”
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By CHARLES RICHARDS
Mayor AJ Hashmi has asked city manager John Godwin to determine if it would be less expensive for the City of Paris to train its own work force to remove asbestos from buildings scheduled for demolition.
At Monday night’s council meeting, the mayor rejected a report from finance director Gene Anderson, who handled city manager duties on an interim basis for 17 months prior to Godwin’s taking over the reins in May. Hashmi said he wanted the new city manager’s input.
“I have read what is written, and it is totally confusing to me – kind of a “We don’t want to do it” kind of reason,” Hashmi said before any discussion could occur on Anderson’s report on what it would cost for the city to certify a work force trained for asbestos removal rather than hire someone else to do it.
In Anderson’s report to the council, he repeated from an earlier council meeting his estimates of the cost to train and license an asbestos-removal crew — $1,515 for a worker, $2,585 for a supervisor, and $3,010 for a contractor. It would also cost $443 for a transporter license.
Also, Anderson said, there is some concern about whether the city would be able to retain workers after paying to certify them for asbestos abatement.
In his follow-up report on Monday, Anderson said asbestos coverage is excluded from the city’s general liability insurance, and that additional cost “has not been determined.”
Also, by state law, Anderson said, any work performed must be supervised by a Texas Department of State Health Services licensed consultant.
“The city cannot act as its own consultant. The consultant’s fee typically runs about 28 percent of a private contractor’s charge for abatement and demolition,” Anderson said.
Current Environmental Protection Agency and TDSHS rules require that an asbestos survey be performed prior to demolition or renovation, Anderson added.
“This survey typically would cost around $1,000, but could be more for a large structure.”
Licensing for asbestos abatement and demolition work is required only for buildings that are subject to public occupancy or to which the general public has access.
Anderson listed eight such buildings in Paris as a “partial list” of potential public building demolitions “that have or would likely have an asbestos problem.”
Inclusion on the list does not mean the current owners would not deal with the problem, Anderson said.
“However, each of these buildings has some deterioration that will have to be addressed at some point.”
Hashmi asked that Godwin come back to the council with figures on what it would cost for the city to abate the asbestos in the eight buildings that Anderson listed “as opposed to bidding it out.”
Until recently, Cherry Street Manor was tied up in court and the city was prohibited from tearing it down.
That’s no longer the case, and the council has indicated it is ready to consider demolishing the long-abandoned former nursing home.
Hashmi has asked that the council first decide whether it would save money to qualify its own abatement crew.
The mayor entertained a motion that the asbestos abatement issue be tabled until such a time as the city manager is able to bring back a comparative cost analysis.
District 3 councilman John Wright made the motion, and District 6 councilwoman Cleonne Drake added the second. The motion carried by a 5-0 vote, with councilmen Richard Grossnickle and Matt Frierson absent.
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The rectangles shown above are concrete paving sections which workers were busy pouring Thursday on the 41-32 runway at Cox Field Airport in Paris. The next picture shows the cement actually being poured in. (Photo courtesy of City of Paris city engineer Shawn Napier.)
This is part of Phase II of a runway improvement project at Cox Field. The main runway — 6,000 feet long — was resurfaced about 18 months ago, and the taxiways also got a new surface. (Photo courtesy of City of Paris city engineer Shawn Napier.)
This photo from the plane of Billy Copeland, a member of the City of Paris airport advisory board, was taken by Shane Grissom, an engineering technician with the city’s engineering, planning and development department. Looking from south to north at Cox Field, the photo shows the main runway (left) with its new surface, and the airport’s two other runways. Thursday’s concrete work was done on Runway 41-32 (which runs southeast from the top of the main runway). Since this picture was taken, the taxiway (running to the west of, and parallel to, the main runway) has also gotten a new surface. Cox Field, an old Army airfield, easily accommodates corporate jets from companies such as Campbell Soup, Kimberly Clark, Turner Pipe and various companies that fly in to consider Paris as a place to locate.
Resurfacing work should be completed by early August as the City of Paris completes planning for a Sept. 22 fly-in at the airport — which will be the city’s first since 2008, city engineer Shawn Napier says.
By CHARLES RICHARDS
Closing is expected to occur on Monday for the sale of the Sara Lee plant in Paris, PEDC executive director Steve Gilbert said Thursday.
Officials of the new company will make themselves available sometime Monday to talk with the media about their plans for the facility, Gilbert said.
“We actually talked about that today. They said they are perfectly willing and happy to do that,” he said.
Gilbert wasn’t certain if officials of the purchasing company would be in Paris or whether the discussion would be a telephone conference call.
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