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June, 2007:

“Draft Rick” in the Observer

The Observer blog writes about the Draft Rick Noriega movement, including a few quotes from yours truly. Hopefully, this will turn into a full-length piece for the print publication. Regardless, it’s good stuff, so check it out.

No diapers!

I could have lived without knowing this.

Her attorney wants to get something straight — former astronaut Lisa Nowak did not wear diapers to avoid bathroom breaks as she drove some 960 miles from Houston to Orlando to confront her romantic rival in February.

Instead the diapers found in her car that night were size “toddler 3,” hardly big enough for an adult, and were left over from her family’s evacuation from Houston in 2005 as Hurricane Rita approached, attorney Don Lykkebak said today.

The family, including Nowak herself and her husband, used the diapers then because at the time motels were swamped and restrooms and privacy were scarce. With reporters gathered around after a routine court hearing today, Lykkebak testily described how the family used the diapers.

“You can’t put it on,” he said. “To have privacy you have to find a way to get in your car, obviously not with the car running, and you (use the diapers) just to collect your waste, and you do that so you don’t have to go out in front of everybody.”

Uh, thanks, Counselor. I’ll be sure to remember that. Now can we please talk about something else?

Time flies like an arrow

Kristin Mack makes an interesting claim in her column about who’s thinking about running for what next year.

[Former HPD Chief CO] Bradford, who served as police chief in Mayor Lee Brown’s administration, still has some battle scars.

Among them, a last-minute pay raise Brown gave Bradford that increased his pension, the crime lab debacle that began during his tenure, and an indictment on a perjury charge that eventually was dismissed by a trial judge.

Emphasis mine. All I can say to that is “Say what?”

Independent investigator Michael Bromwich outlined a series of steps he said officials should take to determine what role blood-typing and DNA evidence played in securing convictions against as many as 600 defendants — including 14 already executed — whose cases were processed at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab between 1980 and 2002.

1980 was a long time ago – I was a high schooler living in New York back then. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that CO Bradford was not Houston’s chief of police at that time. I have no idea who it was, but it wasn’t Bradford.

Perhaps this was just an inartful construction. It is true that the HPD crime lab problems came to light during Chief Bradford’s tenure – maybe that’s what she meant to say. One could then also say that this makes that an asset for Bradford, not a liability, since we wouldn’t be at the point of finally resolving this debacle had it not been for Bradford. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it’s closer to the truth than saying the problems began while Bradford was chief.

I do not have an iPhone

Nor will I be getting one any time soon. I like whizzy gadgets as much as the next guy, but at some point, one must say “Get a life!”

AT&T’s Dan Feldstein says 80 percent of the store managers in the Houston area say they’ve got folks waiting in line for the iPhone.


At the Galleria, another three dozen were in line around 10 a.m., the queue wrapped around the clear plexiglass balustrade across from the Apple Store on the mall’s second level. The first to arrive, 24-year-old D.J. Lewis, told Kevin Moran he’d gotten there about 4:30 a.m., and had to wait until 8 a.m. to get into the mall.

Lewis told Moran that, when it comes to gadgetry, he’s gotta have it all on Day One.

“Every electronic gadget, I have tried to get it the first day it comes out,” Lewis said. “I normally get a new phone about every six months.”

The iPhone, he said, “will complete my collection.”

Until the next gotta-have-it gizmo comes along. I’ll wait, thanks.

Aiyer takes a plea

I was pretty sure that this would be the ultimate outcome.

Houston Community College Trustee Jay Aiyer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of tampering with a governmental record Thursday and received a year of probation.

Aiyer, one-time candidate for Houston City Council, also must fulfill 160 hours of community service and pay a $750 fine. He also is prohibited from working on any political campaigns during his probation.

Aiyer, 38, a lawyer and former chief of staff for former Mayor Lee Brown, has served as an HCC trustee since 2001.

“I’m glad we were able to resolve this quickly. I look forward to practicing law and spending time with my family,” Aiyer said.

He said he had not given any thought to whether he will keep his seat on the HCC board.

Aiyer originally was charged with a state jail felony, but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor to avoid a trial.

“It made sense to make peace,” Aiyer’s lawyer, Dennis Cain, said. “It could have had a massive impact on his future had he pleaded to a felony. It doesn’t make sense to risk that kind of exposure. He wanted to put it behind him.”

It’s also a huge financial burden to defend oneself against a felony charge. Whatever the merits of the charges against Aiyer – and I have no idea one way or the other – the downside to fighting it out is huge. You’d have to be pretty non-risk-averse to go for it. As I said before, Jay is a friend of mine, and I hate that this has happened to him. I sincerely hope he does put this behind him.

Couple points that I feel need to be mentioned.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office accused Aiyer of committing the offense by removing and destroying a portion of his campaign finance report and putting another document in its place in March 2005.

The charge stemmed from a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission more than two years ago. The complaint accused Aiyer of trying to hide expenditures from his HCC campaign account, failing to report payments to political consultants and failing to itemize credit card payments.

The commission referred the complaint to the district attorney’s office in April 2006.

Why did it take the DA so long to act on this? I’m not having any luck finding a citation for this, but doesn’t the greater-than-two-year time span between the alleged offense and the filing of the charge mean that the statute of limitations would have run out for a misdemeanor offense? I have to wonder what might have happened if the specter of a felony conviction had not been hanging over Aiyer’s head. That’s something you do fight.

There may be nothing to that line of thinking – again, we don’t know that much about the actual case. But this is pretty egregious:

“This isn’t the end of his problems,” said Donna Goode, the division chief over the district attorney’s public integrity unit. “He still has to deal with the State Bar, he still has issues with the Texas Ethics Commission and a decision has to be made by trustees about whether this disqualifies him from serving.”

Aiyer did not attend Thursday’s monthly HCC board meeting. Christopher Oliver, chairman of the board, said it was not clear how Aiyer’s plea would affect his service on the board.

Aiyer’s term is up at the end of this year. HCC often is viewed as a political springboard and Aiyer’s political future once seemed limitless.

Under state law, a person convicted of a felony is barred from public office, unless he or she since had been pardoned.

“I don’t know if it’s a disqualification,” Goode said of Aiyer’s sentence. “It’s certainly something an opponent wouldn’t have to go very far to dredge up and use against you.”

Is it really appropriate for a member of the DA’s office to be speculating in public about the potential ramifications of one of its cases? Because if we’re going to bring up politics, Chuck Rosenthal and his people have a very spotty history. From the ludicrously weak perjury case they brought against former Police Chief CO Bradford, which ended in a directed verdict of not guilty by the trial judge, to their no-billing of Steven Hotze on a DUI charge, to their refusal to investigate Texans for True Mobility, the DA has been pretty consistent in who he chooses to go after, and who he does not. Again, without knowing all the details, I can’t say for sure that Aiyer’s case fits the pattern. But you’d be naive to not be at least a little suspicious.

Where the votes are: HD136

Continuing my series on blue precincts within red State House districts (see here for the first installment), today I’m looking at HD136, where incumbent Beverly Woolley defeated Democrat Scott Brann with just over 70% of the vote. Unlike HD126, HD136 has basically no genuinely blue areas. It has only three precincts that were carried by Brann. Here they are:

Pcnt RVs Votes Turnout Brann Brann% Sharp Sharp% Henley Henley% ==================================================================== 179 1749 421 24.07% 189 50.9 211 55.4 N/A N/A 272 2415 506 20.95% 233 51.1 243 51.7 232 48.6 807 2127 387 18.19% 242 67.4 256 69.4 N/A N/A

(As before, “Sharp” is Jim Sharp, the top Democratic votegetter in Harris County; “Henley” is Democrat Jim Henley, whose CD07 covers most of HD136.)

Only Precinct 807 qualifies as a place you’d clearly want to target for GOTV operations. Naturally, it had the lowest turnout in the district – overall turnout was 42%, with quite a few red precincts topping 50%. That doesn’t mean I think the other two precincts should be ignored, but it does suggest that perhaps a different approach might be needed to ensure that any new voters turned out are voters you actually wanted. I’m not an expert in those matters, but there’s plenty of those folks around. My task here is to point out where the opportunities are, and I say Precincts 179 and 272 are opportunities.

In fact, I’d expand the definition here to include precincts where at least one Democrat topped 40%, since that is still significantly better than the district as a whole. There are a half-dozen of those precincts:

Pcnt RVs Votes Turnout Brann Brann% Sharp Sharp% Henley Henley% ==================================================================== 298 2332 798 34.22% 263 36.3 297 40.3 286 38.8 312 4148 1367 32.96% 476 38.0 515 40.5 480 37.2 313 2711 794 29.29% 312 42.6 339 46.6 319 42.9 330 2311 564 24.41% 240 47.7 250 49.6 N/A N/A 569 3098 1076 34.73% 416 42.3 460 46.7 454 45.4 572 2969 905 30.48% 374 44.6 400 47.4 381 44.5

These precincts, especially the bottom four, are close enough to the 50% mark that a project to figure out who the desired voters are and then target them makes sense. I should also note that an eyeball comparison with the 2002 numbers in the Lite Guv’s race also indicates that each of those precincts became bluer in 2006. The material is there – it needs extra work, but it’s there. And again, I won’t say we’re maximizing our efforts to win Harris County in 2008 unless we’re giving precincts like these the work they need. More to come, so stay tuned.

Fly like an eagle

Great news: The bald eagle is no longer endangered.

Conservationists have hailed the successful recovery of the eagle as clear evidence that the Endangered Species Act, which has been under attack in recent years from business groups and some members of Congress, can work.

Government biologists have documented nearly 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles, including at least one pair in each of the 48 contiguous states. This compares to only 417 such pairs in 1963 when the bird was on the verge of disappearing everywhere in the country except for Alaska.

While no longer declared endangered, the bald eagle will continue to be protected by a 1940 federal law that will make it illegal to kill the bird — as well as state statutes.

Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service also is preparing guidelines for protecting the bird’s nesting habitat under the 1940 law and developing a permitting process that landowners will have to use if eagles are found on property they want to disturb.

“This is truly one of America’s great wildlife success stories,” said John Kostyack, director the National Wildlife Federation’s endangered species program. He said it shows the Endangered Species Act is needed and can work to save plants and animals on the verge of disappearing.

Said John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society: “The rescue of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction ranks among the greatest victories of American conservation.”

Amen to that. I remember as a kid in the 70s seeing a bunch of stuff on TV about how the eagle was dying out, and what a national disgrace it would be for this great American symbol to go extinct. Thank God that won’t happen. Link via Dig Deeper Texas.

Sports guy talk radio

Somewhat related to the previous post, did you know that there are now about to be a total of four sports talk/”guy talk” radio stations in town? No, I don’t understand it any better than you do. I’ve listened to many sporting events on the radio, including postgame shows, but have never, not once, tuned into a sports talk show. They’ve just never appealed to me.

Just one thing from that article that I want to comment on. It’s on how “sports talk” radio has morphed into “guy talk” radio, where the topics can include things other than just sports:

Dallas’s attachment to the Cowboys is, of course, legendary; you could probably program Cowboys talk 24 hours a day and draw big numbers. But The Ticket has also become known for more wide-ranging discussions — an hour may go by in the morning where sports doesn’t even come up and the talk instead is on the latest celebrity flap or hot movie.

Programming execs here are moving in that direction. You’re going to hear a lot less talk about fantasy-baseball numbers and a lot more about The Sopranos or Paris Hilton.

So what you’re saying is basically that this is the Roula and Ryan show with sports but no crappy music. Am I missing something here?

Great show! You’re fired!

Well, what did you expect?

Filling in for conservative talk-show host Michael Berry Tuesday morning, Houston lawyer Geoff Berg was direct with KPRC radio’s listeners.

“I am a moderate,” he announced. “Michael is a right-wing fanatic. We are going to disagree.”

He was on point.

Listeners — and apparently advertisers — disagreed so much that KPRC/950 AM fired Berg after one day on the job, ending his brief stint as a talk-radio host.

“Right after the show, the producers told me that I’d done a great job as host,” Berg said Wednesday.

“(But) later in the day, they said don’t come back.”


Berry, when asked for comment, sent the following reply via e-mail: “Geoff is a personal friend. I also think he can develop into a good talk-show host. He is quite to the left of me, but I think there is an audience for him. 950 is not that place.”

Berg said he does not have any ill will toward Berry or KPRC, joking that the station fired him after “one day of diverse opinion.”

You know, I don’t have any problems with KPRC’s actions here. You’ve got to figure that if, say, Michael Berry had sat in for Amy Goodman one morning on “Democracy Now!”, KPFT listeners would be pretty vocal about it. People tune into a show like that expecting one thing, and when they don’t get it, they’re not gonna like it. While this is certainly amusing, and while I agree with Jack that it would be nice to have a little more diversity in the airwaves, I also agree with Berry that it’s not going to happen by mixing and matching on an established station. It’ll take a different outlet establishing its own brand. Which means it’ll probably never happen, but that’s what it’ll take.

Biggio 3000

Congratulations, Craig Biggio. For today, any questions about your pursuit of 3000 are irrelevant. You made it, and you deserve the glory that goes with it. See you in five in Cooperstown.

One of these officials is not like the others

I got this a couple of days ago, but didn’t have a chance to post on it till now. This (PDF) is a letter sent from the interim President and Chair of the Board of Regents of Galveston College to Governor Perry to express their concerns over one of his vetoes, which had to do with money allocated to community college faculty and staff for health insurance. At the bottom of the letter, as is custom in situations like this, they cc’ed the college’s legislative delegation, so the folks who represent them know what their issues are.

Well, sort of anyway. See, Galveston County has a total of four representatives in Austin, but the letter was only copied to three of them. They managed to overlook Galveston’s senior state Senator, which when you think about it probably wasn’t that hard to do. Joe Jaworski, noting that Galveston’s forgotten Senator is also furniture, is currently having some fun with this in a fundraising email.

Anyway. I’m sure this really was just an oversight, but much like casting Rick Perry as the fourth Stooge once was, it’s just fitting somehow.

Texas: Still growing like gangbusters

Nothing unexpected here.

Booming cities in the Lone Star state dominated the latest population estimates for cities as of July, 1, 2006, released by the census today. Six Texas cities were in the top 25 in the U.S, and three, including Houston, were in the top 10, with San Antonio the seventh-largest and Dallas the ninth.


Nineteen Texas cities, or nearly 20 percent, were among the top 100 fastest-growing cities with populations of at least 100,000 between 2000 and July 1, 2006. McKinney, north of Dallas, ranked No. 1 on that list, nearly doubling its population.

“What you’re seeing is verification that, numerically, Texas continues to be the fastest-growing state in the nation,” said state demographer Steve Murdock, whom President Bush has nominated to be Census Bureau director.

As of July 1, 2006, Texas edged out California as the state with the largest population growth, gaining 2.7 million people since 2000 while California gained 2.6 million. In that time period, Texas grew at a 12.7 percent rate, compared with California’s 8 percent.

It’s looking a lot more like we’ll be gaining four seats in Congress in 2011. I wonder what effect on the politics of redistricting that will have, since for sure some of those seats are going to be preordained as minority opportunity districts.

And speaking of redistricting:

Houston grew from 1.98 million to 2.14 million in the same period.

We’re going to be ready to add new district City Council seats by 2011 as well, right?

The reasoning behind the CCA’s decision on DeLay

Here’s the basic reasoning behind the Court of Criminal Appeals’ refusal to reinstate the conspiracy charge against Tom DeLay and two of his co-defendants.

In Wednesday’s decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals had to decide whether a conspiracy charge could be applied to all felonies or only those specified by the Legislature. To side with prosecutors, the court would have had to either reverse or limit its decisions from the 1970s that the Legislature must specify that the conspiracy statute applies to felonies outside the penal code.

The court’s majority noted that the Legislature had not reacted to the rulings. Instead, lawmakers applied the conspiracy law piecemeal to various felonies.

The dissent said not applying conspiracy to all felonies defies common sense.

What the court said in effect is that while breaking certain election laws is a crime, plotting to break them with other people isn’t a crime unless the Legislature has specifically defined a crime called “conspiracy to violate election laws”. Which it did indeed do in 2003, but DeLay and his pals did their thing in 2002, so they get to skate. I can’t say I find the Court’s logic to be terribly flawed, but it does mean that some conspiracies will be crimes while others will not. You can see the basics of the state’s arguments here, from when they were made.

Fort Bend Now has Travis County DA Ronnie Earle’s response to the CCA’s ruling:

“Criminal conspiracy means three things. It means a person intends to commit a felony. It means that the person agrees that he or his co-conspirators will engage in conduct that would constitute the crime. And it means one of them performs some act in pursuit of the crime,” he said in a prepared statement.

“Under the rationale of today’s majority opinion, the Legislature has blessed these criminal conspiracies as long as the felony they agree to commit is not in the Penal Code. There are many felony crimes that are contained in parts of the law other than the Penal Code.

“Of course, it is illegal for them to actually commit the crime, but they can legally conspire to do it all they want,” Earle said. “This is a tortured result.”

The public policy considerations surrounding this decision are larger than this one case. Criminal conspiracy prosecutions “allow for the prevention of crime before it occurs,” Earle said. “Under the court’s opinion today, law enforcement is powerless to intercept certain felonies before they are actually committed.”

In the short term, Earle is going to ask for a re-hearing on this ruling. I’m not sure what that means, or what practical effect it may have. DeLay and his codefendants are themselves still pursuing an appeal with the Third Court of Appeals on the conspiracy to launder money charge; that apparently may take another year to resolve. I believe that’s separate from the checks aren’t cash claim that Colyandro and Ellis once made – frankly, I have no idea if that’s still an ongoing appeals issue.

Something to watch out for longer term is an attempt by the Lege to clean up this loophole in some fashion. That could make for some interesting legislation, if it were to happen. I’m just speculating here, as so far there’s no obvious crusader for this cause. But the prosecutors in this state carry a fair amount of weight, and if they think this may let some bad guys get off the hook, I’ll bet they’ll ask for the matter to be addressed in 2009.

Finally, a matter I’ve noted before but just can’t let go without noting it one last time:

One of the judges in the majority said he might have ruled differently “were we writing on the proverbial pristine slate.” Another in the majority concluded that the court would be denying DeLay due process if it retroactively changed course now.

Because as we know, the Court of Criminal Appeals is all about protecting the due process rights of every defendant in Texas.

CQ on CD10

Congressional Quarterly takes a look at what I hope will become a high-profile race in CD10.

Texas Republican Mike McCaul was a beneficiary of a mid-decade redistricting plan — spearheaded by Tom DeLay, the Texan who then was House majority leader — that left the GOP with six more House seats after the 2004 election than they had after 2002.

The 10th Congressional District, where McCaul ran, seemed so Republican (its voters would give President Bush 61 percent in 2004), that McCaul won that year without Democratic opposition, pulling down 79 percent to defeat a Libertarian and a write-in candidate.

But McCaul did draw a Democratic foe in 2006, and it made a difference. His challenger, former NASA employee Ted Ankrum, was not well-known in the 10th — which spans 150 miles from eastern Austin to western suburbs of Houston — and spent less than $65,000 to the incumbent’s $1.1 million. Yet the outcome was a fairly modest 55 percent to 40 percent victory for McCaul.

While this doesn’t suggest a major Democratic tide in the district, the 2006 result has opened the eyes of some of that party’s strategists, who are mulling whether they could put the seat into more serious play in 2008.

Hallelujah. As you know, I’ve been banging this drum for awhile. Hell, I thought CD10 was ripe enough for 2006, had there been the resources to fight for it properly. Better late than never, as long as nobody weasels out now.

There’s a lot more there on the two announced Democratic hopefuls, Dan Grant and Larry Joe Doherty, which is worth reading. Nate is also on this. What really matters to me in all this is making sure that CD10 – and frankly, some other seats – are seen as viable and worth pursuing even if they’re not sure things. Going on the offensive and expanding the field of play has its own value whether it results in a pickup or not. Here, I think the pickup chances are sufficient to warrant interest on their own. I just don’t think the accounting should end there.

UPDATE: James L notes that Dan Grant is doing pretty well on ActBlue.

“I don’t feel tardy”

I have five things to say about this article on how City Council meetings have always started late since 2004:

1. I’m trying to resist the urge to say “So what?” here. Yes, when you expect something to start at 9 AM and it doesn’t actually start until 9:30, it’s annoying. But it’s not at all clear to me from this article that the actual impact of the Council’s inability to start on time rises to the level of “news”, as opposed to “trivia”. Only one member of the public was quoted in the piece, so it’s hard to judge whether this is merely a frustration or if it has caused someone who had business before Council, or who just wanted to hear about a particular issue, any genuine inconvenience. Surely if this were a real problem, there’d be some anecdotes out there, about missing work or not getting to testify or something, I don’t know. But if there are such complaints, they’re not in the article. So how are the 99.9% of us who’ve never attended a Council meeting in our lives supposed to tell if this is something that should bother us?

(Along similar lines, if this has been such a problem for so long, maybe it should have been reported on before now? Like maybe after six months or so? Just saying.)

2. There are other ways to judge how well a meeting has been run than just starting on time. Things like staying on agenda, keeping a decent tempo, fostering open dialog – if you’ve ever worked for a large company, you know the things I’m talking about. Now that we know Mayor White would flunk a promptness test, how does he do in other matters? (And how does he compare to his predecessors in them?) Speaking from my own personal experience, I’ll take a meeting that starts late but ends on time over a meeting that starts on time but ends late any day of the week. What other dimensions are there?

3. While Council’s tardiness may look bad, they’re nothing compared to the State Lege, where committee meetings almost never have a set start time, almost never start on time when they do have a set start time, and public testimony is the lowest item on the priority list. Stories abound every session about people who drove all day to attend and speak at a meeting, then finally giving up at 4 AM because they still weren’t near their turn to testify. This gets back to what I asked in item 1: How (if at all) has the Council’s habit of fashionable start times actually affected people?

4. There was a lot of filler in this story. Honestly, who cares what some “San Francisco time management consultant” thinks? Or, with all due respect, what a local poli sci professor (and Republican blogger) thinks?

5. Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, results matter, too. Last I checked, a pretty high percentage of the voters thought the Mayor was getting good results. Is there a case to be made that we could get even better results if he called the meetings to order in a timely manner? Maybe, but if so I haven’t seen it yet.

I see that reporter Matt Stiles has taken a little ribbing for this story. I have no quibble with his point, articulated in the comments, that not every story needs to be big and weighty and that “it’s also fun (and enlightening for readers) to write a talker once in a while about fizzy water or attendance”. I guess maybe what I’m saying is that while it was clear to me that the Dr Pepper story was intended to be taken lightly, this one felt more like it was supposed to be Real News. As such, it missed the mark.

The giant blue porn-hating elephant

Boy, when one has used such a title for a post, it’s a little intimidating to actually write said post. So, let me just point you to Houstonist, where the title at least will make sense. All I can add is that the whole thing reminds me of a Budweiser “Real Men of Genius” ad. Really, what else is there to say?

Harry Potter hacked?

Spoiler alert level: Elevated.

The mystery surrounding the end to fictional British boy wizard Harry Potter’s saga deepened on Wednesday with a computer hacker posting what he said were key plot details and a publisher warned the details could be fake.

The hacker, who goes by the name “Gabriel,” claims to have taken a digital copy of author J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by breaking into a computer at London-based Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

For months now, leading up to the book’s July 21 release, legions of “Harry Potter” fans have debated whether Rowling killed Harry or one of his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, in the final book.

Gabriel has posted information at Web site that, if true, would answer that question.

“We make this spoiler to make reading of the upcoming book useless and boring,” Gabriel said in the posting.

Well isn’t that special? Maybe ol’ Gabriel was beaten up by one too many wizards as a kid.

Kyle Good, a spokesman for U.S. distributor Scholastic Corp., would not say whether the posting was accurate, but did warn readers to be skeptical about anything on the Web that claims to have inside information on the book’s plot.

“There is a whole lot of junk flying around,” she said. “Consider this one more theory.”

One that I hope to avoid finding out any more about in the next few weeks. Consider yourselves warned.

(And if it turns out that “Gabriel” did successfully hack into Bloomsbury, I trust that heads will roll and all legal recourse will be pursued.)

Welcome to the club

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our newest member of City Council, Melissa Noriega.

I wasn’t there for the swearing-in or the Council meeting that followed, but I trust that by now someone has asked Council Member Noriega her position on the all-important Dr Pepper question. How that managed to avoid being a campaign issue, I’ll never know.

Just kidding. Stace has more on her oath-taking. Congratulations, Council Member Noriega!

CCA upholds DeLay

The Court of Criminal Appeals, which is not known for being friendly to defendants, has refused to reinstate the conspiracy charge against Tom DeLay.

DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and political consultants Jim Ellis and John Colyandro were accused of conspiring to violate state election laws in the 2002 elections for the Texas House. But lower courts threw out the indictment on grounds that conspiracy to violate the election code was not a crime until 2003.

A majority of the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.

DeLay, Ellis and Colyandro were charged with plotting to funnel illegal corporate campaign contributions to several Republican House candidates in 2002, when the GOP gained its first House majority of modern times.

The three also were charged with money laundering, but a trial on those charges has been held up pending a resolution of the conspiracy charges.

So now we may finally get around to having the actual trials, now that all the appeals have run their course. In the meantime, I’m sure there will be more to this story soon. Stay tuned.

More on J. Fred Duckett

For those of you who want to pay your respects to iconic Houston sports announcer J. Fred Duckett, the Rice Athletics Department has the details.

A visitation will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday evening at the George H Lewis & Sons Funeral Home, 1010 Bering Drive in Houston. The Memorial Service will be at 1 pm on Friday at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1015 Holman at Main in Houston. The family is also formulating plans for donations in lieu of flowers and those details will also be announced shortly.

More memories of J. Fred can be found here.

The Mayor and the veterans

I didn’t get around to yesterday’s front page story about Mayor White and his plan to help wounded veterans in the Houston area.

One in 11 soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is Texan, according to the Department of Defense. A quarter of the state’s population comes from the Houston-Galveston area.

“You do the math,” Mayor Bill White said Monday.

He has. To help returning wounded veterans, White pulled together about 200 community and military leaders Monday to announce plans for a bureaucracy-busting, problem-solving coalition similar to the one organized for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett will co-lead the effort.

”Though the issues facing our wounded vets may not get the 24-hour media coverage that Katrina did, there are storms occurring in individual lives and individual families when people come back,” White said.

He did not pledge any government money but said the city could assist by building a database to connect veterans to local nonprofits, veteran organizations, faith-based charities, corporate recruiters and other members of the coalition.

White also urged citizens to become mentors to returning veterans, to help them find resources and navigate bureaucratic red tape. A goal of the public-private coalition, he said, should be to respond to veteran requests in 24 hours, if possible.

“One by one with mentors and hope, (we can) take them under our wings and express our gratitude as a nation,” White said.


Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, defended the quality of care at VA hospitals.

But he conceded the bureaucracy could be “frustrating” for disabled veterans. He said Houston’s model, if successful, could work in other cities.

“We have something to learn here in Houston,” Casscells said.

So, does this count as a new idea for Mayor White, or is he still fresh out of them? Because, I have to say, this sounds like a new idea to me. And a pretty darned good one, too.

(If you want more discussion of that particular column of Kristin Mack’s, go read Greg. It’s worth it.)

Anyway. I applaud this initiative, and I look forward to seeing what becomes of it. Well done, Mayor White.

For that kind of revenue stream, I’d be a Pepper

Hey, I’m a Diet Coke guy myself, but business is business, you know?

Several [Council] members are in a fizz after learning that the Dr Pepper Bottling Co. of Houston soon will take over exclusive rights to vending machines at City Hall. That means staples like Coca-Cola and Pepsi will be scarce.

“I love Dr Pepper,” said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who attended Baylor University in Waco, birthplace of the sweet, syrupy pop. “But I’m a Diet Coke gal, now.”

The council two years ago approved a five-year deal with Dr Pepper to supply its various soft drinks to 320 vending machines in 150 city buildings. The company gradually has been taking over service to various departments, including parks, fire, airports and health.


City officials who crafted the deal, which already has brought $700,000 in revenue, say it helps the city because Dr Pepper has agreed to return 45 percent of the proceeds — much more than Coca-Cola and Pepsi — in exchange for exclusivity.

“It’s a tripling of revenue,” said Tina Paez, a deputy director in the city’s Finance and Administration Department.

Look on the bright side – at least there’s a Diet Dr Pepper, too. Greg and Alex have more.

Next time, ask Tory first

While I agree with Tom that the Harris County Toll Road Authority would have done well to have simply consulted with Tory Gattis before they implemented their ill-received and short-lived congestion-pricing plan, it seems to me that the stark differences between Tory’s plan and theirs suggests theirs wasn’t very sensible. I don’t have any particular objections to the concept of congestion pricing (though Max Concrete’s comment on Tory’s post is well worth noting), but the goal is supposed to be about incentivizing people to change their driving behavior. The HCTRA plan was far too blunt an instrument for that. As very few normal commuters have the option of not going to or from work during the 6-9 AM and 4-7 PM time frames, the choice everybody else had was to pay a whole lot more, or not take the toll road at all. That’s not an incentive to alter one’s habits, it’s a shakedown. The response to that was neither irrational nor over the top.

As for the conspiracy theory that HCTRA used this as a cover for their overall 25 cent price hike, I’ll borrow from the response that Coca Cola CEO Donald Keough once famously gave when in a similar position: They’re not that dumb, and they’re not that smart.

Teen suicide

PinkDome gets serious about a subject that really is no laughing matter: Teen suicide.

Texas is taking a new step to combat suicide, a serious public health problem.

Jeannine Von Stultz, psychologist and director of mental health services for Bexar County’s Juvenile Probation Department, says many young people who don’t intend to go through with suicide still end up dying as they cry out for help.

“This is an urgent need. It’s a crisis. And they’re trying to do whatever they can to reach out,” Von Stultz said.

Each day in Texas an average of six people take their own lives. For people between the ages of 15 to 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death behind car accidents and homicides.

“What we’re concerned about is that we’re seeing more lethal methods being used. So kids used to take pills. Now we’re seeing higher rates of children hanging themselves,” Von Stultz said.

Now the Texas Suicide Prevention Council and Mental Health America in Texas have launched a Web site,, to help educate Texans about suicide warning signs and how to help someone in a crisis.

The Web site is a tool for parents, teachers, counselors, and in many cases, individuals who are suicidal and may use the Internet to look for help.

“The information that’s provided is downloadable. So you print it out and then disseminate it,” Von Stultz said. “If you are a local agency or a school or a doctor’s office — it’s accessible to everybody.”

Part of a national strategy put in place in 1999 by then-Surgeon General David Satcher, the site is bilingual and, according to mental health professionals, long overdue.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky that I have had far less personal contact with suicide than PD, who writes very movingly about the people he knew who killed themselves. Take a moment to read what PD has to say, then go visit and be better prepared to confront this issue.

Well, somebody likes those fifty-dollar lottery tickets

I’ll never understand it, but plenty of people are snapping up those fifty-dollar scratch-off Lottery tickets.

For all the naysayers who couldn’t imagine folks gambling on $50 on a single lottery ticket….Turns out, the state is making out like a bandit on its high-priced $130 Million Spectacular. Players have forked over close to $49 million dollars in the game’s first six weeks. Or $1.2 million a day.

Robust sales of the $50 game, amongst the priciest in the nation, are reversing what had been declining overall lottery sales. Total sales this year for all games are down 2.3 percent over last year, but they were down nearly 5 percent before the $50 game was introduced, on May 7. “The $50 game has had a definite impact on instant and overall sales,” Texas Lottery Commission projects manager Robert Tirloni told agency commissioners at their monthly meeting this morning.

The $50 game now accounts for 2 percent of all scratch-off sales. The most popular games are those selling for $5. They accounted for nearly 28 percent of all scratch-off sales, followed by the $2 tickets (20 percent of all scratch-off sales) and the $10 tickets (14 percent of all scratch-off sales).

As long as we’re not too concerned about who’s buying all those high-end games, then I suppose this is a bonanza for the state. I don’t believe this pace can possibly be maintained, but then I was one of those pesky “naysayers” about the $50 game concept, so what do I know?

Those four little letters

Okay, is there anyone out there who really doesn’t know what NSFW means? Right, then. Please put the Internet down, and slowly back away.

So it seems only right to ask: What is and isn’t “NSFW” anymore?

“We’re not trying to arbitrarily post work-sensitive material,” said [Alex Blagg, the managing editor of VH1’s Best Week Ever blog], who oversees the 15 to 17 entries that end up on each weekday. “We’re doing it because it’s funny, and we hope the readers take upon themselves the responsibility to know what is and isn’t safe for their own offices.”

My criteria is simple: If it’s something that would have been zapped by our fairly sensitive corporate net.nanny software, it’s NSFW as far as I’m concerned. That, or if it features loud audio, out of respect for my cubicle and open-floor-plan-dwelling brethren and sistren (now there’s an opportunity for the gender-neutral pronoun folks). Better to err on the side of caution. People can always follow the link at home.

(And if you really want to be a mensch, consider adding a brief description of what the link delivers, so people can be better informed in the cases where your idea of NSFW and theirs do not overlap.)

Felony charge filed against Jay Aiyer

It pains me greatly to see stories like this.

Houston Community College Trustee and one-time City Council candidate Jay Aiyer is facing a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a felony that could cost him his law license, authorities said Monday.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office accused Aiyer of committing the offense in March 2005, by “unlawfully removing, destroying, and concealing, the original filing” of a portion of his campaign finance report and substituting it with another document.

The charges were filed in the 184th criminal court last Thursday. Aiyer posted a $2,000 bond the following day.

Aiyer, reached Monday, said he could not talk about the charges in detail.

“We will be able to work this thing out in a couple of days,” he said. “I think it’s going to be resolved.”

I consider Jay to be a friend, so I hope the charges against him are proven to be unfounded. We’ll see what happens.

Saw ’em off, I don’t care

As someone whose collegiate sports loyalties lie outside the UT/A&M axis, I found the lawsuit against an Aggie merchandiser for violating UT’s trademark on the Bevo logo to be more amusement than anything else. And while I generally side with the little guy in matters like these, it’s hard for me to say that the UT position was terribly unreasonable:

Defense attorney Allan Van Fleet argued that Saw ‘Em Off fell under traditional First Amendment protection of satire and parody.

Van Fleet estimated more than 50 hours were spent haggling a settlement that would allow the university to protect its cherished trademark and the Kalaouzes to keep selling Saw ‘Em Off merchandise without paying royalties on past, present or future receipts.

“(The $25,000) was just a one-time, what-does-it-take-to-make-you-go-away,” said Van Fleet, a Houston attorney who got his undergraduate degree from Rice, not A&M. “It just came down to them agreeing to take a payment that was minuscule compared to the cost of going forward.”

Louis Pirkey, an attorney for UT, noted the settlement also requires the approved symbol to be used in the clear context of the school rivalry and restricts color combinations to prevent confusion with UT’s orange-on-white or white-on-orange logo.

Fadi Kalaouze estimates legal expenses north of $200,000, about a third of which were defrayed by selling nearly 5,000 “Save Saw ‘Em Off” shirts emblazoned with the old, now-retired parody logo.

The Kalaouzes could have saved their money by agreeing to make a similar alteration when UT first objected in 2005, Pirkey said.

“We told the man a long, long time ago that we understand you want to symbolize the Aggie tradition of sawing Varsity’s horns off. What we have an objection to is using our exact logo to do it,” said Pirkey, who got his undergraduate degree at UT.

As I said, sounds reasonable enough to me. For some reason, this whole thing is reminding me of peeing Calvins, though without the famously reclusive copyright owner. Make of that what you will.

RIP, J. Fred Duckett

It’s a very sad day for outdoor football.

J. Fred Duckett, who heralded the exploits of “Jose Cruuuuuuuz!” as the Astrodome’s public-address announcer and proclaimed, “It’s a beautiful day for outdoor football,” to generations of Rice University fans, died Monday night at a Houston hospital. He was 74.

One of Houston’s most distinctive voices, Duckett was remembered by friends and former colleagues as Houston’s foremost expert on track and field and as the institutional memory for a half-century of athletics at Rice, his alma mater.

“He could bring such perspective,” said Bill Cousins, Rice’s former sports information director. “You can look at the picture of Dicky Maegle being tackled in the Cotton Bowl, and J. Fred could tell you the names of the Rice cheerleaders standing on the sidelines.

“He spanned generations, and he was always there when we needed him.”

Duckett grew up playing on the fields around Rice and attended the university in the early 1950s, competing in track and football as a member of the Owls’ scout team under legendary coach Jess Neely. Sidelined by an injury during his junior season, he began working with Bill Whitmore, the Owls’ longtime sports information director, and was involved with the program for the balance of his life.

Away from his alma mater, he was the PA voice of the Astros from 1969 through 1992 and also worked the mic for the Oilers and for several other local pro franchises.

“Strangers,” he said during a 1990s interview, “are always telling me, ‘I’ve heard that voice. I just don’t know where.’ ”

Fans were never unclear, though, about their love for Duckett’s exaggerated announcement of Jose Cruz’s name. Cruz was one of Duckett’s biggest fans.

“He gave me one of his bats from his last game as an Astro,” Duckett said in 1991. “When he signed it, he put about fifteen U’s in there.”

Cruz, now an Astros first-base coach, said Monday night from Milwaukee: “He meant a lot to me. He’s the one to come out with the way they announced my name. He was the guy to do that, and I’ll never forget him.”

Another lasting love was track and field. His notebooks of local track and field records dating back decades were an invaluable resource for researchers.

“It’s man and woman against himself and herself,” he said in an 1980s interview. “They’re competing against what they can do, not if someone can block for them or pass the ball under the basket.”

After graduating from Rice, Duckett earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas and taught at St. John’s and at Awty International in addition to working as an insurance salesman.

Duckett’s wife of 29 years, Baudine, died in January. Friends said he had suffered from leukemia for several months.

Rice football games won’t be the same without you, Fred. We fans will always remember you, and I sincerely hope that whoever they find to handle the announcing duties will keep telling us what a beautiful day it always is for outdoor football. Rest in peace, J. Fred Duckett.

More tributes to this local sports icon are here, here, and here.

Probate court

I’m not really sure what to say about the Chron’s rather harrowing series on how messed up the Harris County Probate Court system can be, other than I sure am glad we’ve done estate planning, and I sure as hell hope it never amounts to more than a formality. Couple of excerpts, just to give you a taste if you skipped past them. From Monday:

Perry ”Bit” Whatley, 84, a former Baytown refinery worker and lifelong Texan, spent his final days in self-imposed exile, a fugitive from a more than two-year-old fight with the state probate courts.

Whatley was living in Arizona when he died, but it was not where he wanted to be, away from his home, cut off from his family and his $2 million fortune.


Soon after the filing of the guardianship case, the Whatleys withdrew $500,000 from an annuity, incurring an early withdrawal penalty. They gave most of the money to their own newly hired attorneys to fight the guardianship. Those attorneys now say the costs for the fight have grown to nearly $1 million.

In Harris County Probate Court, [Judge Mike] Wood, who also claimed he was trying to protect Whatley as a disabled Harris County resident, eventually authorized payments of $360,000 from Whatley’s money to four lawyers, three he appointed and one hired on behalf of Whatley’s niece. They have not yet provided final accounting of how much of Whatley’s money was spent.

The judge openly attacked opposing attorneys as unorthodox renegades who abused the system and instigated Whatley’s disappearance. In one court appearance last summer, he said he might have to order Whatley into court “in chains” and that it would be the fault of Whatley’s legal team.

However, Whatley’s hired attorneys remain adamant in their claims that Wood prejudged their client — without ever meeting Perry Whatley — and demonstrated his bias in a series of comments and rulings that threatened Whatley’s savings, his independence and his marriage.

[Whatley’s niece Jeannie] Anderson has another view. She believes those hired attorneys ”raped my uncle of his estate.”


Whatley’s attorneys decided to personally sue the judge, his appointees and others in an attempt to freeze spending of Whatley’s assets. The lawsuit accused the judge and others of fraud, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duties and asked for $15 million in damages.

Wood has called the suit frivolous and insisted he should be granted judicial immunity.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of attorneys suing a judge like that. I can’t imagine the suit will be allowed to proceed, but it still says something to me. How screwed up do things have to be for something like that to happen?

From Sunday:

Some of the fattest fees generated by any recent Texas probate case went to the accounting firm of Paula Miller, a former court favorite who is not a lawyer, a certified public accountant or a banker.

Miller, an accountant with two master’s degrees, did serve for a while, though, as Probate Judge Russell Austin’s campaign treasurer — something the family of River Oaks widow Doris Conte initially did not know.

Her family trusts eventually paid Miller and her company $1.38 million. Austin ordered more than $780,000 in additional payments to people assigned to work with her, according to court and family records.


In 1998, Austin personally introduced Miller to Doris Conte’s feuding children, Susan and Joe Conte Jr. The two at first agreed to allow Austin to appoint Miller to review accounting in their family trusts.

Initially, Miller charged the Contes more than $30,000 a month for what was supposed to be a temporary job. She later got the judge to approve hiring five law firms and a CPA, who got paid separately to help.

Within seven years after her 1998 appointment, Miller had generated more than $1 million for her own firm. When the Contes’ cash ran low, Miller got more by selling properties and cutting lease deals, sometimes over family objections.

In an interview, Miller claimed her fees were similar to those a bank might charge for a complex trust case. “We did a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

However, when Miller prepared to leave the trusts in 2003, she collected estimates from banks who competed to replace her. Those documents show that their proposed fees were lower than her own.

Miller’s work at first included redoing five years of financial records, funding the trusts, overseeing accounting and monitoring several lawsuits. But she also frequently billed at $225 an hour for tasks such as buying a lawn tractor and arranging for household repairs.

From 2003 to 2005, her last three years on the case, she earned nearly $400,000 from the Conte trusts, the second-largest reported payout to any appointee in a probate case in the state of Texas, based on a Houston Chronicle analysis of fees paid in probate cases over a three-year period.


In 2001, Miller became Austin’s campaign treasurer.

Miller also was among Austin’s $5,000 campaign contributors. Others who worked on the Conte case gave Austin money, too, including an appraiser, a CPA, lawyers and the doctor who had examined Conte and recommended she be declared unable to manage her own affairs. Such contributions are legal and subject to Texas disclosure laws, though critics claim they may present an appearance of impropriety.

Texas judicial rules generally do not require judges to disclose campaign-related relationships in court. However, Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics, said it might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer.

Austin said he felt it was unnecessary because it was a matter of public record. He said Miller did not help him raise money, though her name appeared on fundraising letters.

In 2005, the Contes discovered Miller’s role as Austin’s treasurer in an Web search of Harris County records. They were furious.

That same year, Miller had requested authorization from Austin to put all the Conte properties on the market, including their home. After the Contes objected, Miller, who had previously talked about resigning, stepped down from their case. She also stopped serving as Austin’s treasurer.

But before her work ended, Austin signed one more document in Miller’s favor. This one could protect her from the Contes.

“For purposes of any future claims of liability the effect of judicial discharge shall be as though Paula Miller never served … No person or entity shall have any cause of actions against Paula Miller or any of her actions or inactions … ,” the order said.

“Might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer”. Yeah. Or maybe for her to stay out of his campaign, what with the appearance of impropriety supposedly meaning something.

Anyway. They’re good reads, and they shed some light on a part of the judicial system that I at least knew nothing about. Check them out.

Hu? What?

Are we sure it’s time for another debate about gender-neutral pronouns? Because I could swear we just had one.

Okay, here’s the thing. It’s very easy to invent a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s very hard to get anyone to use it, which is why we have this discussion every few years, when some earnest linguist takes another shot at it. What they all seem to not realize is that we’ve more or less already settled on a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun:

The most common solution, using “they” or “them,” irks grammarians when the subject is singular.

Far as I’m concerned, they can take their irk and stick it, along with every silly attempt at inventing a new word no one will ever use, where the sun don’t shine. If you want to be technical, an invented word like “hu”, which last I checked ain’t in the dictionary, is also a grammatical error, so what’s the difference? I say the market has spoken, and it has decided that “they” and “them” (and “their”, too) can be singular as well as plural. Deal with it.

King versus Kenedy continued

They’re still fighting it out over wind farms – the Kenedy Ranch has ’em, the King Ranch doesn’t want ’em.

King Ranch President Jack Hunt has called for state legislation to regulate the farms – the lack of such laws governing wind farms making Texas a favorite spot for potential wind projects. He’s written newspaper opinion pieces and spoken to the media about what he sees as the dangers of the projects.

Hunt said he met with Kenedy Ranch overseers when the wind farms were first proposed a couple of years ago, hoping to get them to understand they’re “sacrificing the long-term value of a rare resource for short-term revenue.”

“But it sort of fell on deaf ears,” he said.

Marc Cisneros, who runs the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation from nearby Corpus Christi, has declined to shout back. But he said the project on his section of the ranch not only is environmentally sound but will allow the foundation’s charitable work to continue in an impoverished part of the state.

Which is pretty much what we’ve been hearing all along. Here’s some new information, which is greatly of interest to me:

The disagreement lingers even as Babcock & Brown and PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., prepare the sites for the turbines, which they both hope to have spinning sometime next year. PPM’s initial phase calls for 84 turbines on about 15,000 acres owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust – a $400 million investment that’s expected to generate 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 60,000 average-size homes.

PPM spokesman Jan Johnson said the company, part of Spanish power utility Iberdrola, has worked diligently to make sure the turbines will have as little effect on the area as possible. She said it already scaled back the number of turbines nearer the coastline in part to protect some birds’ flight patterns.

Jim Sinclair, the local biologist who studied the birds for PPM, said he’s been surprised at the relatively small number of birds he’s seen near the wind farm site. The area’s hundreds of varieties include mourning doves, long-billed curlews, hawks, orioles and redhead ducks. In general, Sinclair said, many of the birds stick close to the water and large clusters of oak trees, and the turbines are far enough away not to pose too much of a threat – information PPM says it’s shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.

“We simply haven’t seen a lot of them in the rotor-swept areas,” Sinclair said.

If the issue is birds and the danger that turbines pose to them, then this is pretty compelling. I’d say the ball is in the King Ranch’s court now.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of regulation here. Lord knows, we don’t do enough to regulate other forms of energy – more precisely, we don’t do enough to enforce those regulations. If we were talking about this being part of a comprehensive set of reforms – the kind that never seems to make it through the Lege unmolested – it’d be one thing. But until we can separate the King/Kenedy acrimony from what might or should be done, I’d rather be careful. Let the King Ranch show some evidence that the cost of what the Kenedy is doing is higher than they claim, and we can go from there. Link via South Texas Chisme.

Once again with jury duty

What John says.

Most people do not want to sit on a jury, and I was no different. Being away for a couple of days was quite disruptive (and this was a very short trial). Everybody has other things they want to do.

And that’s fine, but it was amazing to me how many people there started spouting rationales that clearly were designed to get out of jury service. “I couldn’t possibly convict someone based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt – it would have to be absolute proof.” Well, by that standard, nobody’s even getting convicted. “If a police officer testified, I would believe him no matter what!” You couldn’t evaluate what was being said? I have great respect for police, but let’s face it, like any other group of human beings, some are not credible.

The judge – a cranky guy who was substituting for the regular judge that day – was having none of it. The people saying this stuff got brought up, one by one, to discuss it with him.

Now, there are people who legitimately hold those views. It was painfully obvious that most of these folks were not among them. One woman kept saying, “I can’t be impartial!” “Why not?” “I can’t be!” “Why not?” “I just can’t!”

The worst was a 20-something woman who approached the bench, and after some muttered conversation we couldn’t hear in the back of the room, was sent away by the judge with a quite audible dismissal – “Just go be seated!” and came back to where we were sitting with a smirk on her face. Ha ha, I got out of it!

And while we all would have liked to have gotten out of it, the reality is that if we want to live in a country where we get a trial by a jury of our peers – whether in a criminal or civil case – somebody’s got to sit on those juries. If not us, then who?

It’s one thing to be honest about your biases. It’s fine to honestly say, “I do not understand what that law you’re describing means.” But to sit and just spout crap to get out of it marks you as somebody who doesn’t deserve the benefits of our system of justice.

You can’t give up a few days of your life? Go find a nice dictatorship where, if you run afoul of the law, you’ll be tossed in prison without the niceties of a trial. It is apparently what you prefer.

Perhaps someday Ms. Smirk-a-lot will find herself or a family member in court, hoping for sympathetic people to sit on the jury, and watching them weasel out of it.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll say it again: People who distort their beliefs to get out of jury duty, for the reason that they don’t feel like being on a jury, are beneath contempt. If you have a legitimate reason for not being able to serve, that’s fine – tell the judge and be done with it. Otherwise, suck it up. I’ve been in Houston 19 years now, and I’ve served on exactly two juries, one of which was for traffic court where they guarantee up front you’ll be out the same day. If that’s your idea of an excessive burden, I pity you.

Keeping the gas stations stocked

Among the many task forces that were convened after the Hurricane Rita evacuation fiasco was one to deal with the issue of depleted gasoline supplies along evacuation routes. Here’s the report.

Surprisingly, until Rita hit Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005, fuel supply had been omitted not only from the state’s nearly 200-page evacuation plan but from many local ones as well.

“What we know now is there was no fuel plan,” said Jack E. Little, former Shell Oil Co. president and CEO, whom Perry tapped to oversee his Task Force on Evacuation, Transportation and Logistics. “Every company was on their own. The problem arose when the voluntary evacuation was overlaid on top of the mandatory evacuation and the roads were clogged.”


When evacuation discussions finally were held in city halls and among county commissioners courts, gasoline makers found themselves outside with the public. There was no heads-up to prepare gas stations, which were operating like it was any other day in Texas, with underground reserves at a quarter to half-full.

“Rita occurred and there was really no fuel desk,” said Wade Upton, the retired Valero Energy executive credited with crafting the resulting evacuation fuel plan.

Together with [Texas Emergency Management Chief Jack] Colley, Upton and the fuel committee agreed on a series of benchmarks that would activate certain responses.

No longer will gas stations, as they had before, operate with half-full or less storage tanks during an evacuation. Typically, gas stations keep anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 gallons of fuel on hand.

“We didn’t know that before,” Colley said.

Now, when storm winds are five days from Texas’ shore, fuel trucks will be filled and positioned in pre-selected staging areas known only to the industry and the state.

From there, trucks will be directed to gas stations along the coast, particularly those in urban centers such as Houston, where underground tanks will be filled to the 65 percent mark.

When storm winds are two days away, fuel distribution will move from the coastline to stations along the state’s key northern and western evacuation routes.

It’s this key 48- to 72-hour window that Colley thinks will change evacuation for the better.

“It’s absolutely essential to this fuel piece,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies will escort the fuel trucks, guiding them around evacuation routes so they don’t get stuck in traffic.

Once the storm passes over land, Colley and fuel strategists will concentrate on redirecting distribution in coastal cities, so that when people return to their homes, they can get back to work and those with power outages will have plenty of fuel for generators.

Seems like a reasonable plan – certainly, it’s better than no plan. I think any Rita-sized evacuation is going to severely tax the system no matter what we put in place, but this ought to handle most situations well enough.

The task force thought of some other things, too:

Colley smiles when asked about some of the smaller, more irksome items such as stoplights in small towns on evacuation routes and trains.

Despite the Rita emergency, many smaller towns along evacuation routes kept stoplights timed as if it were just another day, helping slow millions of fleeing motorists to a crawl.

No one even considered asking train companies to delay or reroute their operations.

“You know that train track in Giddings?” he asks, referring to the town that sits on U.S. 290 that all Houstonians must pass when they take the northwest route to Austin.

“There will not be a train going through that town next time. Stoplights in the town will not be on.”

Good to know. Houstonist has more.