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December, 2009:

Annise Parker: Texas Progressive Alliance’s Texan of the Year

The Texan of the Year Award is voted on annually by the members of the Texas Progressive Alliance, the largest state-level organization of bloggers, blogs, and netroots activists in the United States. This year’s winner is Houston Mayor-Elect, Annise Parker:

With the election of Annise Parker as mayor of Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States signaled that they pay more attention to qualifications than to sexual orientation. This news reverberated around the globe, and brought positive attention to Texas. National Democratic groups took note of a more progressive Houston than they assumed, and the talk and speculation turned to the possibilities of Texas turning blue sooner rather than later.

The Parker win was no accident. She put together a talented campaign team that ran on the strength of the grassroots, rather than City Hall insiders. Key Houston area progressive bloggers aligned themselves with Parker, and were embraced by the campaign. Blogs became an effective messaging strategy, emphasizing Parker’s qualifications, and her opponent’s weaknesses.

In the runoff, several third parties, including one longtime right wing operative who endorsed Parker’s opponent, launched a series of homophobic attacks against her, but they failed to do her any serious damage because voters recognized her distinguished service as a member of Council and City Controller, and valued her experience and financial acumen. Voters knew who she was and what she was about because she had always been open and honest about it, and that was more important than anything some agitator could say.

For her historic victory, for making the rest of the world re-evaluate its opinion of Texas, and for running a truly modern grassroots campaign, the Texas Progressive Alliance is proud to name Houston’s Mayor-Elect Annise Parker its Texan of the Year for 2009.

Annise Parker is the Alliance’s fifth recipient of its “Texan of the Year Award.” Parker joins former State Representative Carter Casteel of New Braunfels, who won the award in 2005; Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent PAC in 2006; State Representatives Garnet Coleman, Jim Dunnam, and Pete Gallego who shared the honor in 2007; and the Harris County Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign in 2008.

Also earning recognition from the Alliance were Ramey Ko, Hank Gilbert, Calvin Tillman, Texas Watchdog, and State Representative Elliott Naishtat, who were each recognized as “Gold Star Texans” for 2009.

Gov 2.0

I hope that the new year will bring more of this to Houston.

Welcome to a movement the tech crowd is calling “Gov 2.0” — where mobile technology and GPS apps are helping give citizens like Newmark more of a say in how their local tax money is spent. It’s public service for the digital age.

A host of larger U.S. cities from San Francisco to New York quietly have been releasing treasure troves of public data to Web and mobile application developers.

That may sound dull. But tech geeks transform banal local government spreadsheets about train schedules, complaint systems, potholes, street lamp repairs and city garbage into useful applications for mobile phones and the Web.

The aim is to let citizens report problems to their governments more easily and accurately; and to put public information, which otherwise may be buried in file cabinets and Excel files, at the fingertips of taxpayers.

Peter Brown specifically mentioned using this kind of technology during his Mayoral campaign. I hope that it’s an area where he was able to influence Mayor-Elect Parker while he was supporting her during the runoff. The thing about this is that the main expense the city would incur is in making its own data publicly available in a usable format like XML. Once the data is out there, app developers will jump on it and take it from there. Some thought needs to be given to how to manage users’ expectations – just because you submit a photo of a pothole doesn’t mean it’ll get fixed immediately, for instance – but as long as people understand what this sort of thing is all about, I think it’ll be a big hit. Thanks to Martha, who has some other suggestions for how to leverage these innovations, for the link.

Metro does historic preservation

I was sent this press release about Metro workers getting some interesting training as they prepare to build the new light rail lines, and thought it was worth sharing.

‘Hardhat and blue collar’ was the dress code for training classes offered at METRO in mid-December. The classes weren’t elective; they are required study for contractors and subcontractors working on Houston’s East End, North, Southeast and Uptown Light-Rail Transit (LRT) Corridors to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Texas Antiquities Code, and to help workers understand the impact of their work in a broader context.

Duane Peter, a professional archaeologist, and Marsha Prior, an architectural historian, both consultants for Houston Rapid Transit (HRT), presented a mix of information that touched on everything from bricks to bones and many points in between. Prior noted that historic buildings could be more fragile than other structures in a construction area; therefore, special care must be taken to ensure that workers are aware of the historic buildings and know how to operate around them.

“So far, 19 historic properties have been identified along the Southeast Corridor, and they range from houses and religious facilities to government and commercial multiple-story buildings,” Peter noted. “The Niels Esperson Building (814 Travis), the S.H. Kress & Co. Building (705 Main), and the Annunciation Catholic Church (1618 Texas) have features that are unique, such as limestone columns, terracotta coverings, or arched and round windows that require special care. Awareness of these properties on the part of the workers will ensure that they are not accidentally damaged during construction.”

I think I’ve mentioned before that when Tiffany and I visited Athens in 2000, we used their newly-constructed rail lines to get about. They were still working on some other lines, which were to be ready for the 2004 Olympics, but had a hard time meeting their deadlines because every time they stuck a shovel in the ground, they found some historical or archaeological artifact. One of the local museums had an exhibition called “The City Beneath The City” about what they’d found, which we got to see while we were there. Needless to say, Houston will not have anything like that to deal with, but it’s good to know that if the construction crews do find something of interest, they’ll know what to do with it.

KBH’s transportation plan

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems like an odd time to be rolling out policy initiatives, especially in a campaign that’s been going on for months, so I’ll be brief with this.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on Tuesday offered a sweeping plan to overhaul transportation planning in Texas if she is elected governor, but she stopped short of saying how she would pay for it.

Hutchison has cast the final killing off of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor and the restructuring of his state transportation commission as one of the cornerstones of her campaign to oust him in the March Republican primary.

[…]

The senator proposed a major restructuring of how transportation planning is done in Texas, but she said as governor she would propose a select committee on transportation funding. That pushes the major question of how to pay for new roads off until after the election, although Hutchison said she would not support any funding mechanism that is not approved by voters as a local option.

There’s a time for studies and committees and whatnot, and there’s a time to recognize that we already know what we need to do, and that promises to create select committees are just a way to avoid acknowledging that reality.

While [State Sen. John] Carona and other transportation leaders in the Legislature have called for higher gas taxes, she instead said she’d appoint a task force to study how efficient TxDOT uses the money it already gets, and then to evaluate whether news funds are needed.

Carona called that “a very conservative approach and a starting point for discussion of the issues.”

But he said no amount of efficiencies likely to be found in studying TxDOT’s operations will provide the money Texas needs to keep traffic moving in its busiest cities or to keep its massive network of highways and bridges in good repair. “I can’t speak to what her intentions would be post campaign, should she be elected. But it’s clear that the time for studying is past us now. I applaud her desire to look at the efficiency — that’s a job that is never done — but efficiency alone won’t solve this problem. It’s a first step, but by itself it will be no where close to enough.”

Yeah, well, nobody ever won a Republican primary by promising to raise a tax. I must concede that if she did come out in support of Carona’s position, she’d surely be attacked by Rick Perry for it, even though he himself has not ruled out a gas tax increase. No one ever said this would be easy. Anyway, you can read her full plan here or here if you want. Burka, Hank Gilbert, Come and Take It, and the Trib have more.

The effect of life without parole

Death sentences are way down since the law was changed to allow a life without parole sentence.

Since a new life-without-parole law took effect in 2005, Harris County — with a national reputation for pursuing capital punishment and home to the fourth-largest city in America, with a population of nearly 4 million people — has sent fewer inmates to death row than Tarrant or Bexar counties, urban counties that include Fort Worth and San Antonio, respectively. Tarrant County’s population is about 1.7 million; Bexar’s is 1.6 million, U.S. Census records show.

Bexar and Tarrant each sent eight newly convicted killers to death row in the four years since the law took effect, state prison data show. In the same period, larger Harris and Dallas counties sent six apiece, based on the Chronicle’s analysis of Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row arrivals.

[…]

Statewide, only about 50 inmates have been added to death row since the law took effect Sept. 1, 2005. In contrast, from September 2001 to September 2005 — the four years before the law was enacted — 90 were sentenced to death.

There were only nine inmates sentenced to death in Texas in 2009, which continues a downward trend. None of those sentences came from Harris County, which says a lot. As I’ve said before, I’m happy for this to keep going that direction, but I am curious about something.

Already, the 4-year-old law has created a kind of “life row” — a perpetual population of convicted killers and accomplices who can never win reductions in their sentence regardless of behavior, youth , mental deficiency or other factors. This group appears to be growing faster than death row itself.

One consequence of this is that some years down the line we will have more and more elderly inmates in Texas’s prisons. Grits has written frequently about the costs associated with elderly inmates – here’s a recent example, or just go here and browse. Most of what’s driving this is the long, often excessive, sentences that are given out in other cases, like drug crimes, but clearly LWOP sentences will add to this. I’m wondering at what point someone in the Lege will take notice of this and try to change things so that older inmates with health issues can be released as a cost-containment measure. That’ll be a fun debate, whenever it happens.

Leach v. Tech

Yesterday, Texas Tech head Mike Leach filed a lawsuit against the school to force them to let him coach in Saturday’s Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

Mike Leach is taking his battle from the football field to the courtroom.

Attorney Ted Liggett filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order on Tuesday that would allow Leach to continue coaching Texas Tech in Saturday’s Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

[…]

Leach, 48, is alleged to have ordered [wide receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN announcer Craig James] placed under guard inside dark, confined rooms on two occasions after the player said he had been told by a doctor he could not practice because he had suffered a concussion. Leach also directed abusive, profane language toward James, according to a spokeswoman for the James family.

A series of e-mails and statements from former Tech coaches and players that have been obtained by the Chronicle include praise for Leach and criticism of Adam James’ talent, attitude and work ethic.

“The family is confident that the university has proceeded and will continue to proceed in a fair and thorough manner with its investigation,” the family spokeswoman said Tuesday. “It’s unfortunate that coach Leach has stooped to personal and unfounded slurs against a player and his family.”

Today Tech fired him.

Leach’s attorney Ted Liggett said that Texas Tech general counsel Pat Campbell approached him outside the courtroom and told him that win, lose or draw in the hearing, Leach was out, effective immediately.

When Liggett entered the courtroom he told the judge there was no need for the hearing on Leach’s request that he be reinstated to coach the Alamo Bowl.

[…]

Liggett said Leach’s side has evidence that shows the decision to suspend the coach was without merit.

“So they pulled the trigger,” Liggett said. “They don’t want that coming out.”

Boy howdy is this going to be a circus. The Trib has a copy of the original suit. Is it just me, or does anyone else think this will be a bit of a distraction for the Tech players on Saturday?

One more thing:

Leach is the second Big 12 coach in recent weeks to be accused of improper treatment of players. Kansas coach Mark Mangino resigned this month in the wake of allegations by former players that he made insensitive, humiliating remarks to them during games or practice, often in front of others.

Perhaps the conference needs to take a look at this to see if there’s something they could do to improve things. I’m just saying. Richard Justice, Jake Silverstein, who had previously joked about the Texas Monthly cover jinx, and Martha have more.

Judicial Q&A: Brad Morris

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. There are a lot of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County this election, and so this is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. I will also be conducting some in-person interviews of candidates who will be involved in contested primaries for non-judicial offices. Please see my 2010 Election page for a full list of Q&As and interviews.)

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

The concise dry answer to this question is my resume, which accompanies this reply. My parents were both native Texans; my mother grew up on a farm in Colllin County and graduated from North Texas just before World War II. My father grew up in Southern Arkansas and worked for an oilfield equipment company in Freer, TX when WW II broke out. He flew 25 B-24 missions over Europe as a lead navigator/bombardier and was discharged as Major. He returned to the oilfield equipment business after the war. I was born in Dallas but the family moved to Caracas, Venezuela before I started 2nd grade and we lived there until I was halfway through junior high. We returned to Dallas in 1965. I have lived in Houston since I came to Rice in 1968. I studied political science at Rice; got lucky and married a wise, good-hearted, beautiful woman I met at Rice, practiced law with a Rice classmate for 17 years, got appointed to serve as Associate Judge in the late 90’s and since then have made my living practicing exclusively Family Law. My two adult sons are profoundly independent and smart; how their lives unfold is very interesting to watch.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

I am running to be the next Judge of the 311th Family District Court. Family courts hear cases for divorce that deal with the description, valuation and division of property and custody of children, and all disputes that are between parties who are not married that involve custody of children and cases prosecuted by Harris County Child Protective Services to protect children from harm by their caregivers.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The incumbent judge, Doug Warne is retiring. He has done an excellent job, and leaves big shoes to fill. Having worked in this court before, I believe that I can continue to maintain the excellent reputation of this particular court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have 33 years of legal experience, 17 of which was a broad range of civil litigation and transactions: collection efforts by creditors, consumer claims and, of course, family law; transactional work writing wills and trusts, creating partnerships, and corporations. That broad range of civil work has proven helpful in dealing with the range of issues that come up in family courts and family mediations. From 1995 through 1998 I served as the Associate Judge of this court, judicial experience which I very much enjoyed. Since that time I have limited my work to family law litigation and mediation. My judicial and mediation work has given me the opportunity to deal with parties in Spanish, a language in which I am fluent, having grown up in Caracas, Venezuela.

5. Why is this race important?

Litigants in family courts need to have the opportunity to be heard in a patient and calm environment that knows the law and will apply it equally to everyone, without favoritism, impatience, or delay. Divorce and family disputes are so very common in our culture and the volume of cases is very large. The work requires commitment and compassion. I know from experience that I can do the job well, and look forward to the opportunity to do so.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have the education, experience and temperament to do the job well and my unique combination of those characteristics make me the best-qualified candidate.

Panel to review term limits appointed

Back in October, Houston City Council agreed to create a commission to study Houston’s term limits law with an eye to possibly placing a resolution on the ballot next year with some changes. Yesterday, that commission was named.

Mayor Bill White on Tuesday announced a 21-member commission to study Houston’s term limits and make recommendations by July 1. Any changes to the current limit of three, two-year terms for Houston’s mayor, controller and 14 City Council members would be subject to approval by the council and by voters.

The ordinance creating the commission authorized it to recommend changes but not to propose elimination of term limits. It also prohibits any changes that would enable White, who is completing his third term and is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, to run for mayor again.

[…]

“Houston has the most stringent term limits in Texas — and maybe in the country — for a city with a strong-mayor form of government,” said Arthur Schechter, the former Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman named by White to chair the commission. “If there is a perceived need to make some changes such as longer terms or more terms, we need to consider that.”

This got the usual response from usual suspect Clymer Wright, who vows to fight it like it’s 1991 all over again. I think times and the electorate that will eventually vote on this are different now. That doesn’t mean we’ll get a different outcome, but I do believe this review is long overdue. If San Antonio can do this, so can Houston. Mary Benton has a press release about the panel, which includes all of the members’ names. Houston Politics and Nancy Sims have more.

What building is that?

A couple of weeks back, I got an email from Wayne Lorentz, the founder of the Houston Architecture Info forum, telling me about a new iPhone app called Towrs. From the email he sent me:

Right now it’s for the iPhone (if I can get my hands on a Blackberry I’ll test it there, too), and uses the iPhone’s geolocation feature to display the interesting buildings near where the user is standing. Downtown Houston and Galveston are two of the areas it is designed for. It also works well in Chicago, Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, and a few other cities.

At the time I received this, I was totally focused on the Houston runoffs, and I told him I’d mention this on the blog once that was over. Well, I promptly forgot about it, but was thankfully reminded by this Swamplot post about it. As noted, all you need to do is point the iPhone’s browser to Towrs.com and it should just work. I’m not iPhone-enabled, so I can’t vouch for it myself, but if you want to know more, drop Wayne a note to [email protected] and let him know. Happy sightseeing!

Air cleanup progress report

Some good news about efforts to get manufacturing plants to pollute less.

In 2005, following Houston Chronicle and state reports about alarming levels of butadiene in neighborhoods near Texas Petrochemicals, the company signed a non-binding agreement with the TCEQ to cut emissions by at least half within five years and to keep pollutants from wafting over the fence line.

Not satisfied, the city later negotiated its own contract with Texas Petrochemicals that also held the company liable for damages if it failed to meet the terms.

The plant initially installed a system to recover gas from its flare — a device used to burn off gases during emergencies — and lowered its threshold for leak detection.

Among other steps to cut emissions, the company also installed monitors along two fence lines and began using handheld infrared cameras to detect leaks quickly. If the monitors uncover a potential problem, then state and local officials receive immediate notification by e-mail, under the contract with the city.

Kirk Johnson, the plant’s manager, said the improved technology has produced a culture change at the facility.

“Without the fence line monitors, we wouldn’t have reason to look for leaks,” he said. “We found the leaks whenever we found them. Now we’re finding them quicker.”

With the technological and behavioral changes, the plant’s butadiene emissions have been in steady retreat, dropping from 178,674 pounds in 2004 to 43,995 pounds in 2008, a 75 percent decrease, according to the most recent federal data available.

That’s a big difference, and it will have a large effect on the quality of life for folks who live nearby. Credit goes to Texas Petrochemicals for changing its behavior, the TCEQ for enforcing the agreement, and Mayor Bill White, who pushed for the stricter limits that Texas Petrochemicals agreed to. You may wonder why this approach isn’t being used at other big-pollution plants. The short answer is that the industry claims Texas Petrochemicals is a unique situation and that the same methods used there to monitor and measure toxin levels wouldn’t work as well. That strikes me as more excuse than justification, and I don’t see why we should be taking their word for it. But that’s the situation now, and as I’ve said before, it’s going to take a change in leadership in the state for things to be done differently.

Better days ahead for UTMB

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is not only coming back, it’s growing.

Although the UT Board of Regents authorized 3,800 layoffs, UTMB officials announced that about 3,000 jobs would be cut. The actual number turned out to be about 2,400, but it was widely interpreted as a step toward dismantling Texas’ oldest medical school. The Legislature forced the regents to reverse policy, a stunning change of fortune that is slowly beginning to benefit the local economy.

UTMB has already filled more than half of the jobs left vacant by the layoffs and eventually will have nearly 1,000 more employees than before the storm, said Cindy Stanton, UTMB director of recruitment services.

The UTMB expansion offers economic hope to a city whose population shrank an estimated 20 percent after the Sept. 13, 2008, hurricane. “Galveston will benefit from the economic impact of more workers crossing the causeway,” Galveston spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said. “We will likely see gains in sales tax, hotel-motel tax, and possibly property tax,” Cahill said.

That’s just great to hear. May there be a lot more good news like this to come.

Quan officially files

I had lunch today at the Post Oak Grill on Milam so I could be there for Gordon Quan’s official announcement that he is running for Harris County Judge. In fact, as Martha noted, he submitted his paperwork and paid his filing fee to be on the Democratic primary ballot. (Quan will have an opponent in March, Ahmad Hassan, who lost the 2008 primary to David Mincberg.) Here’s a copy of the press release about the event, and here’s a draft copy of the speech Quan gave at the event. I want to highlight this bit, which was right at the beginning:

I want to bring new ideas to the County Government and look to address the root causes of the problems to develop solutions and not just put a bandage on the problem.

Our jail is under court supervision and is overcrowded. While voters had previously defeated a bond election for a new jail, I believe they spoke out against the manner criminal justice was administered in Harris County.

I want to work to hand-in-hand with the commissioners, Sheriff Garcia, District Attorney Lykos, the local municipalities and the courts and elected officials like Senator Ellis to set criteria for fines versus confinement for minor offenses, a centralized jail system for more rapid bonding, the development of a public defender system and a regional D.N.A. lab to avoid wrongful confinement.

On top of these issues, I want to look at methods to remove from the criminal justice system people who are homeless and suffering from mental health issues. A proactive approach of investing in affordable housing with supportive services would remove “frequent flyers” from our jails and emergency rooms where they run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost for tax payers.

As you might imagine, this is something I’m very glad to hear. This isn’t just a matter of justice, it’s also a matter of fiscal responsibility. We’re paying millions of dollars to lock up people who don’t need to be locked up, which was always a bad idea but is now an urgent priority given the county’s financial situation. I’m really looking forward to seeing Quan push this issue.

An unexpected treat from this event was seeing local sports legend Barry Warner act as emcee and introduce Quan. I had no idea that Warner was so active in the Asian-American community, but he is, and he’s a longtime friend of Quan’s. I shook Warner’s hand after the event, which was nearly as cool as getting my picture taken with Lisa Malosky at Rep. Ellen Cohen’s campaign kickoff event nearly four years ago.

Anyway. Quan will have a tough race against incumbent Judge Ed Emmett, who is generally well regarded and has his performance during Hurricane Ike as Exhibit A for his re-election. I don’t know what kind of fundraising chops Quan has, but he will need to pile up some dough to get his name and message out there. From what I saw of him at this event, I thought his message was a strong one, his challenge will be to convince enough people to change horses. I think he’s about as good a candidate as the Democratic Party could have hoped for this year, and the crowd at this event was certainly fired up about him. We’ll see how it goes.

Judge Jackson resigns

Harris County Criminal Court At Law Judge Donald Jackson, who was recently convicted of misdemeanor official oppression, has resigned his bench, effective Thursday. Given his conviction, I’d say this counts as no surprise. Jackson was one of many judges up for re-election in 2010, and he had accumulated three primary opponents in addition to Democratic challengers, so the question is who will be appointed to finish out his term. I assume that since this is a county court and not a district court that the responsibility for that falls on Commissioners Court. I wonder if they’ll want to wait till the Republicans have chosen a nominee, which could be as late as April if there’s a runoff, or if they’ll seek out someone who will simply serve out Jackson’s term and won’t run for another.

Judicial Q&A: William Thursland

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. There are a lot of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County this election, and so this is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. I will also be conducting some in-person interviews of candidates who will be involved in contested primaries for non-judicial offices. Please see my 2010 Election page for a full list of Q&As and interviews.)

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I’m Bill Thursland and I’m running as a democratic candidate for the 315th Juvenile District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears two types of cases. The first are juvenile delinquency cases which run the gamut from class B misdemeanors to capital murders. The second type are CPS cases which deal with abused and/or neglected children.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

As a juvenile court judge I believe I can make a positive difference in the lives of the children and teenagers that appear before me. After practicing law for the last 28 years and having become a father for the first time 6 years ago, I believe I have the experience and temperament to serve as a juvenile court judge.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I’ve been a practicing trial attorney in Harris County for over 27 years. I have handled both civil and criminal cases. For the last seven years, a large part of my practice has dealt with cases heard in the juvenile courts. I am classified as an A attorney under the plan adopted by the juvenile court judges pursuant to the Fair Defense Act which means that I am qualified to handle all levels of delinquency cases including capital murders and appeals.

In regard to CPS cases, I have represented children, parents and intervenors (typically the grandparents) in well over 100 cases. In addition, I have represented parents in at least eight CPS appeals.

5. Why is this race important?

The office I am seeking deals with the well being of children and parental rights. Therefore, it is not only important for the individuals involved in a particular court case but also for society at large.

Most of the litigants are indigent and many suffer from various emotional and psychological disorders. A large percentage only speak spanish. The judge of a juvenile court not only needs to bring legal qualifications to the bench but also the sensitivity gained from representing many people from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. As the father of two small children (6 & 4) this race is also very important. I realize the tremendous effect a judge’s decision can have on families.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I am the more qualified candidate based on my extensive and varied litigation experience. I am the only candidate who has actually litigated cases in the juvenile courts.

HCAD rules for Hoang in homestead dispute

On Christmas Eve, the Chron reported that Council Member-Elect Al Hoang and his wife had claimed homestead exemptions on two separate houses, one in Houston and one in Pearland. Now the Harris County Appraisal District has verified Hoang’s explanation about the exemptions, saying that it was properly carried over from the previous owner.

Hoang had previously refused to answer questions about the homestead exemption. But in an e-mail to the Chronicle on Monday, Hoang said he never sought an exemption for the home on Bugle that he now claims as his residence within District F, which he soon will represent.

Bonnie Hebert, an assistant director at HCAD, confirmed that Hoang’s explanation was correct. State law applies the exemption based on Jan. 1 ownership, Hebert said, and a new owner benefits for the duration of the year even if he or she doesn’t technically qualify.

Hoang will not receive the exemption for 2010, Hebert said.

Fair enough. I still think this should have been reported before the election and not after it, but the Chron just doesn’t put enough resources into lower tier election coverage for that to happen.

The story follows up on the other issues that were raised last week, such as the matter of his voter registration, which was reported as being in District G:

In his e-mail Monday, he said he sent the Harris County voter registrar a form with his new address in May 2008 and went to the office in person to change it after learning his prior address, in Council District G, was still listed as his voting address.

“Maybe it got lost in the mail,” Hoang said.

Well, I can believe that the Tax Assessor’s office screwed it up, as it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.

Hoang continued to insist in his e-mail Monday that two elements missing from his campaign finance reports — the dates of donations and occupations of donors who gave more than $500 in a reporting period — are not required for city election candidates. The city attorney’s office confirmed that these elements are required.

Hoang can believe whatever he wants, but I can say from having looked at every single finance report that was submitted for this campaign that no other candidate omitted the date like he did. This ain’t rocket science. He needs to listen to what the City Attorney is telling him.

Yard waste

I hadn’t realized that an ordinance requiring bbiodegradable bags for yard waste had been passed, but I like it.

Under the ordinance, the city will not collect yard waste in plastic bags, and will fine residents up to $2,000 for putting leaves and clippings in garbage bins.

Plastic bags, made from petroleum, are sturdy and easy to use, but are widely considered an environmental nuisance that can linger for centuries in landfills.

The newly mandated bags begin to decompose within six weeks and leave no harmful residue behind.

As part of the new effort, the city will send bagged leaves and clippings to Living Earth Technology Co. to turn the waste into mulch.

The company will sell the mulch and give the city 10 cents for every bag sold.

City officials predict that the change will result in the diversion of 60,000 tons of organic material from local landfills at an annual savings of $2 million in fees, or 10 percent of the city’s yearly budget for waste disposal.

It makes sense to me that the cost for dealing with this kind of waste gets passed directly to those who generate it. Everybody creates garbage, but not everybody creates this kind of garbage. Whether they respond by generating less of it – by using a mulching lawn mower and/or starting a compost pile, for instance – or by using the biodegradable bags, either way the city can save money and landfill space. It’s a win all around. Implementation has been pushed back till February 1 to ensure an adequate supply of the accepted bags, so make sure you’re prepared. I hope this is a sign that the city will begin to take more steps to create incentives for people to recycle more and throw away less, because there’s a lot we can do to improve on that score.

A win for the Washington Quiet Zone

Some good news for those who live in and around the Washington Avenue corridor.

Come late April, train horns should be quieter through the Washington Avenue corridor from just north of Interstate 10 to Harvard Street.

Union Pacific and two other railroads use the rail line that parallels the corridor, and federal rules currently require them to signal their approach to road intersections in the area. Residents who live nearby are weary of the horns, which sound day and night, and have been working to create a quiet zone for years.

I’ve said before, I can hear those horns from inside my house more than a mile away, and they sound at all hours. This will be a huge improvement in these folks’ quality of life.

Texas blog roundup for the week of December 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like to thank everyone for reading all of the weekly blog roundups this year. Click on for the last roundup of 2009, as we all look forward to 2010.

(more…)

Katz to file for Lite Guv

Looks like we’re in for another contested primary for Democrats in statewide races.

Two weeks after former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle surprised many by filing to seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, Austin deli owner Marc Katz plans to add his name to the primary race on Wednesday.

I’ve heard it said that Katz was only going to run if no other viable candidates stepped forward. If that’s the case, then either he doesn’t think much of Earle, or he never really meant that and always intended to run. In any event, that’s three contested primaries at the statewide level for Democrats, with this one possibly becoming a multi-candidate race. Considering where we were as recently as six weeks ago, that’s a pretty remarkable achievement. In any event, Earle has written about why he’s running for Lite Guv, which is worth your time to read. I look forward to hearing more about Katz’s reasons for running.

Perfection isn’t everything, but losing still stinks

So, anyone else watch that Jets-Colts game? I’ve read a lot of commentary about it today, some in favor of Coach Caldwell’s decision to pull the starters but more against, and there are two points I think need to be highlighted.

1. I can understand the desire to give starters a little extra rest, and to minimize the chances of a fluke injury derailing the team’s chances of winning the Super Bowl. I’m having a much harder time understanding the rationale for doing so in the middle of a game that’s still up for grabs. If the game wasn’t close, that would have been one thing. But to pull Peyton Manning, a guy who’s played in 191 straight games in part because he so seldom gets hit, when leading 15-10 midway in the third quarter? That’s out there, to say the least. Not playing Manning and the other regulars that got pulled at all would have made more sense to me.

2. All of the commentary I’ve seen has focused on the Colts and the effect Coach Caldwell’s actions would have on them. But it’s not just about the Colts. By essentially conceding the game to the Jets, Caldwell may have changed the playoff picture. Certainly, the Jets, who now control their own playoff destiny, were affected, in their case positively. The Texans, who now need two of the Jets, Broncos, and Ravens to lose to have a shot, and the Steelers, who need all that and more, were damaged. In baseball, at least, it’s generally considered poor form for a team that has already made the playoffs to put a weak lineup out against a team that is still competing for the postseason. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have some qualms about the Colts having that much influence over all these teams’ playoff chances. That just isn’t right.

The Bridge World has written about what they call “sportsmanlike dumping”, a condition that occurs when it’s in a competitor or team’s best interest to not do as well as they could in a given game or match so as to increase their odds of winning a championship. That’s the Colts’ basic argument here: This game meant nothing to them, so their strategy was not predicated on winning it, but on maximizing their chances to win the Super Bowl. Giving some starters the second half off was their way to do that. That’s fine as far as it goes, but as The Bridge World has noted in some of its more detailed examinations of the phenomenon, which tend to occur in tournaments that have poorly thought out conditions for advancement, the ethics of the situation can change if your championship-optimizing behavior disproportionately affects another team. If by not playing your best you prevent another team from advancing, is that right? That is precisely the case here. So I ask: What responsibility, if any, do the Colts have to the Texans and the Steelers and the NFL in general to play their best in a specific game? I don’t think you can truly evaluate Caldwell’s decision without taking that question into account. Sean Pendergrast goes into that from the Texans’ viewpoint.

Finally, I note that two years ago when the Patriots had started out 14-0, there was a fair bit of nattering in the press about how a perfect regular season is less important than a Super Bowl win. I thought Jim Henley had a good response to those concerns, and I just find it interesting that we’re revisiting all that a mere two years later, but from the perspective of a coach who agreed with that formula, unlike Bill Belichick. Belichick ultimately didn’t get what he wanted. We’ll see if Caldwell does. All I can say is that if the Colts flame out before the Super Bowl, it’s gonna be ugly. What do you think?

Judicial Q&A: Lee Arellano

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. There are a lot of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County this election, and so this is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. I will also be conducting some in-person interviews of candidates who will be involved in contested primaries for non-judicial offices. Please see my 2010 Election page for a full list of Q&As and interviews.)

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Lee Arellano. I am a candidate for the 270th CIVIL District Court of Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This is a court of general CIVIL jurisdiction that hears many types of cases; including, but not limited to, breach of contract, employment disputes, real estate matters, personal injury and death, insurance disputes, etc.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

There are about 100 Democratic candidates running for 65 judicial benches that are up for re-election in 2010. The Democratic Party Chair has spread out the 100 announced candidates among the 65 judicial benches and I was assigned to the 270th CIVIL District Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

By the time of 2010 general election I will be in my 30th year as a licensed and practicing CIVIL trial lawyer. Over the last 20 years, as a court appointed mediator, I assisted hundreds of other lawyers and their clients resolve contested CIVIL cases in both state and federal courts. I am the only candidate in my race who is BOARD CERTIFIED in CIVIL Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Since 1974 I have also held a Texas Real Estate Broker’s license.

5. Why is this race important?

The 270th is primarily a court where one comes to recover money resulting from personal injury, legal or medical negligence, an insurance claim, an employee/employer dispute or any other type of monetary dispute. I have litigated or mediated all of these types of disputes, and many others. I have tried jury and bench trials to judges in state, county, Justice of the Peace, and federal district and bankruptcy courts. I have been involved in cases before Texas administrative agencies, state and federal courts of appeal and the Texas Supreme Court. The Democratic primary voter must send the most qualified candidate to run against the Republican candidate in the November 2010 general election, and I am the candidate who wants that job and is seeking your vote in the March 2010 Primary Election.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government and being a part of that great institution would be a honor and a great way serve the citizens of Harris County. I am a native Texan, born in Galveston and raised in the small industrial town of Texas City by a single mom who instilled in me the values of hard work, a good education and the importance of compassion. As a mediator my ability to really listen and discern the root causes driving people’s disputes has proven to be a valuable asset in getting cases settled and moved off of the courts’ dockets. I possess more than sufficient experience to thoroughly qualify me to be seated in the 270th Civil District Court.

As one of the 2003 co-founders of the non-profit group, Harris County Democratic Lawyers’ Association (www.HCDLA.com), I have worked hard to build a solid Democratic networking organization. I am proud to say HCDLA now has many Democratic minded members, including a number of elected officials, judges, lawyers, business people, academicians and many candidates who seek public office. The members elected me president of HCDLA 5 times in the past 5 years and many have come out in strong support of my candidacy for the 270th. This list can be seen at www.arellanoforjudge.com. My commitment to volunteerism is well known to our community, the Houston Bar Association and to the Harris County Democratic Party. From this experience, I now understand the impact that diversity and ethnicity has on our society as a whole and I will bring these experiences and lessons to the bench when I am given the honor of being elected judge of the 270th.

As judge, I will follow the law, respect this nation’s Constitution, the Texas State Constitution and all local laws. My candidacy offers the dignity, trust and respect that the citizens of Harris County expect to see in their judiciary. After years of mediating and handling contested civil matters, my record shows that I know how to best get this job done. My name is Lee Arellano and I am asking for your vote in the March 2010 Democratic Primary Election.

Welcome to the not-quite-a-city of The Woodlands

On January 1, a unique experiment in city-like governance will commence in The Woodlands.

A new government body, approved by residents two years ago and called The Woodlands Township, will take control of the Montgomery County community 30 miles north of Houston.

“We’re transitioning from community associations that predominately provided services to a central government unit,” said Don Norrell, serving in the new role as president of the Township. “The key is centralized government.”

The change is historic because no other community in Texas has ever had legislation written to create such a unique government entity and to enable it to enter into an agreement with a city to avoid annexation.

The township is a special-purpose district that, in some ways, will look and act like a municipality when it really isn’t.

The township, for example, can collect property and sales taxes to provide services, but it can’t adopt ordinances. It can maintain parks and trails, but it can’t fix potholes or build new streets.

The township board will be responsible for making important decisions about the community just like a city council. It will be made up of seven board members, including a chairman who is similar to a mayor. Daily operations of the government will be overseen by a president whose duties are similar to a city manager.

It doesn’t say in this story, but according to this archived Chron story, the Town Center Improvement District board “would transition from an 11-member body, consisting of appointed and elected directors, to a seven-member communitywide elected board by 2010.” It also says that five of those seats were up for election in 2008, but I can’t find any evidence of that in the Montgomery County election returns. I guess they held the election, and will hold another one in 2010, but I’ll have to take someone’s word for it. As for the setup they’ve chosen, I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, I’m just sort of fascinated by it. There will likely never be anything else like it.

Recycle that tree

We have had an artificial tree for the past few years, so this story about where and how to recycle your Christmas tree isn’t relevant to our household, but it may be to yours. There’s no good reason for a dead tree to be taken to a landfill when there are better uses for it, so please take a minute to find out how to dispose of yours properly. Thanks very much.

From one Mayor to another

One week from today, we’ll be swearing in Annise Parker as our new Mayor. In advance of that, State Sen. Kirk Watson, who was once the Mayor of Austin, offers a few words of advice to the Mayor-Elect. Not that there’s likely to be any shortage of that, but I thought it was worth mentioning anyway.

Weekend link dump for December 27

Merry day after Boxing Day!

Who owns the interview? Both of you, I guess.

You may now call him Sir Patrick.

The best and worst Christmas specials of all time.

Phone hacking.

The least essential albums of 2009. For once, I’m glad I don’t have anything on one of these lists.

Yet another reason to root against the Sooners: They’re a bunch of wimps.

I remember a hymn we sang in church when I was a kid. The refrain went “And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love”. I can only presume this guy never learned that particular song. Unless it was all a hoax, of course.

The most and least valuable Democrats.

The ethics of Santa Claus.

Hooray for The Yule Log!

Some people never get tired about discussing the politics of Star Trek. Me, I just enjoyed the shows.

Time for the airing of the (sports) grievances.

What public service is all about.

Our Sarah Palin problem.

It’s always reassuring to know that you can count on David Broder to be a babbling, clueless fool.

Colbert speaks.

Some silly Christmas jokes.

Ninety years ago this week, the course of baseball history was changed.

State to audit food stamp delivery process

Better late than never.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Tom Suehs has asked [state auditor John] Keel to audit the food stamp program to improve accuracy and efficiency.

“We must fix our system so that it works for everyone. I’m asking the state auditor to help us identify both immediate and long-term solutions to make sure all Texans are able to get their cases processed on time,” Suehs said.

Keel assigned a team to start the review as soon as he got Suehs’ letter on Tuesday.

“It’s an audit that needs to be initiated immediately,” Keel said Wednesday. “We’re going to study the process and look for efficiencies. We do want to look at other states.”

Employee recommendations also will be considered, said Keel, who would not speculate on how long the audit would take.

I’m sure it will take months, because there’s got to be a ton to find that needs fixing. I feel certain that there’s only so much that can be improved without legislative action, perhaps spurred by a lawsuit verdict, an infusion of money, or a trip through the time machine to prevent the disastrous privatization scheme that has decimated HHSC from ever occurring, but this is not a stone that should be left unturned, so kudos to Suehs for taking the step.

You have a funny definition of “fiscal conservative”, Senator

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Our junior Senator calls himself something that doesn’t describe him accurately at all.

“I am a fiscal conservative, so I approach all of this from that perspective,” Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle in an interview. “Obviously at the same time where it’s appropriate to help entities like NASA in the state of Texas, I’m going to try to make sure that they are fairly and adequately funded.”

Cornyn, who has helped orchestrate Republicans’ anti-spending chorus as chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, says he’s merely echoing “the anger and aversion that most of my constituents have about out-of-control spending up here” in Washington.

This is the same John Cornyn who happily voted for the Iraq war, all of President Bush’s tax cuts, and Medicare Part D, which was called by the head of the GAO “probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s… because we promise way more than we can afford to keep”. This John Cornyn, who by his voting record bears responsibility for trillions of dollars of national debt, has the nerve to call himself a “fiscal conservative”. And thanks to newspaper headlines that talk about his “fight” to “cut debt”, something he never cared about while a Republican was in the White House, he gets away with it. Pretty nice racket he’s got going for himself, that’s all I can say.

The debate over Burka

I generally find debates between candidates who are already well known to be tedious, often mechanical affairs. So I’m glad for an event that provides a little interest outside of the usual aspects, which is apparently the case for an upcoming Perry versus Hutchison debate.

Paul Burka, the dean of Texas political writers, won’t be asking questions when the Republican gubernatorial candidates debate next month. He’s been banned.

“I didn’t like the idea of it,” says Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison. “He’s got his mind made up on the race.”

Texas Monthly, where Burka works as executive editor, writer, and a popular blogger, was a sponsor of the debate. When the chief sponsor — KERA-TV in Dallas — told the magazine they were welcome to send any panelist except for Burka, the magazine not only declined to substitute someone but also pulled its name off the January 14 event. Other sponsors — KERA, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KTVT-TV in Dallas, Univision, and the Texas Association of Broadcasters — remain.

“We were dismayed at what they decided to do, and surprised, given Paul Burka’s involvement in past debates,” says Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor. “We stand behind everything he does, and we consider his voice our voice on Texas politics.”

Silverstein tells his side of it here, while Burka himself weighs in here. I think KBH’s campaign overreacted and is being petulant. As commenter Stevie F said on Silverstein’s post, how could Burka write about this race and not say anything about what a hash KBH has made of it? This is bush league. Now I hope one of the moderators brings this up and asks KBH to counter Burka’s criticisms about her campaign. She’s made it an issue, let her defend it. Come and Take It has more.

Saturday video break: The 12 Days of Christmas

My sister first pointed this video out to me, then I saw it at Letters from Texas. And now here it is:

Happy Boxing Day, y’all.

Texas keeps growing

Every year it’s the same thing – there are a lot more Texans than there were the year before.

U.S. Census estimates released Wednesday show that Texas added more residents than any other state in the year ending July 1.

The Lone Star State has 478,000 more people than it did a year ago — roughly the equivalent of packing up all of Fresno, Calif., and moving it here.

[…]

The population of Texas has grown to 24.8 million, second only to California. Just the growth of the Texas population since 2000 — 3.9 million people — is greater than the population of 24 states.

If that trend continues through the official decennial count next year, Texas stands to gain four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, [Texas state demographer Karl] Eschbach noted.

It’s pretty damn amazing. And it will make redistricting that much fiercer a fight.

County pays off last bill related to Ibarra brothers lawsuit

Merry Christmas.

Harris County Commissioners Court agreed [Tuesday] to pay the last of what has amounted to more than $4 million in bills related to a lawsuit brought by two men who said they were wrongfully arrested after one of them videotaped sheriff’s deputies during a drug raid.

The commissioners approved a settlement that calls for the county to pay a total of $163,100.57 in attorneys’ costs to two law firms.

Terry O’Rourke, first assistant county attorney, who briefed commissioners on the settlement in closed session, told them before their 5-0 vote in open session that it closes the books on the 2002 incident.

I can’t summarize this in one or two links, so just go here and browse away. May we never do anything like this again.

Shapleigh not running for anything

It’s a shame, because I was really looking forward to being able to vote for him for something, but at least State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh will be an active participant in the 2010 election.

Shapleigh, 57, said he considered running for the governorship but changed his mind once Houston Mayor Bill White stepped into the race.

[…]

“Bill White is the best candidate in decades,” Shapleigh said. “He is proven. He is responsible. He will deal with the challenges of our times. He can win the election.”

Shapleigh, who has been a vocal critic of Gov. Rick Perry, continued his criticisms Monday as he called on voters to select new leadership.

The senator said he would go door-to-door, make campaign stops and write op-ed pieces to help White get elected.

“The best thing that I can do, that we all can do as a state, is to help him win this important office,” Shapleigh said.

Needless to say, I’m down with that. Given that we’ll have good choices for most of the statewide offices, and given that Shapleigh was never going to run for Comptroller or Land Commissioner, I can cope with his decision to sit this one out. But honestly, I wish he were running for re-election at this point. I wish him well in his return to private life, and I certainly hope that if he succeeds in helping elect Bill White Governor that there will be a prominent place for him in White’s administration. Thanks to the Trib for the link.

Friday random ten: Christmas time is here

What else could we do on Christmas Day but have a Friday Random Ten featuring songs that have “Christmas” in the title?

1. Another Christmas Song – Stephen Colbert
2. Blue Christmas – Asylum Street Spankers
3. Carolina Christmas – Squirrel Nut Zippers
4. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – U2
5. A Christmas Carol – Tom Lehrer
6. Christmas Time In Harlem – Louie Armstrong
7. Christmas Time Is Here – Vince Guaraldi
8. The Eleven Cats of Christmas – Trout Fishing In America
9. Merry Christmas, Baby – Bruce Springsteen
10. Merry Texas Christmas, Y’all – Asleep At The Wheel

And though it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you. I’ll kick off 2010 next Friday with a New Year’s list, and we’ll go from there.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from all of us

Merry Christmas from all of us

From ours to yours, have a very Merry Christmas. I’ll have a Christmas version of the Friday Random Ten up later today, but that’ll be it till tomorrow.