Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

April 11th, 2016:

Interview with George Scott

George Scott

George Scott

I don’t often pay attention to the May elections in even-numbered years. There’s usually nothing on my ballot, and the big cities that have May elections have them in odd years. One entity that is having an election around here is the Katy Independent School District, and one of the candidates running for a spot on the KISD Board of Trustees is someone I’ve mentioned here a few times, fellow blogger George Scott. Scott has had quite the diverse career – community-based journalist, newspaper owner, chamber of commerce president, public policy researcher, board member for the Harris County Hospital District – an so forth. I’ve cited him several times for his writing on how things work at the Harris County Assessment District and why commercial property assessments are out of whack. He’s also been involved in education policy and accountability, joining with HFT president Gayle Fallon to come to the defense of former HISD principal Thaddeus Lott in the 90s. He’s running now against a long-term incumbent in Katy ISD – see here for a bit of local coverage of the race – and he had quite a bit to say when I interviewed him:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates from the 2016 Democratic primary on my 2016 Election page.

Fundraising for the next city election cycle has begun

Whether you realized it or not.

BagOfMoney

Last year’s court ruling undoing Houston’s fundraising ban during non-election seasons means that the city’s contribution cycles reset immediately after last year’s general and runoff elections, according to the city, instead of in early spring.

As a result, unless a candidate is retiring old campaign debt, money raised post-election counts toward the contribution limits for the upcoming cycle, rather than the prior one, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said. City rules cap contributions at $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political action committees, per election cycle.

[…]

Previously, general election candidates could replenish their coffers until March 4, and runoff candidates could do so until April 4, with the contributions counting against the limits for the most recent election rather than the upcoming one.

Asked if the city sent any clarifying information to officeholders or candidates, Evans pointed to a letter included in packets given to candidates last year.

The memo stated that the city’s temporal fundraising restrictions were no longer in effect but did not specify when the election cycle began and ended.

“It’s going to have very little impact on what we do, except obviously we want to know what the rule is now,” [fundraising consultant Pat] Strong said.

See here and here for background on the lawsuit. Unless I’ve missed something, the suit is still awaiting trial; it was the granting of an injunction by the judge in the trial against the city enforcing its blackout period that led to where we are today. It was quite common in elections past for successful candidates to have post-election fundraisers, partly because it was their last chance to do so for the calendar year and partly because the usual suspects generally wanted to make sure that all the winners got at least a little something from them. No more “late train” fundraisers now – either hedge your bets before November or make sure you back the right horse in the first place. The key to all this are the boundaries of the election cycle. In the old days, you could donate up to the max in these post-election days, then start all over when the blackout period lifted, which marked the beginning of the next cycle. Now the new cycle begins right after Election Day, so there’s not much point to these post-victory events – whatever you donate then is how much less you can donate later. As the people quoted in the story say, it probably doesn’t matter that much from a candidate’s perspective. It just means the timing of when things happen will be adjusted. I’m sure everyone will get used to the new rule quickly.

Criminal complaint filed over Uptown land acquisition

All righty then.

A consultant who represents property owners in the Galleria area has filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, alleging the Uptown Development Authority and related entities broke state open meetings and disclosure laws in relation to acquiring property for a dedicated bus lane project.

The complaint, filed last week with District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office, concerns meetings held by Uptown officials to discuss right-of-way purchases along Post Oak Boulevard to make the bus project feasible.

The transit project, which also involves Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation, would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center with the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610, stopping at dedicated platforms along Post Oak.

Wayne Dolcefino, president of Dolcefino Consulting, said Uptown did not create any records of the so-called Right-of-Way Committee meetings, including dates, agendas or minutes.

“We believe that’s a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and have now formally asked the district attorney to investigate,” according to a statement released this week by Dolcefino’s consulting firm. His complaint also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest among board members who own or are affiliated with companies that own real estate on Post Oak.

Uptown official John Breeding said his organization has not broken any rules. He said the meetings did not include a quorum and no action was taken.

“Our attorneys … they tell us such committee meetings don’t have to be posted,” said Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District and administrator of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Development Authority.

Long story short, this is just another skirmish in the fight between the Uptown Management District and its plans to remake Post Oak Blvd and build a BRT line, and some Uptown business interests that hate the idea and have been fighting it like a pack of crazed weasels. It’s all going to culminate in a lawsuit, unless one of the shots that the opponents have been firing manages to take the project down before a suit gets filed. I rather doubt this complaint will lead to anything, but hey, you never know.

Uber settles California fingerprints lawsuit

Noted for the record.

Uber

Ride-hailing company Uber will pay at least $10 million to settle allegations by California prosecutors that it misled passengers about the quality of its driver background checks.

The settlement was signed Thursday in San Francisco, where Uber is based and where the district attorney led a lawsuit that said Uber falsely claimed its criminal screening of would-be drivers was the most comprehensive available.

San Francisco and Los Angeles prosecutors sued in 2014, saying Uber’s background checks were inferior to what taxi drivers undergo because they did not include fingerprint checks for past convictions. Instead, Uber’s process relies on a name search of other criminal databases and motor vehicle department files going back seven years.

Uber has defended the safety of its service amid a steady stream of allegations that its drivers have assaulted passengers, or, in the case of a driver in Michigan earlier this year, killed people. The app lets passengers share their location in real time, Uber points out, and the person who booked the ride is required to rate the driver after each trip, helping weed out unsavory characters.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to pay $10 million within 60 days. If the company does not comply with the terms over the next two years, Uber would have to pay an additional $15 million, prosecutors said.

Uber did not admit wrongdoing, as is standard for such settlements, and said it already has made many changes prosecutors sought.

For example, Uber stopped claiming its background checks were “industry leading” when it settled a separate case brought by riders. Under that $28.5 million settlement reached in February, Uber also renamed its “safe ride fee” as a “booking fee.”

Prosecutors ratcheted up pressure on the company in August, expanding the lawsuit with claims that Uber failed to uncover the criminal records of 25 California drivers, including several registered sex offenders and a convicted murderer.

This has been a hobbyhorse of mine for awhile as you know. I’ll stipulate that fingerprint background checks aren’t the be-all and end-all. Fingerprinting has its flaws, and not everyone who would be flagged by such a check represents a real threat. Ideally, there ought to be a risk assessment aspect to this, to separate the truly dangerous people from those who just need to explain themselves. The point I have been making is that I don’t believe Uber’s process is sufficient, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they could do a better job of it. I believe that task needs to be done by someone else, as I just don’t believe that it’s something Uber truly takes seriously. At some level, why should they put more effort and resources into doing background checks than they have to? They can always fall back on the claim that the drivers aren’t actually their employees, so they’re not really responsible for what they do. Sure that may eventually catch up to them, but when you’re valued at $60 billion or so, you’ve got a pretty big cushion.

Honestly, if making fingerprint background checks mandatory is a bridge too far, then I like the compromise idea floated by Austin Mayor Steve Adler: Let the drivers undergo such a check voluntarily, and make whether or not they have done so a part of their driver profile. Let Uber and Lyft customer specify that they want a driver who has undergone this extra level of scrutiny. Anyone want to bet against the proposition that the free market will overwhelmingly prefer to be driven by this latter group? CNN, the Mercury News, the LA Times, and the NYT have more.