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Runoff Day for HISD special election

From the inbox:


Saturday, Dec. 10, is Election Day for voters in HISD Trustee District VII and City of Baytown Council District 3. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There are 178,717 registered voters in HISD Trustee District VII eligible to vote in the Runoff Elections. A map of the boundaries for HISD Trustee District 7 can be found at:

Baytown Council District 3 covers the Northwest section of the city with 12,726 registered voters eligible to vote in the Runoff Election. District 3 is in dark blue on the map at:

Election Day polling locations may be found at the Harris County Clerk’s election website, Voters may also visit or call 713.755.6965 to obtain a list of acceptable credentials to vote at the polls and view a sample ballot.

See here for some background. You can find your polling location here. As noted before, turnout is low, so your vote really counts. If you live in HISD VII, or Baytown Council District 3, get out there and make your voice heard. I’ll have the result tomorrow.

Opening thoughts on the carnage

In no particular order…

– Republicans gain 22 seats in the State House, for a 99-51 advantage. That’s with Pete Gallego, Hubert Vo, and Donna Howard, all of whom had been trailing early, coming back to win. Howard’s margin of victory is a microscopic 15 votes, so she’ll have to survive a recount. No Republican seats flipped.

– Among many other things, I strongly suspect that’s a death blow for expanded gambling this session. Which is ironic, since polls pretty consistently showed that people prefer expanded gambling to nearly any other choice for bridging the budget gap. With this partisan margin in the House, you’ll need a majority of GOP legislators to favor a joint resolution for expanded gambling, and I don’t see that happening; if there had been as much as one third of the GOP caucus in favor of it in 2009, it would have passed then. Sam Houston Race Park may have a new, deep-pocketed investor with a record of getting other states to allow slot machines at racetracks, but I don’t think that will do them any good here.

– The good news, I suppose, from a Democratic perspective is that even with another Republican-drawn legislative map for 2012, there will be no shortage of takeover targets and quite a few Republicans who likely can’t win outside of such an extremely favorable environment. The bad news, part of it anyway, is that the ceiling is now much lower due to the wipeout in rural districts. If Democrats net 10 seats in 2012, they’re still short of where they were in 2002.

– Speaking of redistricting, the Republicans are now in the position of having to draw at least one of their members out of a seat next year, as West Texas will lose a district. The West Texas delegation comprises one former Speaker (Craddick), one potential future Speaker (Chisum), and a bunch of freshmen, all of whom are Republicans, so options like “target the Democrat” and “convince one of the old coots to retire” aren’t on the table. They may face a similar dilemma in East Texas, it’s too early to say.

– Dems may have targets a-plenty in two years, but where will the money for those races come from? The Mostyns spent a gazillion dollars and have less than nothing to show for it. Annie’s List saw nearly its entire slate erased. Losing a bunch of incumbents means losing a lot of fundraising capability.

– I don’t mean to be indelicate, but party chairs usually don’t survive results like these. I hope whoever succeeds Boyd Ritchie has a strategy in mind.

– Despite losing four State House members, Dallas County remained blue.

– In Harris County, Democrats did in fact do better on Election Day than in early voting, by about six points. Outside of Bill White, who ultimately did carry the county, and Loren Jackson, that wasn’t enough for a majority of the Election Day votes, let alone a winning total.

– Final turnout in Harris was over 779,000, which will likely stand as the high-water mark for several cycles. I think it’s safe to say Republicans got a significant number of people who don’t normally vote outside of Presidential years to come out this time. Two thirds of all votes cast in Harris were straight ticket votes, with Republicans reversing a two-cycle trend and taking a 50,000 vote advantage there. Democratic turnout overall wasn’t terrible – vote totals in the 310,000 to 340,000 range would have meant big wins in 2006, and would have won most races in 2002. Not this year.

– Among other things, Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s job just got a lot harder now that he’s lost his strongest ally on Commissioners Court. I don’t see a whole lot more progress being made on reducing jail overcrowding at this point.

– Despite trailing in early voting, Prop 1 (Renew Houston) squeaked through, for one of the very few good results of the day. Prop 3, to keep red light cameras, lost in a fairly close vote. If you had told me on Monday that only one of these two would pass, I’d have bet a lot of money on it being the other way around. Prop 2, which would have allowed for a six-month residency requirement for Council in the 2011 election only, lost big. That will make City Council redistricting more challenging.

– Red light cameras also lost in Baytown.

– Judith Cruz and Juliet Stipeche will face each other in a runoff for the open HISD Trustee seat. The lone Republican in that race, Dorothy Olmos, finished fourth. All things considered, you have to wonder if that represents a missed opportunity for the local GOP.

– The city of Dallas got wet. Good for them.

– The city of Austin had its own somewhat controversial ballot proposition to fund infrastructure improvements. It wound up passing easily.

– Harry Reid won re-election. In some ways, that may be the weirdest result of all. By all rights, Republicans should have taken the Senate, but Democrats held on there and in West Virginia and apparently Colorado, while being gifted Delaware after basically writing it off when Mike Castle jumped in.

– Finally, in regard to polling, Rasmussen Reports had a bad cycle, which included producing the single worst result, by a large margin. Polling in Texas understated Rick Perry’s margin by a bit, and overstated, in some cases by a lot, the performance of third-party candidates.

I’m sure I’ll have more later.

Some Prop 3 action

Campos observed last week that there hasn’t been any action on Prop 3, which is the red light camera referendum. That’s about to change.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association, a group that represents more than 4,000 firefighters, said it supports red-light cameras.

President Jeff Caynon is urging Houstonians to vote for Proposition 3 on Election Day.

He said red-light cameras are a safety tool that change behaviors and save lives.

Caynon is also featured in a new television commercial in support of red-light cameras. The ad began airing in Houston on Monday.

The endorsement follows the show of support for red-light cameras by another public safety group — the Houston Police Officers’ Association.

Video of the story is here. Has anyone seen one of these ads yet? I wonder if the anti-camera forces will have the resources to put up ads or send out mailers or something.

One thing to note:

Proposition 3 on the November ballot asks voters if red-light cameras should stay up or be removed.

Note the wording on that. Even though Prop 3 is on the ballot because of the efforts of those who want to remove the cameras, a vote FOR Prop 3 is a vote to retain the cameras. A vote AGAINST Prop 3 is a vote to take them down. I had assumed that the ballot language would be correlated to the effort of its petitioners, and that led to me being initially confused when I saw that the Houston GLBT Political Caucus is recommending a FOR vote on Prop 3, since I didn’t think of them as being anti-camera, but I inquired and got the matter cleared up. In another sense, this is more logical – if you want the cameras, vote FOR them; if you don’t, vote AGAINST them. I just wanted to point this out in case anyone else was operating under the same assumption I had been. And just to make things interesting, note that if you live in Baytown, it’s the exact opposite – a FOR vote there is to dump the cameras, an AGAINST vote is to keep them. Isn’t this fun?

Chron opines for red light cameras

No surprise here, and nothing new in the way of arguments. I’m sure there are plenty of people who haven’t formulated an opinion about red light cameras whose vote is up for grabs, but I don’t see a whole lot of minds being changed.

No word in the Chron yet about the lawsuit that was filed Friday to stop the red light camera referendum. A similar lawsuit, with very similar arguments, was filed in Baytown as well, with the difference being that the camera vendor is the plaintiff there. As with the Chron editorial, I’m just noting it for the record. We’ll see what happens.

On we go with the red light camera debate

The DMN has a story about the ongoing red light camera debate around the state. There’s a lot of familiar stuff in there, but this bit caught my eye:

While camera critics dispute the safety data, the money generated has raised even more questions and intrigue, especially as collections have pushed into the tens of millions. A 2007 state law requires cities to set aside half of all profits to help fund regional trauma care centers. Most cities use their share for traffic safety and enforcement efforts.

Houston police Sgt. Michael Muench, who oversees that city’s red-light camera program, said his department has plowed all revenues into crash-scene investigation equipment, extra traffic patrols, radar guns and other traffic-related improvements. “So far, it’s working,” Muench said. Critics point to large disparities in the profits cities generate as evidence that some are just out to make a buck.

“In College Station, cameras were not put at the most dangerous intersections, but the most profitable ones,” said Jim Ash, a sales representative who began the petition drive to take down the cameras there.

I don’t get that. The “most profitable” intersections would be those that have the most red light runners. Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put the cameras? I guess you could have intersections with a lower violation rate but a higher accident rate. I don’t know what things are like in College Station but I can’t say I recall hearing that argument in Houston. What am I missing here?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood the “it’s all about money” argument against red light cameras. I get the concerns about cameras in the public sphere, and the concerns about due process. I certainly agree that cities should not reduce yellow light intervals as a way to generate more violations, as Baytown admitted to doing last year. For sure, cities can get into trouble if they depend on red light camera revenue for their general funds, as happened to Dallas. Their contract with the camera company seems to be less favorable to them than some others; compare the revenue and expense data for Dallas and Houston in the DMN story, for example. Houston, as far as I can tell, has done a decent job with this, but it is a potential issue.

All of these things I understand. But when I hear complaints about profits and cash grabs and whatnot, my reaction is always the same: If people didn’t run red lights, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Everybody is fully capable of avoiding red light camera expenses. When I hear this argument, at least when I hear it in the absence of specific complaints about manipulated yellow light intervals or bad budget practices, what I hear is approximately “People should have the right to run red lights”. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the anti-camera position, but that’s where the camera opponents lose me.

The story notes that the anti-camera forces in Houston are preparing to announce that they have the signatures to force a vote on whether or not to ban the cameras this November. As things stand now, I don’t see any reason why I would vote for that proposition. Houston’s implementation seems to be working as intended, the contract is not onerous, and the revenue is being used appropriately. I’d like to see updated information about the violation and accident rates at the camera-enabled intersections, but I’d expect that to be part of the campaign for and against the proposition, so I can wait a little longer. One thing that could get me to change my mind would be evidence that camera data is being manipulated, as opponents in Baytown claim is happening there. Byron Schirmbeck, one of the leaders of the camera opposition in Baytown, sent me performance data for the cameras for March and April of this year, with the following explanation:

There are a few things to know about what is on the report. There is column A which is labeled “events” this is essentially each time that particular camera detects a violation of a steady red and forwards that to ATS for them to review. Column B is the total rejections, which would be for every reason, like they can’t see the plate clearly, there was glare in the camera, the camera malfunctioned etc, and anything that they declare as a “non violation” which is column C and accounts for the greatest number of the total rejections. Which would mean ATS reviewed the event and determined it to not be a violation for whatever reason. This is where the problem is: ATS, not the police department, has control over what they send to the PD without any oversight and any violation detected by the camera can be declared a “non violation” for any reason they see fit, including trying to manipulate the data. You could explain away a single digit variance for a couple of months, but you can’t explain away a 20% or more increase that continually grows to the point where nearly 6 out of 10 violations are declared to be “non violations”. The way I see it there are only 2 reasonable explanations possible, 1. ATS has deliberately thrown out tickets to make violations appear to have gone down in anticipation of a vote on the cameras, or 2. the cameras are detecting 20% more violations that really aren’t violations, which is alarming in itself as this makes one wonder about the integrity of the program. Why are the cameras doing that over several months each month? Who would get caught that shouldn’t have?

“ATS” is the camera vendor that has a contract to provide these services to Baytown. There may be a good answer for the questions that Schirbeck raises, but I’d want to know what it is before I’d endorse the Baytown program.

Anyway. There’s an accompanying story about how the business of red light cameras also means business for lobbying shops, as they try to fend off another attempt by the Lege to ban them. If that surprises you in any way, you would also probably be surprised by the news that it is currently hot and humid outside.

Baytown gets the red light camera blues


A Texas motorist caught the city of Baytown using short yellows to trap motorists at a photo enforced intersection and of failing to protect sensitive private information. At a press conference yesterday, Byron Schirmbeck and his attorney, Randall Kallinen, announced that the city had agreed to drop a $75 ticket issued on April 12 for making a right-hand turn just 0.2 seconds after the light had turned red at the intersection of West Baker and Garth Roads. The yellow time at this intersection was set at just 3.1 seconds, even though state guidelines indicate that the yellow should have lasted no less than 4 seconds.

“I informed my councilman and he set up an interview with the police legal advisor and head of the red light camera program,” Schirmbeck told TheNewspaper. “They reluctantly admitted the amber times were too low but don’t admit any wrongdoing or have any explanation.”

Police reviewed the situation and ordered the yellow time at the intersection raised to 4.5 seconds on June 5. At least five other pending tickets will be dismissed, but Schirmbeck believes hundreds of other motorists may have been trapped by the same short yellow and deserve full refunds.

A small change in the length of the yellow warning period can make a significant difference. The vast majority of “violations” caught on camera happen after drivers misjudge the end of the yellow light by less than 0.25 seconds — literally the blink of an eye (view chart). According to a report by the California State Auditor, nearly 80 percent of that state’s tickets were issued for violations that took place less than one second into the red. By adding an extra 1.4 seconds to the yellow, violations should plunge at the intersection of Baker and Garth by more than 80 percent.

Maybe someone ought to do a study on that. I must confess, I’m not clear on why a longer yellow light time makes a difference. I mean, maybe if you lived someplace where a yellow light was a signal to slow down and prepare to stop, as opposed to a signal that you’d better hustle if you want to make it through this light, it might reduce the number of red light violations. I might even want to live someplace like that, if I thought such a place existed. In the world we actually do inhabit, I admit to some lingering doubts. Be that as it may, I am curious about one thing: Is there an upper limit on what the yellow light duration should be. Everyone cites the “add one second” maxim to reduce red light violations, but why not add two seconds or three? At what point do you hit diminishing marginal returns, or do drivers start to adjust their behavior in a way that nullifies the positive effect? This says there’s a mathematical formula, which looks to me like there might be an effect that leads to increased speed at intersections, while this suggests there is no hard and fast rule, just a rule of thumb that 4.3 to 4.6 seconds is best.

Anyway. I agree that yellow light durations should be optimized. If that means red light camera revenues drop, that’s okay. I think they can have a positive effect on accidents, though that remains to be shown in Houston. I’m not convinced that lengthening yellow light times is sufficient, but it should be part of the fix. If it turns out that our drivers here respond well to that, fine; if not, the cameras will make money and there’ll be one less thing to complain about them. That’s a win-win.

Always government handouts

Texans for Public Justice have put together a really good report on government subsidies for WalMart here in Texas that I highly recommend. Stories like this constitute another reason why I tend not to get too bent out of shape over things like the driving deputies. That story is about a couple thousand dollars, and it generates a front page story in the newspaper and a ton of outrage and snark. This one is about millions of dollars being funneled from counties and cities to one of the largest and most profitable businesses in the world, and it will largely be ignored. I confess, I don’t quite understand why that is. Be that as it may, read it and if you live in an area where your tax dollars are going to benefit WalMart’s bottom line, you might consider giving some feedback about that to the elected officials who made it happen.

Tough times for local governments

It’s gonna be a bad year.

They’re not feeling the economic storm quite yet, but local governments across the Houston region are hunkering down anyway. Some have frozen hiring, others have stopped filling potholes. Planned purchases of police cars, golf course mowers, Tasers and sewage equipment have been halted.

The caution infecting budget offices is universal, whether down south, where Galveston County is anticipating shrinking its budget by $5 million, or up north, where Montgomery County continues to rake in the tax dollars from growth. All are playing it safe, waiting for property reassessments and 2009 sales tax figures to come in before making any major decisions.

“We need to be watching every dollar that we spend,” said Cheryl Hunter, Texas City’s director of finance. The recession may have come to Southeast Texas late, but it has come. Public finance officers fear a future double-punch: lower tax revenues from a slower economy, combined with Hurricane Ike’s destructive effect on tax rolls in coastal towns, counties, and school districts. After years of growth and decreasing tax rates, budget officers now just want to hold on.

Texas City lowered tax rates for two years, but probably will not this year. The overall budget will stay flat. On hold: a $1 million renovation of the Texas City Museum, and a $5 million expansion of Moore Memorial Library.

Baytown, Freeport, Sugar Land, Katy and Metro already have declared hiring freezes. In Pearland, there is no official freeze, but officials have postponed filling 10 positions – four of them police officers.

“So far, from the recession we’re not seeing any (revenue) impacts yet,” said Pearland’s finance director, Claire Bogard. Rebuilding after Ike even gave sales taxes a boost, as did the opening of two new retail centers in Pearland. Nevertheless, Bogard ordered department heads to identify ways to trim 6 percent from the next budget, just in case.

Guess that means Bill King won’t be running for office in any of those places, either. All I can say is that I hope none of these local officials are counting on any help from Rick Perry. If he thinks the feds shouldn’t be helping state governments make ends meet, he’s unlikely to think any differently about the state helping the cities and counties. At least there’s a chance that the Lege could bypass him and share the largess, such as it may be.