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June, 2007:

We still need a special master for the crime lab

I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick McCann.

When Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Mayor Bill White and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal were quoted as agreeing that there needs to be in-depth review of hundreds of criminal convictions based upon the frankly non-existent science practiced at the Houston Police Department lab, they were absolutely right. When they all solemnly intoned that a special master, a “czar,” if you will, was not needed despite the recommendations of the former Justice Department official who conducted the lengthy investigation into this horror show, they were flat wrong.

Let’s be fair. Chief Hurtt and the mayor were not the ones who caused this mess, and Chuck Rosenthal’s office has done a solid job of conducting and helping to retest DNA in many questionable cases. However, together, they certainly outnumber the presence of the Innocence Project (the only ones speaking for the folks who were convicted by the bogus reporting of this lab) on the “Committee of Stakeholders,” and frankly, with due respect to those gentlemen, it is not in their own self-interest to conduct this investigation with the vigor it deserves.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It’s almost like appointing a guardian ad litem. It has to be someone’s sole purpose to make sure that every reviewable case actually gets fully reviewed. It’s the nature of projects that in the absence of a dedicated project manager, things fall by the wayside. It’s basically the 80-20 rule – most of the effort goes into the big, obvious wins, and the rest gets dealt with on an as-we-have-time basis, because hey, we got most of it done and I’ve got other stuff that needs my attention and wasn’t this project supposed to have finished by now? Either it’s somebody’s job or it’s nobody’s job, and it needs to be somebody’s job.

Rick Noriega’s record of accomplishment

Over at Draft Rick Noriega, Vince takes a look at Rep. Noriega’s recent legislative record.

We’ll start this week with some of his accomplishments during the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature.

State Rep. Rick Noriega has several sessions of important legislative accomplishments.

During the 80th Legislature, much of Rep. Noriega’s attention was focused on education, environmental issues, public safety and veterans’ affairs. This, of course, was in addition to his service on the House Appropriations Committees–one of the most sought-after legislative assignments, but also one of the most time-consuming and important in either chamber.

It’s a thorough look at what Rep. Noriega did in Austin this past spring. Those of us who already know him know much of this stuff, but it doesn’t do much good if nobody else knows about it. Take a look, and see what you think – there’ll be more to come.

Meanwhile, Rep. Noriega spent the weekend in San Antonio and South Texas. See The Walker Report, Half Empty, and A Capitol Blog for news and photos.

Where the votes are these days

Let me introduce you to Harris County Precinct 697. It’s a very Democratic precinct, but it doesn’t get a lot of turnout, at least not compared to some of its neighboring precincts. Here’s what happened in Precinct 697 last year:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Harless Khan Pct Sharp Pct ================================================================== 697 5198 1108 21.32 323 704 68.6 710 69.0

Yes, Precinct 697 is in HD126, which means it’s out in a part of the county where Democrats don’t do much in the way of campaigning. It’s also the single biggest precinct in that district, and as you can see it performs very well from a Democratic perspective. If it were in Democratic turf, it would be a prime target for GOTV operations, especially as part of a coordinated county campaign like we’re expecting to get in 2008.

The reason why I’m introducing you to this precinct is that I believe we have to rethink our notion of where Democratic voters are, and where our turnout efforts need to be, if we really are serious about turning Harris County blue in 2008 and beyond. We know how to fish in the friendly waters, but we’ve got to be willing to venture beyond them, because the data tell me there’s a lot of opportunity to better Democratic performance if only we’d expand our aim a little.

Let’s take a closer look at HD126, which is very much a Republican district, but not a monolith. Here are all of the precincts in HD126 where Democrats ran well:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Harless Khan Pct Sharp Pct ================================================================== 468 3792 841 22.18 245 548 68.3 535 68.2 520 3977 715 17.98 249 405 61.9 419 64.1 613 2614 564 21.58 155 379 71.0 389 72.7 614 4133 1177 28.48 446 654 59.4 667 60.7 697 5198 1108 21.32 323 704 68.6 710 69.0 757 3712 590 15.89 187 363 66.0 382 68.2 873 729 144 19.75 34 102 75.0 108 78.3

(“Sharp” is Jim Sharp, the top votegetter among Dems in Harris County last year.) I submit to you that if I showed you these numbers, and you didn’t know where these precincts were, you’d agree with me that they’re ripe for a turnout improvement plan. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to take these 60%+ Democratic precincts and try to drive their turnout up. That’s where the votes are, after all. Yet every one of these precincts had lower turnout than every single other precinct in HD 126. Overall turnout was 33.96%, and only two Republican precincts came in at under 30%.

Putting it another way, total turnout in the Democratic precincts of HD126 was 21.28%; in the Republican precincts, it was 39.00%. By my rough calculation, had the Dem precincts turned out at that level, Democrats would have netted about a thousand extra votes. When you realize that Mary Kay Green missed being elected by less than 7000 votes, that’s really something.

Now, I know it’s easy to be seduced by the lure of GOTV as a cure-all for electoral woes. Turning out voters, especially voters who aren’t habitual voters, is hard. So let’s take a look at how these precincts performed in 2002 for comparison purposes:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Dewhurst Sharp Pct ====================================================== 468 3538 1007 28.46 345 593 63.2 520 4084 856 20.96 399 414 50.9 613 2643 750 28.38 221 503 69.5 614 4085 1349 33.02 609 689 53.1 697 4064 1181 29.06 395 728 64.8 757 2193 360 16.42 143 187 56.7 873 652 212 32.52 66 136 67.3

Here, “Sharp” refers to John Sharp. Peggy Hamric ran unopposed, so I’m skipping that race. Note two things here: Turnout was better in every precinct in 2002, and Democratic performance was better in every precinct in 2006. Maybe some of that was Republicans being more likely to stay home last year, but maybe these precincts, especially 520, are getting even bluer. In 2002 at least there was a rudimentary GOTV operation in the form of a high-dollar TV advertising campaign. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Democratic statewide effort of that year, there was nothing remotely like it this last time around.

What I’m saying is simply this. I believe there are a lot of precincts like the ones I’ve documented here – blue dots in red areas. (I’m going to review the other Republican HDs as well to try to prove that.) I believe that Democrats in Harris County have not expended much, if any, effort in targeting the voters in those areas. I believe we are not maximizing our efforts to win countywide if we are not targeting those voters. I believe we need to give some thought as to how we do this – certainly, mail needs to be a part of it, but being on the ground has to be a part of it as well. Ideally, there’d be a State Rep campaign to be the focal point of the latter. Point is, almost anything we might think of is likely to be better than what we’ve been doing.

I’ll report on more of these areas in the coming weeks. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Here’s Precinct 697.

A piece of The Stables lives on

This is a sweet column by Lisa Gray about what happened to some of the folks who were stranded by the demolition of The Stables restaurant.

How stable was The Stables? So stable that the staff didn’t leave for new jobs; they died or retired. So stable that a waitress didn’t take an order when one of her regulars appeared. She’d know that he wanted the same thing as always: prime rib, most likely, and one of the bar’s big, stiff martinis. If she was away on vacation, the customer might stumble, unsure how to order in her absence. What kind of salad dressing? How should he know? When his waitress was there, the iceberg lettuce simply appeared, unbidden, with the dressing whose name he’d forgotten years ago.

Late last year, word got out that The Stables’ old red-barn building on South Main would give way to some shiny new piece of the Medical Center. Both the customers and the staff were distraught. There was talk that maybe The Stables would reopen somewhere new; surely it couldn’t just die. Customers wrote down their phone numbers, telling waiters and waitresses to call when they landed new jobs.

The lot is still empty, in case you’re curious. The remaining palm trees are still standing, and I’ve seen no sign of any impending activity. I’m not even sure if the property has been flipped yet to whoever will do the eventual construction. These things take a lot of time, I guess.

Anyway, about the fancy-schmancy new restaurant where three former Stables waitstaff wound up:

At REEF, they’re called “the three D’s.” Like the younger waitstaff, David, Dianna and Debi dress all in black, but with their small-town haircuts and honeyed Southern accents, they seem like a different species.

Taken as a whole, REEF’s waitstaff echoes its retro-modern food, dishes such as “roasted grouper, pecan-shallot cracklins, braised collards, pot licker jus.” The sleek kids seem born to serve truffled polenta and seared triple tail to the stylish set that feeds on such things. But the three D’s stand for pecans and pot licker.

Dianna approves of the way the owners chat up the customers, just like at The Stables. She tells the young waiters not to blow their money, to save some for their rent. And she’s proud that she figured out the computer.

Now that the restaurant has been open three weeks, she and David think it’s time to start calling their old customers. They wanted to wait until they were sure they’d stick around, sure that the restaurant would be worthy of their people. But already they’re thinking long-term. On the first day of summer, David was imagining Christmas, and how beautiful downtown would look through the restaurant’s big front window.

Even without phone calls, some of the old Stables crowd has found the three D’s. David steers his long-timers toward the rib-eye, a comforting island of beef in an ocean of seafood. Dianna gets excited to see her people’s kids and grandkids.

After one Stables regular heard Dianna surfaced at REEF, he asked his college-aged granddaughter to take him there.

You figure the young woman probably looked more suited to the stylish restaurant, with its open kitchen and pearly tabletops, its of-the-moment Portuguese wines.

But her grandfather came back five nights in a row. Like the three D’s, he’d found a surprising new home.


When CEOs blog

This is interesting.

The rest of the world got a glimpse into the personality of John Mackey, Whole Foods Market Inc.’s chief executive, last week and learned what Austin has known for a long time: He is anything but subtle.

In a blog posting on the Whole Foods Web site, the full force of Mackey’s personality was laid bare as he attacked the Federal Trade Commission for trying to stop his company from buying rival Wild Oats Markets Inc.

For openers, Mackey accused the FTC of acting in “a biased, adversarial and arrogant manner” and of using “bullying” and “unethical” tactics.

Mackey, an outspoken, competitive Libertarian who despises government interference with business, is in the middle of a court battle with the FTC over the biggest purchase in his company’s history.

At a July 31 federal court hearing, a judge will decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction to stall the merger while the lawsuit goes forward.


[M]any antitrust experts, Whole Foods shareholders and analysts are wondering whether Mackey has gone too far, possibly damaging his company’s chance to buy Wild Oats.

His 14,000-word blog included a letter he sent to the Whole Foods board of directors outlining reasons to buy Wild Oats, including a comment that it would “forever” eliminate the threat of a rival supermarket chain buying Wild Oats to compete against Whole Foods, and attacks against the FTC, calling it “arrogant.”


“I’ve been writing about business for over 20 years, and something like this is pretty unprecedented in my experience,” said Sam Fromartz, the author of “Organic Inc.” “Corporations generally don’t sock it to the government.”

Erik Kulick, a Pittsburgh-based attorney and self-described Whole Foods fan who has owned stock for five years, said he thought Mackey never should have been allowed to publicly post his comments.

Mackey “seems to be a good businessperson, but I think he went off the rail a little bit regarding this FTC hearing,” Kulick said. “The repercussions are potentially serious.”

Darren Bush, a University of Houston law school professor and antitrust expert, said the comments might not hurt Whole Foods’ case because recent history has shown it is rare for a federal judge to challenge a proposed merger.

But it definitely won’t help, he said.

If Mackey’s comments conflict with statements he provides during depositions in the lawsuit, that will be damaging, Bush said. The FTC will pore over the blog with a “fine-tooth comb,” he said.

“One does not want more ammunition pointed at you,” Bush said. “Why don’t you just hand them a gun and say, ‘Take a few shots at me’?”


Mackey has promised more blogs in the coming weeks.

“His attorneys are drinking a lot of Maalox, or the natural foods equivalent,” Fromartz joked. “Lawyers hate this. They just want to play by the game, by the rules, and he is not playing by the rules.”

As we know, listening to one’s attorney is frequently good advice. The blog post in question is here. We’ll see if this turns out to be wise or stupid.

Red light cameras: Still more to come

Like ’em or not, red light cameras are not going away – in fact, they’re likely coming to a city near you.

More than a dozen municipalities, including Dallas and Houston, have them in place to catch red light runners. And more than 60 cities joined an informal “red light camera coalition” that hovered over the Legislature this spring as it considered how to regulate the emerging trend.

Austin and Round Rock were a part of that coalition, and both are moving toward installing cameras. Later this summer, Austin’s first red light cameras will appear at two intersections, although the pilot will generate only dummy citations so city officials can evaluate how they do. Round Rock is taking bids, and its city council probably will pick a vendor early in the fall.

“Our goal is just to reduce the number of people running red lights,” Round Rock spokesman Will Hampton said. “Does it generate revenue? Yes. But that’s how we change behavior.”


Since the cameras first appeared in a couple of Dallas suburbs in 2004, the debate in Texas has centered on the revenue-versus-safety issue, as well as the question of whether red-light cameras in fact make roads safer. Some opponents, pointing to studies, say the cameras cause more rear-end accidents (because of folks who jam on the brakes to avoid a ticket) than they prevent.

In a 2005 review of data, the Federal Highway Administration concluded that the presence of the cameras had reduced right-angle crashes about 25 percent. Rear-end accidents had increased 15 percent. And crashes of all kinds at nearby intersections had decreased 8.5 percent.

Yes, we’re still waiting to see what Houston’s camera data looks like. That we’re catching a lot or red light runners is clear. What effect that is having on accident and injury rates is still not.

Despite all the limitations, Austin and many other cities are moving forward. Austin will have two vendors put cameras on the southbound frontage road of Interstate 35 at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on the northbound frontage road at 11th Street. During the 60-day trial, offenses will generate only letters sent to the Municipal Court, and violators won’t be notified or have to pay a fine.

After that, the City Council will choose a vendor to put in cameras at a still undetermined number of intersections. By late this year or early 2008, Austinites who run those lights should be getting their first actual bits of bad news in the mail.

“Nobody likes getting a ticket, whether it’s from a camera or a police officer,” said Shelley Franklin, who runs Garland’s red light camera program. “But what’s the alternative? How else do you get people’s attention? Someone has to protect us from ourselves or each other.”

Well, you could put traffic officers at various intersections and have them nail the violators. That’s less effective and more costly, though it would generate more revenue on a per-ticket basis. Something tells me that the people who complain about the cameras, especially those who decry them as a revenue grab, would for the most part not be mollified by this.

Link via The Walker Report, whose camera-critic proprietor has written an I-told-you-so op-ed about the camera implementation in his city of Balcones Heights. It sounds more to me like they negotiated a deal that isn’t so good now with the passage of SB1119, but in and of itself I don’t consider that to be an indictment of the system. Your mileage may vary.

One more time: No special session!

Gah. From Cap Inside, via LOs Dos Professors, the special session madness just won’t go away.

Some state lawmakers want Governor Rick Perry to call a summer special session in hopes of heading off tuition hikes, budget cuts or property tax increases that they fear will be necessary as a result of his decision late last week to slash community college funding with his line-item veto authority.

The furor over Perry’s vetoes intensified Wednesday amid speculation that the governor was intentionally setting the stage for a special session in an attempt to force an overhaul in the way the state’s public colleges and universities are funded.

While higher education officials and their hometown lawmakers expressed disappointment, frustration and anger over the vetoed college funds, Perry is also catching increasing heat for vetoing an eminent domain bill that was designed to protect property rights, a school bus idling measure and a bill that would have increased retirement benefits for some legislative employees such as House and Senate clerks, cooks and parliamentarians including two who resigned during a revolt in the House on the session’s final weekend. The Republican governor vetoed 51 bills that had been approved during the regular session and $646 million in spending in two appropriations bills.

Perry has been upset about the methods that higher education officials have used to justify legislative appropriation requests – and he’s been unhappy with the Legislature’s resistance to his demands for more accountability and spending restraints on special items that he calls pork.

I don’t quite understand why anyone thinks Governor 39% will give lawmakers a second chance to pass legislation he’s already vetoed. I’m hard pressed to think of anything that’s less defining of Perry’s style than that. He may yet call a special (God, I hope not), but if he does, it’ll be on things he wants, like voter ID. Maybe if the Lege makes short work of his agenda in such a situation, he’d start lobbing them a few bones. But let’s keep in mind what the order of operations would be.

Keep your hands off my garlic!

Is nothing sacred any more?

Look around the kitchen of Filippo La Mantia’s hip restaurant in downtown Rome and you’ll see oranges, fresh basil, olive oil. But no garlic.

“I will never use garlic!” declares the Sicilian chef as he demonstrates how to make a flavorful pasta dish — octopus linguine with orange juice and almond pesto — without the ingredient he hates.

A quintessential element of traditional Italian and Mediterranean cooking, garlic is at the center of a gastronomic dispute in this nation that prides itself on its food. To critics it is just a stinky product that overwhelms more delicate flavors. Admirers say garlic enhances taste, gives a dish an extra punch — and is also good for the health.

“Garlic is the king of the kitchen,” says Antonello Colonna, another prominent Italian chef. “To eliminate it is like eliminating violins from an orchestra.”

Critics have started a ferocious campaign for garlic-free dining, and the debate has moved out of culinary circles. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s top daily, devoted a page to the matter this week, listing celebrities in each camp under the headline: “The Crusade of Garlic Enemies.”

Blasphemy! You can have my garlic when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.

Shaq’s Big Challenge

I saw a promo for this the other day, and while I doubt I’ll tune in, I hope it does well.

Here’s one way to get your earphone-wearing, video-game-playing, junk-food-eating kids off the couch and into a healthier lifestyle: Give ’em a Shaq Attack.

That’s what Shaquille O’Neal, the 7-foot, 325-pound center from pro basketball’s Miami Heat, delivers on his new ABC reality show, Shaq’s Big Challenge (8 p.m. Tuesdays, Channel 13).

O’Neal’s mission: to transform the lives of six obese children — none of whom can run a mile — into fit, active kids with a healthful outlook on life.

It won’t be easy with this bunch. One of the boys is addicted to “pizza burritos,” and another enjoys bowls of popcorn doused with two sticks of melted butter.

O’Neal, who said he’s been physically active his whole life, began to question why “big, husky, chubby kids” were becoming more common. And along the way, the answers became obvious.

“We live in a technological society,” O’Neal said. “It’s easy for a child to come home and listen to his iPod or play Sega. It’s easy just to e-mail friends and eat a whole bag of chips.”

But the threat to children’s health goes beyond the home, as O’Neal sees it: The abundance of junk food and lack of focus on physical education in the nation’s schools also are problems.

“I had mandatory PE,” he said. “Now only 6 percent of schools have mandatory PE. That’s terrible.”

Yeah, I had PE all the way through high school. Can’t say it was my favorite thing – at Stuyvesant, it always seemed like gym class in the basement was followed by a class on the fifth floor – but it’s a good thing, one that kids should be exposed to. Maybe for Shaq’s next project, he can use his experience with this show to lobby Congress for a renewed emphasis on PE in the public schools.

His isn’t the only such show on TV. Tiffany decided to TiVo an episode of Honey, We’re Killing The Kids last week. It’s quite an eye-opener.

In the series, our nutrition expert Felicia Stoler, MS, RD shows how everyday choices can have long-term impacts on children, and offers both the motivation and the know-how to help turn these families’ lives around. Using state-of-the-art computer imaging and certified assessments based on measurements and statistics, Felicia first gives Mom and Dad a wake-up call to the possible future of their children. Then, introducing her new guidelines and techniques, Felicia will work with parents to reverse course and give their kids a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

The family then has three weeks to overhaul its bad habits under the direction of Felicia, who delivers a set of life-altering rules with the aim of completely transforming the children’s future health and lifestyle.

How are the families responding to the challenges set by Felicia? Are the children trying new healthy foods? Can Mom quit smoking? Will Dad agree to become more involved in family life? Will the children try rock-climbing? While not always initially easy for the families, the rules often become fun, as new experiences are brought into their routines.

I thought the show relied a bit too much on the “state-of-the-art computer imaging” and didn’t spend enough time talking about the nuts and bolts of good nutrition; Tiffany and I both thought there wasn’t enough emphasis on how to really learn and follow the rules that families get in a big, thick binder. But at least in the show we watched, it appeared to be effective. One of the parents, who had to weigh over 300 pounds, was said to have lost a total of 50 pounds after seven weeks. That’s pretty impressive.

“Fire-safe” cigarettes

No matter how obsessively one follows the Lege, there’s always a few interesting bills that make it through completely under the radar.

Legislators couldn’t agree to ban smoking in public places this session. But they did mandate that all cigarettes sold in Texas by 2010 be designed to snuff out after the last puff.

“The reality is the technology is such that you can have safer burning cigarettes that kind of extinguish themselves,” said Sen. Royce West, the Dallas Democrat who helped carry House Bill 2935 to the governor’s desk. “We should take advantage of it.”

Texas isn’t quite blazing a trail. New York, which has required “fire-safe cigarettes” since 2004, was the trendsetter. Its legal standard has become the boilerplate for 15 other states, affecting nearly half of the American public.

The cigarettes employ two or three bands of special paper that act as tiny firewalls to self-extinguish if the user isn’t actively smoking.

“Texas is a huge boost to our initiative in that it brings us another big state and another big indication that (someday) every state in the country will be protected by this legislation,” said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes, run by the National Fire Protection Association.

Texas will start affixing tax stamps only to fire-safe cigarettes as of Jan. 1, 2009, and any retail stock of non-fire-safe cigarettes remaining could not be sold after 2010.


According to a 2005 Harvard School of Public Health report, cited in Connecticut legislative research documents, the new cigarettes didn’t affect prices or sales in New York.

Carli’s group says smoking-related fires kill 700 to 900 people a year, about a quarter of them people other than the person wielding the fateful cigarette.

Smoking is blamed for nearly 4,000 structure fires in Texas from 2000 to 2005, according to the state fire marshal’s office. Fifty people died in those blazes, making smoking the most common cause of fatalities in accidental fires.

Seems like a reasonable enough thing to me. The technology exists, it won’t cost any extra money, and it may help prevent a few fires and deaths from those fires. I’m not sure what the argument against this is, but for what it’s worth, the final version of HB2935 passed the House on a 131-4 vote, with Bonnen, Crabb, Harper-Brown, and Riddle voting No. It passed the Senate unanimously, as is often the case.

West 11th Street Park wrapup

There’s nothing really new in this story about how funding for the West 11th Street Park came out of the Lege, but it’s a useful overview for those who hadn’t been following it all along.

Just as the fate of five acres of the West 11th Street Park was looking bleak, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, put a line item for $3.75 million in the state’s urban park budget, which will keep the 20.2-acre park whole.

Since 2005, grass-roots organizations and city leaders have been working to raise $9.2 million to purchase the 20.2-acre park in Timbergrove Manor from Houston Independent School District to keep it from being sold for development.

“It was a real bolt from the blue,” said Loraine Cherry, president of Friends of the West 11th Street Park. “We had all been getting prepared to go down to city council again and I had been sending out more and more grants. We had some success and had gotten some money, but we still were coming up about $3 million short.

“And then Sen. Whitmire called me one morning and said, ‘I want to let you know this is what I’m trying to do.’ It was one week before the end of the legislative session.”

Said Toni Lawrence, the District A council member who helped with fundraising, “The neighbors in that area worked to keep that green space and it’s actually coming through. We had some people step forward, but in the big scheme we needed a little more boost or we would lose that five acres.”


“I watched on the sidelines with interest the efforts to save the park. I followed it very closely and they came up short,” Whitmire said. “Historically, the state thinks urban parks are the responsibility of local government.

“It just seemed like a natural thing to do given my position on the Finance Committee. Everyone had done so much — the city, the Parks Board, the neighbors — I was just pleased to be in a position to do something.

“I just spoke up and put that item in the budget,” Whitmire added. “I didn’t say anything until I knew it was safeguarded.”

If all goes according to plan, the Parks Board should get the $3.75 million to pay back the loan and accrued interest on Sept. 1.

“The only concern, and it’s a guarded concern, is that obviously the governor has to sign the budget,” Whitmire said. “I’ve been informed this park is in good shape.”

“When the money is in the Parks Board hands, I’ll celebrate,” Lawrence said.

The story was published in June 19, and Governor Perry has indeed signed the budget, so all is well. All I want to know at this point is when’s the party to celebrate the victory?

The city of Houston’s top five athletes

Here’s a little discussion fodder for the weekend for you: Who would you consider to be Houston’s top five athletes? The criteria, as noted by Stephanie Stradley, who gives her own answers plus some honorable mentions, are as follows:

1) What would a Houston sports fan say is his or her favorite local athlete? 2) Would the player’s name be familiar to someone who doesn’t follow sports or only follows local sports casually? 3) Would the player be recognized walking down the street?

There’s an unmentioned fourth requirement in there, which is that the athlete must be actively playing, otherwise I can’t imagine a list that didn’t include at least three of Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell, Earl Campbell, Hakeem Olajuwon, and maybe Carl Lewis. As for me, I’d swap Steph’s #5 with the first runner-up, but that says more about my own sports biases than anything else. Beyond that, I’ve no real quibble. What do you think?

What’s it to Wikipedia?

Apparently, Wikipedia wants to delete the entry for Mary Beth Harrell, because it’s an

Article about a person that does not assert the importance of the subject. She was a candidate, but did not win the seat. I don’t see any other claim of notability.

Huh. I didn’t know Wikipedia cared about such things. Be that as it may, Wikipedia appears to be a bit inconsistent – Shane Sklar is still there, as are Barbara Radnofsky and David Van Os along with a note that his entry “may require cleanup”. Van Taylor is there, and so is Arlene Wohlgemuth, but she at least once served in the Texas House. On the other hand, Richard Morrison, David Harris, Jim Henley, and Will Pryor are not there. Maybe they never were, maybe they’ve already been deleted, I can’t tell.

Anyway. For future reference, in the event Wikipedia decides to apply whatever standard goes here, I’ve put what Harrell is sending to Wikipedia in response beneath the fold.


Day Labor centers

I’m still trying to understand the day labor center funding thing, which went one way on one day and then sort of reversed yesterday.

Houston Mayor Bill White will help locate $100,000 to keep an East End day labor center from closing its doors when a city contract ends this month, his staff confirmed late Thursday.

The controversial East End Worker Development Center, at 2 North Sampson and popular with undocumented workers, is the only city-funded hiring hall in operation in Houston.

City officials decided recently not to renew a $100,000-a-year contract with the nonprofit Neighborhood Centers Inc. to operate the center. The funding issue also surfaced in spring 2006 when a City Council member and others charged that the center encouraged illegal immigration.

The center is operated with federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

Frank Michel, a spokesman for White who is on business in Washington, D.C, confirmed the mayor has agreed to work with center operators to find new funding.

“What he said is he would work with them to identify other sources of funding,” Michel said. “What that is, I can’t say at this point because it hasn’t yet been identified.”

Michel said officials at Neighborhood Centers have been notified of the mayor’s effort.

Marc Levinson, director of communications at the nonprofit agency, said he spoke with White’s chief of staff, Michael Moore, late Thursday.

“The mayor has committed to finding the private funding necessary to keep the center open for another year,” Levinson said.

Levinson said if funding becomes available, he would love to keep the program going. “We believe it is a valuable program,” he said.

We certainly know by now that the City is interested in getting out of the landlord business. I don’t think that’s quite the case here, since I don’t see any indication that the city owns the land, but whatever. They’d rather it be done with private money, and whether I agree with that or not, it’s at least a reasonable position. Where I’m confused is the rationale that was given initially by the city for its actions:

Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White, confirmed that the city did not allocate funding for the center from this year’s federal Community Development Block Grant program.

”The City Council determined that,” said Michel, adding that there are no plans to explore alternate funding. ”It was debated last year at great length. The upshot of it was that we would not fund it again.”

Michel said the city’s funding of the facility became an issue last spring after then-Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs — who was seeking the Republican nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Tom Delay — and others said the center promoted illegal immigration.

“There are many in the community who say we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on it, because it encourages illegal immigration,” Michel said.

There are also people who think we should disband Metro, and people who think we should bomb Iran. We call them “political minorities”, and we generally don’t take our direction from them. I mean, didn’t we just have a city election in which this sort of thing was an issue, with the guy who supported that position losing?

As I said, in the end I’m okay with what the city is doing, as are Stace and Marc Campos. All I’m saying is that if Frank Michel had stopped talking after his first paragraph, I’d be a lot less puzzled by all this.

Historic Status on tap?

I’d call this a step in the right direction, if nothing else.

The Houston Planning Commission recommended Thursday that two iconic shopping centers be designated as landmarks, making them eligible for tax breaks intended to discourage their expected demolition.


The landmark designations, if approved by the City Council, will apply to the Alabama Shopping Center in the 2900 block of South Shepherd — including the Alabama Theater building that now houses a bookstore — and the crescent-shaped River Oaks Shopping Center at the northeast corner of Shepherd and West Gray.

Both areas, along with the River Oaks Theater across the street from the River Oaks Shopping Center, have been listed as endangered by the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. Weingarten Realty Investors, which owns all three properties, has asked tenants to vacate the River Oaks Shopping Center and may legally begin demolition on Aug. 8.

Weingarten representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Miya tried to find out about that awhile back. Short answer, Weingarten is playing it close to the vest.

About a dozen speakers, including leaders of every major Houston preservation organization, two City Council members and architectural historian Stephen Fox, urged the commission to approve the landmark designation even though it might not save the buildings from the wrecking ball.

“Even though this doesn’t ensure that the buildings will be preserved, it does send a message that this city really cares about its history and the built environment,” said Councilman Peter Brown.

That and a fiver will get you a fancy coffee at one of the two Starbuckses next to the Theater. The gesture is nice, and I applaud that it may be made, but it’s just a gesture.

There is one thing historic designation, and the accompanying tax breaks, could do, however, and that’s to make the River Oaks/Alabama Center properties appealing to a buyer who’d want to keep them as they are – or at least, to keep the Theater and the BookStop as they are. It’s probably not enough, but who knows? It’s something, and until something else better comes along, it’s what we’ve got. Keep hope alive, y’all.

Cragg Hines is retiring

Looks like the Chron is going to need another DC-based columnist.

FishbowlDC has learned that Houston Chronicle Washington columnist (and former Houston Chronicle D.C. Bureau Chief) Cragg Hines is retiring after 35 years with the paper. A Gridiron fixture, Hines has become one of the great Washington monuments in the journalism community. He is leaving at the end of July.

I suppose they could just leave his position vacant, and let Julie Mason pick up the slack. I’d rather they give someone else a shot at it. Either way, Happy Retirement, Cragg.

(And feel free to keep blogging afterwards. You’ll be able to say stuff you might’ve felt uncomfortable about before. Believe me, that would be a good thing.)

Zoo prices

I have three things to say about this story about a price hike at the Houston Zoo.

1. Get a membership. If you go to the Zoo more than once a year, it pays for itself. (And if you go less, what are you complaining about?) There are still free days at the Zoo, and as the story notes there will now be discount tickets, for slightly less than what they were before the increase, at Fiesta markets. Membership means skipping the long lines to enter, special deals and other discounts, and a reciprocal arrangement with other zoos and aquaria – when we go to Portland to visit my parents, we get in free at the Portland Zoo, and the same is true when they come here. And it’s good for the Zoo. Who knows, maybe more members would mean longer-term price stability.

2. It’s still a pretty good deal – kids’ tickets are cheaper here than at most other Texas zoos. And speaking as someone whose first visit to the Zoo was over a decade ago, it’s a much better place now than it was back then. It’s also a pretty good deal compared to other entertainment options. How much would you pay to take the family to a movie? An Astros game? Dave and Buster’s? You can still go to the Menil if you want high-quality no-cost entertainment.

3. Maybe the Zoo is having to spend more money on things that it must have and can’t control, like (oh, I don’t know) gasoline and electricity. What’s their alternative in that situation? Unlike HCTRA, the Zoo has fewer good options available to it.

Sure, I’d rather the Zoo be cheaper. I’d rather everything be cheaper. But that’s life.

More pension deal details

Today’s story on the pension deal fills in a few blanks.

The city’s annual financial contribution, which increases with the liability, had been a source of contention in recent weeks. White has defiantly stated that the city couldn’t afford a higher payment without getting rid of hundreds of employees. That prompted David Long, the fund’s executive director, to hint about a possible legal fight.

Then, Thursday morning, city employees found an e-mail and telephone message from White announcing the deal.

“As your mayor, I deeply value your commitment to public service,” he said in the recorded voice message. “That’s why it’s important to me, and all within the management of this city, that the pension on which you’re planning is secure.”

Long, who had been publicly skeptical of White’s plans, said current employees should be pleased with the deal. He said the fund negotiated away attempts by the city to replace a popular deferred retirement program, known as DROP.

The two sides also reached a deal with the retirement package remaining a traditional pension plan, long abandoned as too costly by much of the corporate world, rather than a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k).

Long said the city also agreed to pay more: $78.5 million in 2009, $83.5 million in 2010 and $88.5 million in 2011.

Among the benefit changes:

  • Depending on years of service, the current plan allows workers to retire fully as young as 50. New employees would not be able to retire with a full benefit until they reach 62.
  • Annual 2 percent cost-of-living increases would be eliminated for new employees.
  • An existing provision extending a full benefit to a spouse upon a retiree’s death would be optional. New employees who choose to cover a spouse would receive a reduced monthly payment.

None of that sounds terrible, in the sense that if this had been the way it worked all along it wouldn’t strike me as being stingy. But as city employees are the only group we haven’t heard from so far (here’s one brief reaction), it’d be nice to know what they think – and in particular whether they think future employees are getting screwed – before we put this under the “everybody is happy” banner. We’ll see what happens when Council and HMEPS review and presumably approve it.

UPDATE: Here’s the HMEPS press release (PDF), via Matt Stiles.

Rod Newman, Secretary of the HMEPS Board of Trustees and Chair of the Board’s External Affairs Committee, praised HMEPS and City executives who have worked to come up with an agreement that is a win-win for all parties: “David Long, who was the HMEPS negotiator in the meet and confer process, had many meetings and conversations with the City’s negotiator over the last two weeks, and we appreciate his diligence and commitment to get this amicably resolved so the final agreement is in the best interests of everyone.”

It’s City Council’s turn now.

We have congested streets? Why wasn’t I told?

I didn’t think there was anything else to say about the head-spinningly fast flipflop on Westpark Toll Road pricing, but then I saw this in today’s updated story.

On Tuesday, [Commissioner Steve] Radack said of drivers who couldn’t afford peak-hour fees, “Let them go down Richmond Road. Or they can use Westpark,” a secondary road near the tollway. His comment especially angered commuters.

But [County Judge Ed] Emmett said Radack’s comment may have been useful because many residents phoned or e-mailed to say that Richmond also is congested and is not a viable alternative.

Emmett said he and other court members reviewed alternatives to the tollway and decided that it is unwise to force some drivers onto backed-up secondary streets and highways where construction is under way, such as Interstate 10.

“The truth of the matter is, we and the consultants hadn’t factored in the construction on the other highways,” Emmett said. “You can’t have congestion pricing if you don’t have a place for people to go to avoid congestion.”

Emphasis mine. It’s a good thing that was followed by this, because I’m utterly speechless.

Chuck Wagner, via e-mail, wondered why the court didn’t realize before Tuesday’s vote that alternate roads were congested. “Apparently, it didn’t occur to those incompetent boobs on the Commissioners Court that the reason the tollway is flooded with cars is that the Katy Freeway has become essentially unusable to people in Katy due to the ongoing construction fiasco,” Wagner wrote.

Even without the Katy Freeway construction as a factor, have none of the Commissioners ever driven down Richmond or Westpark or Westheimer during rush hour? How can this have been a mystery?

At least maybe something good will come out of this farce:

Emmett said the county will look at other ways to reduce gridlock on the tollway. Some possible options include partnering with Metro to allow Metro buses to use the tollway without charge, encouraging carpooling and improving alternate routes.

These are good things in general, and should be explored as options everywhere. I don’t know why it needed to take this particular incident to make some of this happen, but at least it’s on the front burner now. I’ll take what I can get.

UPDATE: When weathermen are taking potshots at you, you know you’ve screwed up.

OK, we get it – you don’t like it

The Press’ Rich Connelly follows up this slightly over-the-top blog screed (call me a humorless liberal if you will, but I’ve lost my taste for “torture” jokes) against Kristin Finan’s video blog with another potshot (PDF) in this week’s print edition. I’m not going to be an arbiter of taste here, but I am a little puzzled as to why Finan’s admittedly fluffy effort would engender a reaction as strong as “inchoate rage”. She writes for the lifestyle and entertainment section, not the Washington bureau. What’s the big deal?

Yes, her blog is highly Kristin-centric. But, um, aren’t most blogs about the blogger more than anything else? Isn’t that why most people who read blogs do so, for the personality of the blogger as much as for the content? Since “not reading it” is still an option, I’m not sure what the problem is here.

Maybe the problem is that she’s a professional reporter and is getting paid for this silliness. To which all I can say is “More power to her”. Again, if she were a news reporter, I’d dislike this, too. But she’s a features writer. What else is this but a feature? Judging from the number of comments she’s getting, it’s a feature that at least some people seem to like, too.

In the end, I think it is a matter of taste. Which as I said is just peachy. Maybe it’s that I don’t much care for Chron criticism that’s nothing more than “They’re doing something I don’t like!” Hey, they also print Charles Krauthammer columns, comic strips by dead guys, and way too many stories about golf. Hard to believe, I know, but their audience includes people other than me. Such is life, wouldn’t you say?

The Ten Commandments of driving

So the Vatican has issued the Ten Commandments of Driving. I hadn’t realized they had a travel bureau, but all in all it’s not a bad effort. I kind of prefer Mac’s version, though, even if they sometimes make me a sinner. Oh, and I’d also suggest we add another commandment to cover this sort of thing. Then we can say ours goes to 11.

New gig for Mary Beth Harrell

Via Eye on Williamson comes the news that Mary Beth Harrell, who ran against Rep. John Carter in CD31 last year, has a new gig:

KNCT-TV, the local public broadcasting station located on the campus of Central Texas College, recently announced the addition of a new show to premiere this summer. “Insight,” hosted by local attorney Mary Beth Harrell, will premiere Thursday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m. on KNCT (channel four on the local cable system or channel 46 for non-cable subscribers). A re-broadcast will air the following Sunday at 10 a.m.

“Insight” is a half-hour roundtable discussion featuring prominent, successful women who help shape the issues affecting Central Texas. These leaders come from numerous sectors of the community including education, healthcare, banking, economic development, city management, the courtroom, charitable giving and the news media. “The guests on ‘Insight’ understand the challenges confronting us today in many areas of our everyday lives,” said Harrell. “They will not only identify these challenges but also talk about their plans and goals to meet those challenges now and in the future.”

Some of Harrell’s guests on “Insight” will be Ann Harder, Channel 25 news anchor; Martha Tyrock, Temple city councilwoman; Judge Diane Henson, Judge Martha Trudo, Colonel Diane Sutton and Colonel Victoria Bruzese of Fort Hood; Reverend Mary Wilson, Dr. Rose Cameron, Diane Connell, Colleen Beck and Brenda Coley.

One segment of the show will feature Harrell on location at area restaurants seeking public opinions from Central Texans on an array of topics. “We want to bring our community into the studio so our guests can hear the opinions and concerns of its citizens,” noted Harrell. “We hope the viewers, as well as our guests, find the exchange enlightening and entertaining.”

Following its July 12 premiere, “Insight” can be seen Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and once monthly on Sunday at 10 a.m.

Great to hear. Mary Beth ran a fine campaign on limited funds against Carter, and she’s just an awesome person overall. Congrats, Mary Beth!

Whitemire involved in lawsuit

I didn’t get around to this story yesterday, in which a bartender who was fired from an Austin watering hole has sued her former employer for allegedly refusing to serve State Sen. John Whitmire.

In her lawsuit, Rebekah L. Lear said she lost her job at the bar because she refused to serve Whitmire a second scotch on the night of March 8. Lear also alleges that Whitmire threatened to have her fired.

Lear claims her manager later told her that “we never refuse senators,” in a conversation that was recorded, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit does not specify the damages Lear is seeking.


The lawsuit says Whitmire arrived at the Cloak Room on March 8 “acting intoxicated” and with a “glazed look in his eyes.” Lear, who was working alone, served him the “J&B and water” that he requested, according to the lawsuit, but gave him a glass of water when he asked for another scotch. Lear told him she couldn’t serve another drink because he was intoxicated, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses Whitmire of threatening to call the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and have Lear fired if she didn’t serve him another drink.

After Whitmire approached Lear and said he “would have her job,” Lear said she would call the police if he didn’t settle down, the lawsuit says.

“He responded that the police would not come because all he would have to do was to make a phone call,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Whitmire made more threats and then left.

[Lara Wendler, Whitmire’s legislative director,] said she and four other people were with Whitmire that night at the bar. She said Lear refused to serve Whitmire even one drink and never told him that she thought he was intoxicated.

If what Ms. Lear says in this suit is proven to be true, then Sen. Whitmire’s actions were despicable and inexcusable. Today, we hear Whitmire’s side of the story.

Whitmire on Thursday disputed many of the allegations in the lawsuit. The Houston Democrat said he had been drinking before arriving at The Cloak Room, but was not intoxicated.

“I was in absolutely responsible condition,” he said. He added that he was not driving.

Whitmire said Lear never served him any alcohol. He said when she delivered an initial round of drinks to the table, he discovered his was water and wanted to know why.

“She said she was told not to give me a drink. I thought it was a joke,” Whitmire said.

He pressed the bartender as to who told her not to serve him, but said he did not threaten to have her fired or call the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission as alleged in the lawsuit.

“I was not upset about not having a drink,” Whitmire said. “I was concerned about who had told her not to serve me a drink. I thought I had a right to know that.”

That’s very different, both in terms of facts and interpretation. If Whitmire’s version is true, then one can see how Ms. Lear might have felt threatened, but it doesn’t rise to the level of wrongdoing on the Senator’s part. It’ll be very interesting to hear what all the witnesses have to say. We’ll see.

Pension deal reached

I was wondering about this when I saw the story about the city budget being adopted earlier today. It was just a matter of time, I guess.

The city and its largest pension fund have reached a tentative agreement on benefit changes for new employees designed to reduce the system’s more than $1 billion unfunded liability, Mayor Bill White’s office announced this morning.

The agreement still needs approval of the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System trustees, scheduled to meet today, and City Council, which convenes again Wednesday.

In addition to the benefit changes, which don’t affect current workers, the deal also sets a four-year financing schedule that had been the subject of contention in recent weeks between White and the fund’s executive director, David Long.

If the deal is approved, the city would be allowed to contribute to the fund what the mayor proposed for the next fiscal year: about $75 million. That annual contribution would gradually increase over the next few years, but remain at a percentage of employee payroll that city officials believe is more manageable.

So the initial take appears to be that the Mayor won this particular staredown. I presume we’ll see more details tomorrow, at which point we can better judge how good or bad this deal is for the city as a whole. Given the nature of these things, I’ll bet that acceptance by HMEPS and City Council is a formality – you’d have to be a fool to announce a deal more than a week ahead of deadline if you aren’t real sure that it’ll be ratified by those who have to vote on it. Mayor White ain’t a fool.

Matt Stiles has more. Getting back to the budget for a sec, I’d like to know more about this:

Among the changes, which didn’t alter the mayor’s plan significantly, was the elimination of a controversial proposed waste-reduction fee creating a dedicated fund that would guarantee money for solid waste services such as recycling, composting and heavy trash collection.

So what’s going to happen to recycling, composting, and heavy trash? Keep doing what we’re doing, make the changes suggested but take the money from general revenue as before, or cut back on some or all of them? I suppose Council still has action items regarding this. I look forward to hearing more.

Congestion pricing? What congestion pricing?

Well, that was fast.

County Judge Ed Emmett announced today that the county will not double fees during peak hours on the Westpark Tollway, backing off a decision made two days earlier that was assailed by many tollway drivers and area residents.

“We will cancel the Westpark (peak-hours) increase,” he said.

Member of Commissioners Court, especially Commissioner Steve Radack, have received phone calls and e-mails from residents criticizing the court’s decision Tuesday to raise Westpark fees from $1 to $2.50 per transaction during peak hours.

Rescinding Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the court “was certainly influenced by the public’s reaction,” Emmett said.

Boy, when was the last time public opinion had any effect on Commissioners Court? I guess even kings and czarinas have to be concerned about the rabble once in awhile.

So-called “congestion pricing” was intended to reduce gridlock on the tollway during the morning and evening commutes. But after voting for peak-hour pricing, court members became concerned that doubling the fees would force some drivers onto just-as-congested nearby roads.

Gosh, where might they have gotten that idea? Let’s be real here: What the Court – in particular, Judge Emmett – became concerned about was the specter of Charles Bacarisse and David Mincberg rubbing their hands and cackling with glee at the juicy electoral issue that just dropped into their laps. Will people forgive and forget, or will they think he’s a flipflopper as well as a chiseler? Look for the hit pieces in your mailbox, any day now.

Backlash on Westpark Toll Road fees

Looks like there’s a little commissioner’s remorse over the upcoming toll road fee hikes.

Several Commissioners Court members received calls and e-mail criticizing their decision Tuesday to double tollway fees during peak hours.

“My initial thought was to implement these changes and then review them,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “But my view may be changing on that.”

But unless the court revisits the issue, the Harris County Toll Road Authority plans to move forward with the new fee schedule in September, said Peter Key, the authority’s deputy director. The authority would study whether the peak-hour fees should be lower or higher after they go into effect, he said.


The court authorized the toll road authority to set peak-hour pricing from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. inbound and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. outbound.

Toll transactions along the main part of the tollway now cost $1. That fee will rise to $1.25 per transaction during nonpeak hours. And the rate during peak hours will be $2.50 per transaction.

“I don’t think we need three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon,” Radack said.

The problem with all this is that the higher toll fee isn’t going to adjust people’s behaviors in a constructive way. It will just move them from a crowded freeway to crowded surface roads. I don’t see what good might come out of that.

Congestion pricing is used elsewhere in the country to keep traffic flowing. It hasn’t been tried before in Texas, but the future Katy Freeway toll lanes are expected to have peak-hour pricing. “What’s going on in Houston will be a model for what people around the state can look forward to,” said Christopher Poe, director of the Center on Tolling Research at Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

The peak-hour prices on the tollway would raise the toll rate during regular hours from about 18 cents per mile to about 20 cents. The peak-hour rate would be about 42 cents.

Some rates are much higher in other parts of the country.

During peak hours on Friday afternoons, motorists on State Route 91 in the Los Angeles area pay nearly $1 per mile, or $9.50 for a 10-mile trip.

“The idea is not to discourage use,” Poe said. “It’s to get people to change their schedules to reduce the demand at peak hours.”

That’s a fine idea, and one I generally support, but the implementation here sucks. If the goal is to discourage people from driving during those times – or to find alternatives to driving – you have to at least help them understand what their options are, if not actually help create some new ones. Most people can’t adjust their workdays to avoid the 6-9 and 4-7 time periods, which is the only choice they’re being given besides “Let them eat cake drive on Richmond”. Maybe Commissioners Court could have done something with Metro to expand park-and-ride options to include service to the Beltway 8 area, or something like that. Maybe that’s not realistic either, I don’t know, but almost anything has to be better than what was done.

Of course, according to this clueless letter writer, it’s all actually Metro’s fault.

Refund due to rightful owners

The punishing 150 percent toll increase on the Westpark Tollway proves that the Metropolitan Transit Authority was negligent when it decided to build a highway that was obsolete at the moment of conception.

This latest fiasco underscores the very urgent need to do away with Metro altogether and return the billions of tax dollars it wastes to their rightful owners.


HCTRA, METRO, it’s all the same to him. I just hope he doesn’t vote in the next referendum election, whenever that might be. And is it just me, or does anyone else think that if the Chron is going to choose to print a dumb letter like this, they owe their readers the courtesy of an editorial footnote to explain that the writer has his facts completely wrong? Houstonist has a much better rant about this.

One more thing: How much of the current Westpark woes do you think are cause by the construction on I-10? Seems to me Commissioners Court could have chosen to wait to implement congestion pricing after some of the excess traffic on Westpark had migrated north. Maybe they’d have found it’s not that bad after all.

Give platelets

J. Fred Duckett, the longtime stadium announcer for the Rice Owls and the originator of the phrase “It’s a great day for outdoor football!”, is suffering from leukemia and in need of platelet donations. From the Owl fan forum, posted on Monday the 18th:

Hello all. I just spoke to Fred and, among other things, he said that he is need of platelets and blood. For those not familiar with platelets, they are necessary for blood to clot, they are often needed by leukemia patients on a daily basis and they have a very short shelf life (something like 48 hours). The process takes about two (2) hours and there are many things that are much more enjoyable than giving platelets, but nothing that is as important as giving for Fred. I called the Methodist Hospital Blood Center @ 713.441.3415 and made an appointment to give both platelets & blood on Wednesday of this week. As I said, platelets have a short shelf life, and we need to get people lined up to give platelets on a daily basis for as long as necessary (could be weeks depending on his treatment).

For this to be effective, there needs to be a schedule of donors. I am scheduled for Wednesday — we now need Tues (tomorrow) if possible, Thurs and Friday of this week and Mon-Friday next week, etc, etc. Email me and I’ll put you on the schedule on a first come, first served basis. As soon as I confirms your date, call the Methodist Blood Center @ 713.441.3415 and make your appointment — be sure to tell them you are donating specifically for Fred. Then call Fred and tell him what you are doing because he will have to provide some kind of written authorization since the platelets are specifically for him. I have done this before for patients at MDACC and it works, but we need commitments and help to get this coordinated and on track. It will then pretty much run on its own for as long as necessary. Please do your part to help Fred and volunteer now.

Fred’s blood type is A+, but platelets do not have to match based on blood type (ie, platelets from any blood type will do for Fred). Blood can be given something like every 8-10 weeks, but platelets can be given much more often like weekly. On Wednesday, I will give my platelets and O- blood. I will not be able to give blood again for 8-10 weeks, but I will be able to give platelets again in a few days (next week for sure). Because of the short shelf life of platelets, those that I give on Wed will have to be used on Thurs or Friday. That is the reason why a daily schedule of platelet donors is so critically important.

I can’t do this myself, because I did a double red blood cell donation back in March, which as noted here means I’m on the bench till July. Those of you who can, especially those of you in the Rice community, please click on the first link for more information, and please help if you can. Thanks very much.

Independent at last!

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg changes tack.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced Tuesday that he was dropping his Republican affiliation, a step that could clear the way for him to make an independent bid for the presidency.


Until he ran for mayor in 2001, Mr. Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat, and his success in New York reflected his ability to draw Democratic votes: he is for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.

I hereby make a solemn vow to you, my readers: If Michael Bloomberg gets into the Presidential race as an independent, I will refer to him forevermore as “Michael Bloomberg Keeton Strayhorn”. And I will start a petition to demand that he be referred to as “Grandpa” on the ballot. It’s just the right thing to do.

Don’t stop downloadin’

Of all the things to come out of the Sopranos finale, I’d have to say this was the least expected. To me, anyway.

The Sopranos is over, but the last song featured on the show, Don’t Stop Believin’ which the band Journey released in 1981, keeps going as its lyrics say, “on and on and on and on.”

According to Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, downloads of the song from iTunes went from about 1,000 on the day before the episode to 6,531 the day after. For the week, the song climbed to No. 17 in popularity on iTunes, while the band’s Greatest Hits also cracked the Top 20.

On the radio, airplay of Don’t Stop Believin’ increased 192 percent Monday through Thursday over the first four days of the previous week, according to Nielsen BDS, which tracks airplay.

It was not the first time the band had television to thank for a royalties windfall. In 2005, after Don’t Stop Believin’ was featured on the season premiere of MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, it ranked in the top 10 on iTunes.

The song also enjoyed a 150 percent increase in downloads the week after it was featured in an episode of Family Guy on Fox in 2005, according to Nielsen.

While song downloads were not tracked in 2003, when Don’t Stop Believin’ was featured in NBC’s Scrubs, overall retail sales of Journey’s Greatest Hits increased 51 percent in the first full week after the show aired, according to Nielsen.

Who knew?

And for what it’s worth, I forget where I saw this, but someone suggested the reason why Tony played that particular song is that the B-side to it in the little jukebox was Any Way You Want It, which is apparently the real message from David Chase about what actually happened when the screen went blank. Makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard.

Farmers Branch and Hazelton

At last, we have an official injunction against the anti-immigrant ordinance in Farmers Branch, to replace the existing temporary restraining order.

Agreeing with lawyers for residents and apartment owners who sued, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay wrote that the measure is “based upon a scheme that does not adopt federal immigration standards” and is too vague for landlords to apply.

The ordinance, which voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin last month, would require apartment managers to verify that tenants are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, with some exceptions for the elderly and minors. Landlords who don’t comply would face fines of up to $500 per tenant per day.

Lindsay said the plaintiffs who challenged the measure proved they had a “substantial likelihood” of winning the case on its merits. His injunction blocks enforcement of the measure until a trial is completed, lawyers in the case said.

Lindsay declined the city’s request that he edit the ordinance to try to make it constitutionally acceptable. “Any attempt to rewrite the ordinance would require the court to legislate by creating an entirely new ordinance,” Lindsay wrote.

Marisol Perez, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, ” The judge is in line with what courts around the country are doing. They are not allowing cities to do this.”

Indeed. Via TalkLeft, I found out about the case of Hazelton, PA, where a similar ordinance was blocked by a federal judge pending the outcome of a lawsuit (there have been at least two lawsuits filed against this ordinance). As it happens, that trial concluded in May, with a ruling expected in the summer. You may want to stock up on earplugs now for when that sucker hits the presses.

Farmers Branch council member Tim O’Hare, who sponsored the measure, said, “I’m certainly disappointed the judge has chosen to ignore the overwhelming will of the people in our town, but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.”

Oh, cry me a river. The “will of the people” means nothing if what they want to do is illegal. What do you think would have happened if the city had passed a law decriminalizing heroin, as a for instance? There’s a reason civil rights legislation was done at a federal level.

By the way, if you haven’t read the Steve Murdock interview in the Observer, in which he talks about how the population of Texas is rapidly becoming non-Anglo, and that the Anglo population is aging, consider this snippet:

TO: As you go around the state, what kind of response are you getting to your presentations?

SM: Well, it’s changed a lot over the past 25 years that I’ve been talking about this. Twenty-five years ago a lot of people didn’t believe this was going to happen. Virtually no one will say today, “We’re not going to be diverse. We’re not getting older.” So I think there’s a lot more acceptance.

I think the reactions run somewhat to what you’d expect. That is, there’s some who look at it and say, “What should we do to address this?” There are some who say, “I’m going to wall myself off. I’ll find a place where I can live and forget about all this, I don’t want to deal with it.” Those are probably the two most common. And the third set really says, “I see what it is but you can’t do a thing about it. It’s going happen. What do we do?” In other words, they’re not as activated to look for alternatives to do things. They just feel like it’s overwhelming. I’d say those are the most frequent reactions these days. Twenty-five years ago many people said, “You’re just wrong.”

Certainly the number of people that are interested in doing something about it has increased over the years. They increasingly see their fate is tied. And one of the things that we try to show in our work–and this goes back to the individual versus the group phenomenon–is the extent to which all Texans’ fates are tied to the changes that occur and how we handle them.

By [20]23 or [20]24, we’re talking about three out of every four Texas workers being non-Anglo. I like to say, well, if I, as an aging Anglo, forget that the quality of services I’m going to have–fire, police, and other services–depend on how well primarily the working-age population is doing, I really do so to my own detriment. Our fates are intertwined and related. How well our non-Anglo citizens do in Texas is how well Texas will do.

As Texas goes in this matter, so goes the nation. It’s just a shame that places like Farmers Branch and Hazelton have chosen to respond to it by burying their heads in the sand.

Assessing the vetoes

Paul Burka takes a detailed look at many of the bills that were vetoed by Governor Perry here and here, and examines the justification he gave for each. As you might imagine, some are more justified than others. In a previous installment, he looked at the personalities involved, and how that may have colored some of Perry’s actions.

Meanwhile, Grits for Breakfast did similar work for criminal justice-related bills, and Dos Centavos looked at some education bills. Check them out.

Hilary Green

Kristin Mack reported last Friday that Hilary Green, wife of City Council Member Ron Green, was being considered for an appointment as Justice of the Peace for Precinct 7, Place 1. That’s the JP Court formerly presided over by Betty Brock Bell, who was convicted of document tampering back in 2005, and finally stepped down recently after exhausting her appeals. According to Isiah Carey, she got that appointment during yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee says Green was chosen out of five contenders for the position. She was officially selected Tuesday morning during executive session of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court meeting. Lee says there is no official date as to when Green will be sworn into the position. She’ll have 6 months to serve before she will have to run for the position in January 2008. Green is a graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and she received her undergraduate degree from the University of Houston. She’s been practicing law for ten years now.

I’m a little bit torn about this, mostly because I’ve gotten to know Loren Jackson, who was planning to run for that JP seat. (I am also acquainted with Hilary Green, as Tiffany and Ron Green went to elementary school together.) I feel bad for him, because this pretty much eliminates his chances to win that seat – I’d bet he won’t even try to run now. It might have been nice to have appointed someone who wasn’t interested in running for re-election, as I and others suggested for the County Judge position after Robert Eckels took a powder. But realistically, this sort of appointment happens all the time (the County Judge situation was much less common). As such, it’s hard to argue for that. But I still feel bad for Loren Jackson, and I hope an opportunity comes up for him elsewhere.

More on the county bonds proposal

More details on the county bonds proposal that came out yesterday, though the questions that most interest me are still unanswered.

Major projects that likely will be put before voters include:

  • Family Law Center: An $85 million courthouse would be built at San Jacinto and Franklin, across the street from the current family courthouse. The current courthouse and the nearby former district attorney’s building would be razed, and the block bordered by Franklin, Fannin, Congress and San Jacinto likely would become a park or plaza.
  • Juvenile detention: The county would spend $76 million to renovate the former county jail and turn parts of it into juvenile detention space, alleviating crowding at other county facilities.
  • Adult jails: The county would spend $213 million to build a central processing center, which would provide a booking and inmate classification area, expanded health and mental health areas and a 2,500-bed jail. The city would contribute $32 million toward construction.

I still want to know: Are we talking about building more adult jail cells, or are we talking about replacing existing ones, without adding capacity? And if the former, what are we doing to fix the underlying cause of the county jail’s problems? Because if the the answer to that question is “nothing”, then the next thing I want to know is if these issues will be on separate ballots, so I can vote against this one without having to reject the whole package.

On other matters, it’s nice that Commissioners Court is pinky-swearing that none of this will raise property taxes, but frankly that’s at best a tertiary concern for me. If this is worth doing, then it’s worth paying for. I’m sure bonds are a fine way of doing that, but it neither has to be the best or only way. I find the constant fetishizing of property taxes to be annoying, as well as a frequent driver of questionable public policy.

And finally, get used to this:

The Friends of Charles Bacarisse, a group raising campaign money for District Clerk Charles Bacarisse to run for county judge, assailed Emmett for supporting an expensive bond package.

“This court once again failed to consult with the people who put them in power on matters affecting our collective future,” said Jim McGrath, spokesman for the Bacarisse group.

Let’s get ready to rumble! Outside of cold political calculations, I don’t have a dog in the Bacarisse/Emmett smackdown. But I do plan on enjoying the spectacle.

Keep (your car) off the grass

Is it just me, or does anybody else have a Jeff Foxworthy moment in reading this story?

A proposed city law would make it illegal to park in your front yard. But if you simply slapped down some pavement over the grass, then it would be fine.

The draft ordinance, which is still being tweaked, shows how difficult it is to regulate a practice that some call a private right, and others consider a communal eyesore.

“We have people who park three to four vehicles in their front yard, vehicles that are not running, or people who run a mechanic’s shop out of their yard,” said City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado of District I. “There is overwhelming support for this (ordinance) from my civic associations.”

Supporters of the ban claim that cars parked in yards depress property values, leak oil and fluids into the soil, and damage grass, trees and buried utility lines.


The proposed law would apply only to single-family homes and duplexes. It also has a loophole you can literally drive through: a provision allowing property owners to install a parking pad on their front lawn. The extra surface could be concrete, asphalt, gravel or other material and could measure up to 275 square feet, enough to park two cars. The exception is a compromise for smaller or older homes, which may have short driveways or none at all, Lawrence said.

But critics say that encouraging people to pave over part of their front yard to get around the ban might only make the problem worse.

“Just dumping shell or some stuff — will that be any better than parking in the front yard?” asked Councilman Adrian Garcia.

According to Christof, the answer to that question is “No”.

According to this study and this study by the University of Texas’ Center for Research in Water Resources, the most effective technology for cleaning urban runoff is grass:

The effectiveness of grassy swales for treating highway runoff was evaluated by comparing the runoff at Walnut Creek, before and after passing across a swale. The grassy swale proved effective for reducing the concentrations of most constituents in runoff. The low runoff coefficient due to infiltration of runoff into the swale produced a large reduction (90%) in pollutant load discharged.

In other words, parking cars on grass is not a pollution problem; it’s a way to reduce pollution.

The city of Houston has taken great strides in improving its air quality. Let’s not take a step backwards when it comes to water pollution.

Beyond that, I confess I’ve no strong feelings about this proposal either way. I confess, I’m not sure why deed restrictions are insufficient, as one proponent says. All things being equal, I’d say they’re probably the best remedy, and if there’s a gap in their capabilities then let Council address that.