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June 13th, 2007:

From the “Why Every Vote Counts” Department

Some runoffs are stranger than others.

Travis Quinn, the incumbent for Clute’s Ward D, and challenger Michael Binnion are hoping that more than two dozen voters cast ballots in the runoff Saturday.

Theirs is one of many Houston-area elections Saturday.

Clute’s Ward D in Brazoria County has 695 registered voters, but the race there ended in a 12-12 tie.

Quinn, 61, said the May 12 tie shows how important every vote is.

“I’ve gotten a lot of apologies from people for not voting,” Quinn said.

I’m sure everyone reading this has already voted early, but just in case you haven’t, please don’t risk being one of those people who will regret not having voted afterwards. You can avoid this kind of sorrow by voting on Saturday for Melissa Noriega. Though the absolute number of voters will be much bigger than 24, in turnout terms it’s still going to be tiny.

Early voting ended Tuesday, with about 11,000 voters casting ballots. Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, who administers elections, said she expects overall turnout for Saturday’s runoff to be between 1 percent and 2 percent of registered voters.

“That’s pretty abysmal,” Kaufman said. “But it’s summer, school is out, it’s hot, and Election Day falls on Father’s Day weekend.”

Last I checked, Father’s Day wasn’t a two-day holiday. You can still vote on Saturday and celebrate with dear old Dad on Sunday. It really won’t take long to vote – there’s only one race, and there won’t be any lines.

Of course, if you have voted already, that doesn’t mean you can’t still help. You can make sure your family and friends vote. That’s probably the most important thing you can do, but there are other things as well. This election really matters. Please do whatever you can to help Melissa win. Thanks very much.

On the new red light camera (not quite yet) law

I might have waited till Governor Perry actually signed SB1119 before I ran this article about what its passage will mean, since after all nobody really knows when Perry will break out his mighty veto pen, but given that it’s been run, let’s take a look.

Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation could refuse to register a vehicle whose owner has an outstanding $75 red-light camera ticket, under a bill approved recently by the state legislature. It still needs Gov. Rick Perry’s signature to become law.

“It’s definitely going to be inconvenient when you go to register your vehicle and you can’t,” said Houston Police Department Sgt. E.B. Robinson, who oversees the red-light camera program.

But blocking drivers from registering their cars isn’t as easy as it sounds, said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, whose office issues registrations. He doubted his office or TXDOT could quickly implement the new rule if the governor signs it into law, because the state database that blocks individuals from registering would have to be revamped.

“There are so many issues with this,” he said, adding that other new laws with similar logistical problems have taken years to implement.

A spokesman for TXDOT declined to comment because the bill hasn’t been signed.

Far be it from me to suggest that there can’t be problems with the implementation of state databases, but years? Really? I’d rather they get it right slow than get it wrong fast, so if that’s what it takes then that’s what it takes. I’d still like to get a narrower estimate of the time frame, just for my own information. By “years”, do we mean two, or five? That sort of thing.

While the proposal would give violators new incentive to pay the fine, it also takes the teeth out of the city’s previous enforcement mechanism by prohibiting the contractor in charge of the program from reporting unpaid civil penalties to credit agencies.

The city’s system is run by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based contractor American Traffic Solutions, Inc., which mails tickets to violators. If the owner of the vehicle doesn’t pay or contest the ticket, a second notice is sent 45 days later with an additional $25 late fee. Tickets that still are not paid are turned over a law firm that serves as a collection agency.

That firm, Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, LLP, can sue violators, and if the individuals are found guilty, turn that information over to a credit bureau. Last month, the firm filed 13 lawsuits, according to Mike Darlow, a partner with the law firm.

While the firm sues most violators who have racked up several tickets, it sues only a portion of individuals with only one outstanding citation, Darlow said.

“You gotta let people know there are consequences to not paying,” he said.

That consequence no longer would be allowed under the approved bill.

Here’s the text of the bill, as enrolled. I call your attention to Sec. 707.003, subsection 2 (h):

A local authority or the person with which the local authority contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not provide information about a civil penalty imposed under this chapter to a credit bureau, as defined by Section 392.001, Finance Code.

So credit bureau reporting is out. However, I see no reason why judgments cannot be pursued, or collections turned over to an agency such as the Perdue, Branton firm. How much appetite said firm might now have for taking on the job, I couldn’t say.

The bill also would require cities to report the number and types of accidents that occurred at each intersection over an 18-month period before installing cameras. After the cameras are installed, cities would report that same information to determine whether the system increased safety.

I covered that before. What I think should have been mentioned in this article is subsections (b), (c), and (f):

(b) A local authority that contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not agree to pay the contractor a specified percentage of, or dollar amount from, each civil penalty collected.

(c) Before installing a photographic traffic signal enforcement system at an intersection approach, the local authority shall conduct a traffic engineering study of the approach to determine whether, in addition to or as an alternative to the system, a design change to the approach or a change in the signalization of the intersection is likely to reduce the number of red light violations at the intersection.


(f) A local authority may not impose a civil penalty under this chapter on the owner of a motor vehicle if the local authority violates Subsection (b) or (c).

So if the camera vendor gets a cut of each ticket, the setup will be illegal and cannot be enforced. And if the city doesn’t do a study to see if something like yellow light times can do a better job of reducing accidents at the camera-enabled intersections, then again the setup is illegal. How Houston handles that will be interesting.

Finally, as I’ve wondered before, I suspect all this will moot the Kubosh lawsuit. It would have been nice for the question to have been posed to him. I’d guess he has no plans to drop his suit, but you never know.

A moment of Audrey

Well, I’m not running this picture, so I figure I ought to run a picture. And here it is:

Audrey is sitting in a Bumbo, and as you can see she is holding herself fully upright. She is now four months old, and is beginning to be able to scoot around a bit when I put her down on the floor. Mobility can’t be far behind. Look out, world, here she comes!

Innocence matters

Via Grits, here’s a Q&A with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey that touches on some hot button issues.

Q. If you could improve on one area of law education, what would it be?

A. We are working on innocence. Each session, the Court of Criminal Appeals gets $20 million in legal education funding from the Legislature. This year we got the Legislature to set aside a different pot of money … to provide education in the use of DNA, how to deal with recantations, eyewitnesses and prosecutorial misconduct. Texas is getting onboard with the new science and is way ahead of some states, but there is still a long way to go.

Q. Have innocence-related projects met with resistance?

A. It is not so much resistance as apprehension and fear. Some police departments might feel (if convicts are exonerated) the public will think they are doing crappy work. All segments of the system are afraid they will be blamed, but they are coming onboard.

I agree with Grits’ assessment of “resistance” versus “apprehension and fear”, and of the nature of “crappy work”. I also want to emphasize that if we had a better system to provide attorneys for indigent defendants, a lot of that “crappy work” would have been exposed before it ever got to the appeals level. Think Ron Mock. Think Joe Frank Cannon. Think whoever represented Leonard Rojas, which is one of the cases on which the CCA has built its infamous record. Point being, there’s a lot of crap to go around, and some of it is the responsibility of Judge Hervey and her colleagues.

On that score, at least, there’s some good news:

Q. How do you see the legal profession changing in the next 20 years?

A. About 65 percent of the trial dockets are criminal, and I don’t see that going down. I think we will see more public defender officers.

Having more public defender offices, and relying less on attorneys who make their living taking indigent cases on referral from judges, will go a long way. Not nearly long enough, of course, but it’s a start.

Kotkin v. Falkenberg

I mentioned before the talk Joel Kotkin gave to the Greater Houston Partnership recently, and wondered when we’d hear more about it from Tory Gattis. That answer came in Sunday’s op-ed pages, where Tory wrote one of the longer submitted pieces I can recall seeing. He’s reproduced it here. As I said, I haven’t spent too much time studying this (it’s the whole only-24-hours-in-the-day problem), but I know Kotkin raises some interesting points, so it is worthwhile reading.

Meanwhile, the Chron’s Lisa Falkenberg has a critique.

“It may not be glamorous,” Kotkin ends his paper. “But Opportunity Urbanism offers a growing America the most promising path to creating successful and sustainable 21st century cities.”

Yeah, but if the place is dirty, boring and smothered in concrete, who the heck would want to live here?

Kotkin’s argument seems regressive, or digressive, from the progress members of the Partnership have made in recent years to balance business concerns with concern about quality-of-life issues such as air quality, congestion and green space. This past session, the Partnership helped the mayor lobby for a bill to improve Houston’s air. It failed because of politics, not because of complacency.

Kotkin argues that he’s not advocating business-as-usual. Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg agrees, but he says it’s easy to get confused.

“It’s a misreading of Kotkin to see it as a celebration of the status quo,” Klineberg said. “But it’s a misreading that he brought on himself.”

The problem is that Kotkin spends so much time building up the city in his paper that he waits until the last chapter to mention the daunting challenges, like education and diversifying the old-energy economy. And even then, he doesn’t discuss air quality and offers few potential solutions.

“It’s going to strengthen those forces in Houston that say ‘to hell with quality-of-life issues. What matters is private enterprise success,’ ” Klineberg said.

It’s increasingly clear, however, that you can’t have one without the other.

Also good reading. Check ’em both out.

Mammoth extinction: Not our fault

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved to hear this.

Paleontologists long have assumed that massive hunting by humans led to the extinction of the woolly mammoths about 12,000 years ago. New genetic analysis indicates, however, that inbreeding and loss of genetic variability was the cause.

Paleontologists Ian Barnes of the University of London, Adrian Lister of University College London and their colleagues studied mitochondrial DNA samples from 96 bone, tooth and ivory specimens collected primarily in Alaska and Siberia. Their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, chart the animals’ evolutionary history.

The animals apparently originated in Asia about 150,000 years ago, migrating over the land bridge connecting Siberia to Alaska in what now is the Bering Strait to form populations on two continents.

A gradual warming of the Earth caused sea levels to rise, inundating the bridge and isolating the two groups, which became genetically distinct.

About 100,000 years ago, the land bridge opened again, allowing the two groups to intermingle. By about 43,000 years ago, the Siberian lineage had died out, leaving only the Alaskan contingent.

The ice age 20,000 years ago then stressed the population further, the researchers said, reducing their viability.

“A picture is emerging of extinction not as a sudden event at the end of the last ice age, but as a piecemeal process over tens of thousands of years involving progressive loss of genetic diversity,” Barnes said.

“For the mammoth, this seems much more likely to have been driven by environmental rather than human causes.”

One less thing to feel guilty about. Thanks, guys!

Offshore wind farms are a no go

That’s too bad.

Plans to build what would have been the nation’s largest offshore wind farm in South Texas have been called off because the multibillion-dollar project didn’t make economic sense, the developer said Monday.

John Calaway, chief development officer for Babcock & Brown Ltd., the Australian investment bank, said the company notified the state a month ago that it was giving up its 30-year lease on nearly 40,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Padre Island.

Calaway was chief executive of Houston-based Superior Renewable Energy when the agreement was announced 14 months ago. Superior was acquired by Babcock & Brown last summer.

“We just don’t see the economics working offshore in Texas,” Calaway said, noting the project cost would have been “in the billions.”

Alas. Perhaps in the near future this will make more sense to another developer.

Babcock is moving on with an onshore wind farm in South Texas’ Kenedy County, a $700 million-plus venture that calls for 157 turbines on thousands of acres, Calaway said. He noted the expense of building an offshore farm can be more than double the cost of one on land.

Like the nixed offshore project, Babcock’s Kenedy County wind farm, slated to begin spinning late next year, has been criticized by some conservationists because of its potential to kill migrating birds.

Actually, the project has been under fire from the King Ranch, not so much conservationists. It’s a fairly nasty battle, one in which my sympathies have so far gone to the Kenedy Ranch. And as we already know, claims about dangers to migratory birds are at least somewhat oversold.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said he was disappointed to see Babcock drop the project, but he was confident another developer would be found because of the ideal location and the ease of doing business with only one landowner — the state of Texas.

In fact, Patterson said he spoke to a few potential suitors at a wind conference last week in Los Angeles. He said those entities were good prospects because they’ve built offshore wind projects overseas.

Patterson has been a big booster of wind energy (and geothermal, too), for which I applaud him. I’m quite certain he will continue to pursue this.