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June 20th, 2007:

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.

On not seeing the congestion for the cars

So we heard about the upcoming increase in toll road fees, and now we find out that for one road at least, it’s really gonna cost you to drive it.

Harris County Commissioners Court’s decision Tuesday to fight congestion on the three-year-old Westpark Tollway by forcing some drivers off the road with higher rush-hour fees drew the ire of cash-strapped commuters.

And a dismissive response from Commissioner Steve Radack — “Let them go down Richmond Road” — made the new $2.50 tolls even less palatable for some.

Commuter Vic Stewart, in an e-mail, said of the Commissioners Court, “And ‘Let them eat cake!’ They’ll certainly have time.”

Commissioners Court voted unanimously to hike fees to $2.50 from 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m., hoping fewer drivers will use the tollway.

[…]

Radack said those who cannot afford the rush-hour fees should use alternate roads. “Let them go down Richmond Road,” he said. “Or they can use Westpark,” the surface road running alongside the tollway.

Six months after the four-lane Westpark Tollway opened in 2004, traffic backups began occurring in certain areas, said Peter Key, toll road authority deputy director. Congestion has worsened since then.

I must be missing something here. I thought the purpose of the Westpark Toll Road was to help alleviate congestion on various east-west thoroughfares – I-10 to some extent, but especially overloaded arterial roads like Richmond and Westpark. If so, then isn’t jacking up the tolls to discourage people from taking it essentially defeating that purpose? How exactly does turning the Westpark Toll Road (which, for people coming in from Katy and the like, was already a pricey proposition) into a luxury item serve the goal of mobility?

On the other hand, if the real goal is extracting money from people’s pockets, then hey. Mission accomplished!

Well, maybe this will encourage more people to explore park-and-ride options. If so, that will be a good thing. Hey, Metro: Maybe now would be a good time to advertise your services in that part of town.

Not so clever Hans

Unlike Steve Murdock, here’s a Bush appointee who shouldn’t get the job he’s being picked for.

The 2003 Texas redistricting plan, engineered by Tom DeLay and blessed by the U.S. Justice Department, was a boost for Republicans. The new district boundaries helped bolster their majority in Congress in the 2004 elections.

But here’s the thing about Washington: Payback is hell.

Ask Hans von Spakovsky, President Bush’s appointee to the Federal Election Commission. After serving a year and a half on the FEC — apparently with little complaint from Republican or Democratic commissioners — von Spakovsky’s Senate confirmation to a six-year term is in jeopardy.

His critics allege that, while serving as a Bush administration voting rights lawyer at the Justice Department, von Spakovsky overruled a unanimous recommendation by eight career staff lawyers that the Texas redistricting map be considered a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act because it diluted minorities’ voting power.

The rejection of the staff recommendation — one of several seemingly partisan actions attributed to von Spakovsky and other Bush administration appointees by their former Justice Department colleagues — paved the way for courts in Texas to approve the redistricting map, handing then-House Majority Leader DeLay, R-Sugar Land, a major victory and costing five Texas Democrats their jobs in the U.S. House.

[…]

Von Spakovsky, 48, who volunteered for the Bush campaign in Florida as votes were being recounted during the 2000 contested presidential election, also has come under fire for helping to craft, and then pushing through the Justice Department, his home state of Georgia’s voter identification law. The law eventually was thrown out by a federal court that compared it to Jim Crow-era poll taxes discriminating against minority and poor voters who are less likely to have state-issued photo IDs.

Von Spakovsky insists that such calls were made by Justice Department employees above him. He says his former colleagues blame him simply because he was the messenger.

“I was not the decision-maker,” he said during his Senate confirmation hearing last week. “My job as a career counselor was to provide legal advice and recommendations.”

Then he provided bad advice and recommendations, which speaks poorly about his judgment. And when the article says he “volunteered for the Bush campaign in Florida as votes were being recounted during the 2000 contested presidential election”, what it means is he took part in the so-called “bourgeois riot” to shut down the legally-proceeding recounts by intimidating the vote-counters. He’s a hack of the first order.

Perhaps most damaging to the nomination, though, is a letter by six voting rights lawyers who worked with the nominee at the Justice Department. They claim von Spakovsky was “the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights” and note that during von Spakovsky’s tenure, more than half of the career lawyers in the voting section left in protest.

The attorneys accused von Spakovsky of approving Texas’ faulty redistricting plan and Georgia’s restrictive voter ID law along with blocking an investigation of a Minnesota Republican official who allegedly discriminated against Native American voters leading up to the 2004 election — a case von Spakovsky told lawmakers he couldn’t recall.

TPM has much more about von Spakovsky. I sincerely hope his bid for a full six-year term with the FEC is rejected.

UPDATE: I swear, when I wrote this post, I had intended to link to these two Observer blog posts as part of it. Better late than never.

Steve Murdock gets a new gig

State demographer Steve Murdock is getting a new gig.

President Bush has nominated the state demographer of Texas, Steven Murdock, to be director of the Census, the White House said Monday.

Murdock would replace current Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon, who said late last year he would leave the agency when a new director was confirmed. Kincannon said at the time he felt he had lost the confidence of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. He did not offer specifics.

[…]

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., a member of the House Government Reform Committee’s Census panel, said Monday, “It appears that the president, after a lengthy delay, has finally nominated a career professional to be the Census director.”

She said Murdock “has a reputation for professionalism and independence,” which will be an important factor for the Senate as it considers the nomination of a new director as the agency prepares for the 2010 Census.

Murdock’s reputation is well deserved, as BOR and the Observer blog report. I’ll second the Observer’s recommendation of their interview with Murdock from 2005. He’s a good guy, and he’s a great choice to head up the Census. Their gain is our loss. Best of luck to Steve Murdock in the new gig.

Dyslexia and crime

Grits notes my post about the failure to treat dyslexia in the schools, and observes that I didn’t comment on the connection between dyslexia and crime. That would be because it wasn’t in the article, and I didn’t know any better. Fortunately, Grits is there to fill in the gap. That post of his points to this Comptroller’s report on the subject, which contains this eye-opening statistic:

The [Dyslexia Research Foundation of Texas’] first challenge is to determine exactly what the disorder costs the Texas economy. The numbers could be staggering, since a disproportionate number of people with dyslexia wind up incarcerated or on welfare, according to an April 2004 report by JFA Institute of Washington D.C. and Austin.

[Foundation chair Bill] Hilgers said the incidence level is 10 percent or higher in Texas schools and about 30 percent or higher in prisons. The students either fall behind or get put in special education classes, Hilgers said.

“They drop out or get into other problems,” he said. “Some end up in the criminal justice system. It creates a psychological problem. They feel stupid because they can’t read. It’s psychologically deadening–children and parents are very affected by that.”

So an inmate in Texas is three times as likely to be dyslexic as someone who is not in prison. You think some of those folks never got a proper diagnosis and treatment regimen when they were kids? I remember a TV ad slogan by a car maintenance outfit that went “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later”. That’s pretty much what this comes down do. We can spend a modest amount of money now to identify and help kids who are struggling with dyslexia, or we can spend a buttload of money later to lock ’em up. Seems a pretty easy choice to me.

An interchange? What a concept!

Back in the 80s when I was a student at Trinity, I remember thinking how quaint (and more than occasionally frustrating) it was that there was no direct interchange between US 281 and Loop 410. I’m pleased and slightly amazed to read that after all these years, that’s finally being corrected.

Nearly half a century ago, a feverish battle began to decide the route of the North Expressway, the part of U.S. 281 north of downtown that’s now called McAllister Freeway.

The feud lasted from 1960 to 1974, and mostly pitted businessmen against environmentalists over whether the road could slice through parklands. The skirmishes spawned two referendums, several lawsuits, a three-year halt in construction and a new federal law.

Buildings sprouted on land needed for the highway and pushed the cost for a Loop 410 interchange beyond reach for the next three decades.

“That’s amazing,” said Roger Conrad, 50. “I’ve driven all over the country and I’ve never seen anything like that.”

In 2005, the Texas Department of Transportation used bond funds to squeeze what would have been a 10-year project to 31/2 years to build a four-level interchange. Work is now 67 percent complete, and TxDOT opened the first ramp at 3 p.m. Monday.

The ramp, from southbound 281 to westbound 410, stretches almost a mile, rising to rooftops of the surrounding skyline. The lane’s chalk-white concrete glares in the sun before dumping drivers just under the McCullough Avenue bridge.

The next ramp, eastbound 410 to southbound 281, is expected to open by August, officials said. The north to east and west to north ramps should open by January, and the rest in late 2008.

That interchange, which was really an intersection of two service roads at a traffic light, could get pretty backed up 20 years ago. I can only imagine how bad it must be today. This flyover ramp doesn’t sound like the prettiest thing on the planet, but I’ll bet everyone who uses it thinks it’s beautiful.