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June 22nd, 2007:

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.