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August, 2007:

Republicans no hablan español.

If the GOP is the party that doesn’t “get” the internet, are they also the party that doesn’t “get” Hispanic voters? When only John McCain committed to attending a Spanish language debate in Miami, it was indefinitely postponed:

Univisión planned to air the first presidential debates in Spanish on Sept. 9 and 16, one for Democrats, the other for Republicans, trumpeting a national coming-out party for Hispanic voters.

Except Republican candidates aren’t coming. Only Ariz. Sen. John McCain agreed to participate in the event at the University of Miami.

So much for Sept. 16.

”That date is off the table,” university spokeswoman Bárbara Gutiérrez said Wednesday.

She said a GOP debate hasn’t been ruled out for later in the fall.

”We’re thinking that everyone wants to see how the Democratic one goes before they commit,” she said.

All eight Democratic candidates are slated to show up Sept. 9, and party leaders plan to highlight the contrast. The New Democratic Network, a nationwide political group, is planning news conferences and inviting Hispanic leaders, including Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, former Cabinet member Henry Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Luís Gutiérrez of Illinois.

Most of the Republican field also ignored invitations to attend Hispanic-oriented conferences in Florida organized by the National Association of Latin Elected Officials and the National Council of La Raza.

That doesn’t mean they’re not courting Hispanic votes. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani campaigned in Hialeah in June and July.

On Wednesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced endorsements from Hispanic leaders around the country.

”This is all part of a continuous effort to reach out to the Hispanic community,” said Romney spokesman Alex Burgos. “We had a conflict with the debate, but we continue to be in contact with them about potential opportunities in the future.”

So, the message the Republicans are sending: we want Hispanic votes but aren’t willing to put in the legwork to get them. It’s such an unbelievably bad decision to decline to attend this debate. I just can’t imagine what these campaigns think they’re doing. I’m sure they declined due to scheduling conflicts, but that’s not exactly the same thing as wanting to see how the Democrats do before they commit, which is the only reason this article mentions. I hope the Dems really let them have it over this.

Where are the anti-death penalty candidates?

I want to commend Governor Perry for abiding by the 6-1 recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and commuting the sentence of Kenneth Foster Jr. yesterday. From the Chron:

For only the third time since he’s been in office, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday commuted the death sentence of a Texas inmate to life imprisonment following a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The move by the governor came about an hour after the equally rare recommendation, on the same day that Kenneth Foster Jr., 30, was scheduled to die for the 1996 slaying of Michael LaHood Jr., 25, the son of a San Antonio attorney.

Invoking a statute known as the law of parties, prosecutors had argued that Foster — the getaway driver during an August 1996 robbery spree — conspired with his friend, Mauriceo Brown, to rob LaHood and therefore was culpable for his murder, even if he did not intend to kill the victim. A jury agreed and sentenced Foster to death, finding he actually anticipated the murder.

The jury also found that Foster, a gang member, was a future threat to society.

The case had drawn international attention in recent weeks, inspiring protests and letters urging the U.S. Supreme Court, the governor and the parole board to spare Foster’s life because he did not participate in the killing.

The story did get a lot of press, as the Chron mentioned, and I think Gov. Perry made the right decision. The death penalty isn’t usually a hot campaign issue since a majority of Americans favor it, but it does rile up the large minority that opposes it. From the Death Penalty Information Center, I got the statistics on who supports the death penalty. For all of these demographics, except African-Americans, the only difference is how strong the support is. But with only 58% of Democrats and 44% of African-Americans in favor, I think there’s room for a serious candidate who takes a strong anti-death penalty stance.

But here’s what our frontrunners sound like. Barack Obama in 2002:

We certainly don’t think that we should be… have this laundry list that does not make any distinctions between the run-of-the-mill armed robbery that results in death, and systematic killings by a terrorist organization. And I think essentially what the reduction of aggravating factors does is it says, “Here’s a narrower set of crimes that we think potentially at least could deserve the death penalty.”

But here’s Dennis Kucinich in 2004:

The imposition of the death penalty is both racially and economically biased. African American defendants are more likely to receive death sentences than others who committed similar crimes. Ninety-eight percent of all defendants sentenced to death could not afford their own attorney.

It’s too bad that the only candidate for 2008 who really does take an anti-death penalty stance is mostly just fodder for late night talk show jokes. Maybe Kucinich hanging around or the press that Perry got will help to move this debate back into the mainstream and cause people to rethink their positions while I’m still young and idealistic.

The happy Wanderers

One of the unfortunate side effects of my recent pneumonia experience was that I was forced to cancel a trip Olivia and I had planned to take to New York to visit family and attend a few minor league baseball games. These trips have become a semi-annual family tradition, and I’d really been excited about taking Olivia to participate, especially since we’d be meeting up with some cousins I hadn’t seen in awhile. Life had other plans for me, sadly.

One of my uncles spoke to a writer at the hometown paper about the experience. Here it is, so you can see what we missed out on.

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — They call it the Wanderers tour — a journey that began in 1994, when the children of Charlie and Jessie (McLaren) Kuffner met in Chittenango State Park near Syracuse, went camping, played Scrabble and cheered at six minor-league baseball games, including one played in Cooperstown. And it was at Cooperstown that Charlie, Ken, Jim, Dan and Bill — and their sister, Judy — who was not with them on the tour — decided to call themselves the Wanderers Minor League Baseball Touring Company in honor of their father and his brothers, who grew up in Stapleton during the 1920s and ’30s and played semipro baseball, basketball and football as the Stapleton Wanderers.

According to Bill Kuffner, since 1994 there have been eight Wanderers Tours that covered Indiana, Illinois, Western New York, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon and Montana. Along the way, participation in the tours grew to include Judy, their children, grandchildren and several Kuffner cousins.

This year, we hear, the tour focused on the New York City area and ran from July 8 to 14 — including stops at Brooklyn Cyclones, Staten Island Yankees and Newark Bears games — so kinfolk decided to get the entire family involved and gather on Staten Island with Kuffner cousins and their families and McLaren cousins and their families. The host for the event was the Rev. Pat Kuffner, who was gracious enough to extend the use of his parish hall and gym over in Metuchen, N.J., to the out-of-state tour members, to be used as their campsite.

Karen Kuffner Benson and her husband, Kevin, were hosts for the Kuffner family reunion on July 11 — and Ann McLaren Lutkenhouse hosted the McLaren family reunion on July 12 — after the Staten Island Yankee game. In all, the get-together comprised about 50 people.

“We had an absolutely wonderful time at the reunions,” says Bill, as well as at the baseball games. “We sang the national anthem at both the S.I. Yankees and the Newark Bears” and went swimming at Hillside Swim Club — courtesy of cousin Karen Kuffner Benson and her husband, Kevin. Also, they got to swim at the South Shore Swim Club, courtesy of cousin Ann McLaren Lutkenhouse.

Cousin Hap Kuffner and his wife, Karen, hosted a picnic at their house — where revelers played stickball, took a ferry ride and visited the firehouse of Engine Co. 157/Ladder Co. 80 in Port Richmond, where their dad worked for 22 years (an alarm came in while they were there) and where one of the firemen produced a ledger from 1944 showing their dad reporting in for duty! Quite a thrill, says Bill.

“We visited our homesite at 226 Oakland Ave. and marveled at the beauty of the neighborhood. We visited St. Peter’s, from which we all graduated, in ’54, ’59, ’61 and ’64. We visited the cemetery and laughed and cried with our parents and Kuffner and McLaren aunts and uncles who are buried there,” Bill adds.

They further reminisced when indulging in pizza at Denino’s and Italian ices at Ralph’s over in Port Richmond.

All in all, Bill says it was just a spectacular event and experience.

At least there’s pictures, and wherever my family is there’ll be stories. I’ll have to make do with that. There’s another trip being planned, possibly for spring training in Arizona. As they say in baseball, wait ’til next year.

EarthLink pays for delay in citywide wi-fi

The future of the city’s ambitious wi-fi plan is questionable right now. From a Chron story by Carrie Feibel:

Following months of delay, an ambitious plan to blanket Houston with wireless Internet signals now is in serious jeopardy.

The city’s partner in the project, EarthLink, will pay a $5 million penalty to the city for not meeting its deadlines, Mayor Bill White said Wednesday.

“They’re either going to do a graceful exit,” White said, “or they’re really going to figure out whether they can get other industry participants.”

The payment will give EarthLink an additional nine months to find investment partners for the Houston project, White said. The company also could decline to do the project altogether without paying additional penalties, he said.

EarthLink announced Tuesday it was laying off 900 employees, nearly half its work force in a company restructuring. A spokesman declined to comment on its agreement with Houston.

I think the “in serious jeopardy” bit might be a little dramatic on Feibel’s part. We’re already looking at a delay, but I think that either EarthLink will exorcise their internal demons and take care of this, or the city will find someone else to do it. Dwight Silverman had a nice blog post in which he says he expects EarthLink to follow through in Houston. If they want to stay in the city wi-fi business, I don’t think they really have another option. I’d just really like to see more commitment from the company though. Like Dwight has pointed out before, citywide wi-fi networks are notoriously spotty, and this isn’t going to be successful unless it’s done well. So reading this is a little frustrating:

City officials expected installation of the wireless equipment to begin this summer, but EarthLink never completed the first step: signing an agreement with CenterPoint to place equipment on its utility poles.

EarthLink is reconsidering its business model for building municipal wireless networks. Rolla P. Huff, EarthLink’s President and CEO, spoke to investors during a Wednesday morning conference call on the company’s restructuring.

”We will not devote any new capital to the old municipal Wi-Fi model that has us taking all of the risk by fronting all the capital, then paying to buy our customers one by one,” Huff said.

EarthLink already has the kind of deal they’re looking for with the city, one in which the municipal government is the primary customer: the city’s going to be paying $2.5 million over 5 years to use the network. This is an exciting project and I really want to see it work out, but I guess for now we just have a nine-month waiting game to see if they can get it off the ground.

Council approves new red light camera rules

City Council yesterday amended the red light camera ordinances to comply with new state laws. The more interesting action was about the new cameras that were quietly installed at intersections that were already enabled.

The department added the new cameras without consulting council members, including the chairman of the public safety committee.

The council was not asked to amend the current contract with the vendor who installs and monitors the cameras, even though the payment terms only call for up to 50 approaches during the deal’s five-year term.

[Mayor] White said he does not need a council vote to increase the number of cameras, and that the contract allows the department to expand at will, though he acknowledged the payment structure needs clarification.

Asked whether council members would need to approve any effort to expand the program to 100 intersections, White said: “We’d probably consult with council, but I don’t think there’ll be any need for a vote.”

Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, a lawyer, said she did not know the panel’s approval last year of the vendor contract meant the department could install multiple cameras at each intersection.

“The contract specifies 50 approaches,” she said. “That, to me, is a lot different than 50 intersections.”

I would prefer that Council have input on future expansions of the camera program. I don’t think they need to approve every new location, but they should have some say in the overall direction it’s going. And, um, we are going to do those engineering studies as required by that new state law before we go installing more cameras, right? Seems to me that the report on those proposed locations would be a good thing to bring up at a Council meeting, in case there’s any questions.

The question of what the contract with the vendor specifies is an interesting one. I agree with Council Member Clutterbuck – “intersections” and “approaches” sure sound like two different things to me. It would be nice to know what the vendor thinks about this, wouldn’t it?

Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, however, said she wasn’t concerned about HPD’s move. “If you have a philosophical problem with them, then you have a problem with them,” she said of the cameras. “If you think it’s reasonable to monitor that way, then does it matter if you have them on every corner or just one corner?”

Clutterbuck was one of four members to vote against the ordinance change required by the state law.

“I feel very strongly that we need to create our own ordinances with regard to our streets,” she said.

Council members Ada Edwards, Jarvis Johnson and Toni Lawrence also voted against the proposal. Council members Michael Berry and Addie Wiseman were absent for the vote.

Council Member Noriega emailed me the following after this article was published:

I voted against the cameras when I was in Austin–I have real concern about the whole idea of cameras everywhere from a civil liberties view, and unlike a fair number of D’s, voted ‘no’ on this one. The question of having a camera on every corner is a serious matter, and I think it should be one where a whole community has a conversation, like in a referendum or town hall meetings or something.

Having said that, I was shocked at the level of violations, and so taken aback by the huge number of violators–thousands and thousands–and the unbelievable public safety hazard it represented, that I have had to rethink this. Clearly something needed to be done, and I have been quite conflicted ever since.

They passed this law last session, and I continue to think it over, and we discuss it at dinner quite a bit because, to me, this rises to the level of a profound philosophical question–liberty or safety, safety or liberty? In the face of that argument, adding a few cameras here or there doesn’t seem like the issue.

I don’t want anyone to think I don’t see this as an important issue–Council Member Clutterbuck’s comment that we need to control our own streets is well taken–when I have very serious concerns, indeed. They just aren’t so much how many and where, but rather why? and with what implication? for our freedoms in this country.

The other item of interest from this story concerns the Kubosh lawsuit.

The council unanimously approved spending up to $175,000 to defend a lawsuit filed by Paul Kubosh, a lawyer representing his brother, Michael, who intentionally ran a red light to challenge the camera system.

“They want to save their red-light camera scheme,” Michael Kubosh said. “If their case wasn’t weak, they wouldn’t need a high-dollar lawyer.”

Would you have preferred they get a pro bono lawyer, like your brother? They’ve done pretty well with those, you may recall. I’ll let the actual attorneys in my audience comment on this, but it seems to me that given the amount of time and effort needed to defend a lawsuit like this, $175K isn’t a particularly extravagant sum.

One can, of course, criticize the city for paying any amount to defend itself from a suit if the actions that led to the suit were unwise or the defense is clearly untenable. But here, I have to wonder what point Kubosh is trying to prove by his continued pursuit of this suit. Recall what he said at the time:

Michael Kubosh said Sunday that he will argue the city cannot impose a civil penalty on drivers who run red lights.

“The city has gone outside their legislative authority,” said Kubosh, who will be represented in court by his brother, lawyer Paul Kubosh. “We just can’t let this go because accidents increase at intersections where these things are put up.”

Well, SB1119 explicitly gave that authority to cities, so as I’ve said before, this action seems to have been rendered moot by that. Kubosh certainly could have amended his suit to challenge the constitutionality of the state law, but if he did I’d assume it would be the state defending itself, not the city. Maybe he just wants his own citation voided, I don’t know. I can’t tell what he’s aiming for by pursuing this at this point.

The Woodlands’ destiny is in its hands

The future of The Woodlands will be determined by the voters this November.

The Town Center Improvement District board voted today to call for a Nov. 6 election that will move the community closer to becoming a city in 2014.

Two of the propositions are the result of two bills passed during this year’s legislative session. The bills, SB 2022 and SB 4109, enable The Woodlands to enter into a regional partnership agreement with Houston, protecting the community from annexation, and gives the district the authority to expand its boundaries and carry out the agreement.

The first proposition seeks to expand the special taxing district’s territory to include all The Woodlands and the second proposition would change the district’s board, making it smaller with all elected members.

The third proposition would give the district authority to collect property taxes in addition to the sales taxes it already collects.

The district board voted today to add the third proposition to the ballot, saying property taxes combined with the additional sales tax revenue would provide greater savings to residents in terms of reducing their property assessment fees, which are not tax deductible.


The first two propositions must be approved for either to be carried out, said Mike Page, the district’s attorney. If approved, the district would be renamed The Woodlands Township and would eventually evolve into the single governing body of The Woodlands, replacing the three community associations.

The transfer of power would be another step toward future incorporation, said Joel Deretchin, a member of the community’s transition committee, which is working on a plan for how the transition will work.

Community leaders are still waiting for the Houston City Council to approve the regional participation agreement brokered last December by Mayor Bill White and Woodlands Sen. Tommy Williams.

Gotta figure that’ll be on the Council agenda pretty soon, and one would expect it to pass. We’ll see what the voters think.

A response from the billboard industry

Lee Vela, the president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas, has responded to the digital billboards story with the following letter to the editor in the Chron.

Regarding the Chronicle’s Aug. 22 editorial (“Visual blight / Texas’ policy should be to reduce distracting, ugly billboards, not make them more garish, profitable”) and its Aug. 24 article (“Digital billboard plan stirs debate”): This media coverage on the issue of electronic billboards has brought to light an often repeated misconception about using these billboards in Texas.

The off-premise advertising use of electronic billboards that was proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation rules would allow one message change every eight seconds.

This use is static, as compared to on-premise casinos, whose displays are allowed to flash, blink and display motion.

The use of motion in electronic billboards in Texas would be prohibited.

Static electronic displays are highway safe.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has conducted a study on static displays, and has found them “safety-neutral.”

The institute is nationally renowned for its transportation studies and is often used by the federal government.

Additionally, another traffic study conducted by Tantala & Associates found that static displays had no statistical relationship to the occurrence of highway accidents.

Another critical component of the proposed rules is that the billboards would adjust their brightness for natural ambient light conditions.

A board that is found to be too bright would have to reduce its intensity to an acceptable level.

Finally, the rules allow cities to decide if, and under what conditions, off-premise electronic billboards could be erected.

We are doing everything possible to ensure their responsible use.

president, Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas, Houston

Thank you for the feedback. I’m glad to know that there’s no degradation in highway safety due to these things. I still hate the idea and still think they’ll be an extra level of ugly, no matter how much they’re downplayed. And I still hope we never see them in Texas.

Let it be up to the neighborhood

Let me register my disagreement with Tory Gattis over the question of closing the “condo loophole” for minimum lot size restrictions in neighborhoods that have them.

The new ordinance will only allow a single-family home on the lot (which sounds dangerously close to zoning to me). In general, the city seems intent on reigning in the amazing townhome development happening inside the loop. But one man pointed out that townhomes make housing more affordable, which received a negative reaction from the crowd.

People seem to believe it will preserve the character of their neighborhood to require only one single-family home on a minimal size lot. But does it really? These restrictions already apply in West U and Bellaire. The result? Waves of gigantic McMansions. I think they’re perfectly nice, but they certainly don’t match the character of the older single-story ranch houses in these cities.

But it’s not just the physical character that changes. If a developer can’t build three $200K+ townhomes on a lot, he’ll be forced by economics to build a single $600K+ McMansion. The demographic that can afford that house are in a completely different income bracket from those who can afford the townhomes. Does that really preserve the neighborhood’s true character better than the townhomes? A middle class neighborhood ends up rapidly gentrifying, when townhomes could have let it stay middle class.

Right now Houston is attracting a wonderful demographic mix – racially, economically, and age wise – to the townhomes inside the loop. That’s part of why the inner loop feels so vibrant today. Do we really want to replace that with only wealthy older couples and families? That’s what’s happened in Bellaire with the single-family housing restrictions, and that seems to be the direction Houston’s headed.

I have three points to make here.

1. Why shouldn’t a neighborhood that has done the arduous and time-consuming process of getting minimum lot size petitions filed not be able to fully enjoy the protections that they’ve signed up for? What exactly is the purpose of having this process if it can be so easily subverted by a developer?

2. The McMansions argument seems specious to me, given that the Planning Commission is also working on a height and width ordinance similar to the lot size and setback ordinance. That won’t be effective everywhere, but I think it will mostly neutralize that threat.

3. Given how cumbersome the lot size petition process is, there’s really only a small number of neighborhoods that will be affected by the closing of the condo loophole. I seriously doubt that will put much of a crimp in the condo developers’ plans, as there will still be plenty of places to put them, most of which will be more appropriate for them anyway. Drive down Washington Avenue between Studemont and the Westcott traffic circle, for instance.

I don’t have a problem with townhouse development. I agree, it’s been a boon for the inner Loop overall. But it seems to me that we have these rules, which neighborhoods and many City Council members understood in good faith to mean one thing, only to be told another. The purpose of this proposed ordinance is to make the rules mean what people thought they said. I don’t think there’s anything particularly radical or harmful about that.

Bacarisse makes it official

The worst-kept secret in local politics officially became a non-secret today, as District Clerk Charles Bacarisse resigned his position to run for the GOP nomination for County Judge.

Bacarisse, who has served as district clerk since 1994, effectively resigned his position to run.

By state law, county officials are required to resign to run for another office. A notice of vacancy and request for applications was sent out via e-mail shortly after Bacarisse made his announement.

The duties of district clerk are largely ministerial, including summoning prospective jurors for state and county courts, maintaining certain court files and collecting child support payments.

In contrast, the county judge is the titular head of county government and its ceremonial face. The office, however, carries little real executive authority except as head of emergency management.

If elected, Bacarisse said he would address the costs associated with illegal immigration, which are “stretching taxpayers and county resources to the breaking point.”

He also said he would ask Commissioners Court to adopt a taxpayer bill of rights to cap the county’s annual budget at level equal to the growth of population, plus the rate of inflation. And he promised to forge a “public-private-faith partnership” to reach out to troubled juveniles.

Yes, that’s definitely a platform for a Republican primary. I’m curious – did he say nothing about transportation and toll roads, or emergency preparedness, or was that just not mentioned in the story?

Bacarisse has waited in the wings more than 10 years for the county judge position to open. But he was passed over by Commissioners Court earlier this year. It appointed Ed Emmett when Robert Eckels resigned.

Well, as GW Plunkitt might have said, he saw an opportunity and he took it. We’ll see how it goes. Fight fiercely, boys.

O’Day won’t seek re-election

He’s not resigning, as was previously rumored, but State Rep. Mike O’Day has now announced that he will not run for re-election.

“Seeking elective office is something I never intended to do,” Mike O’Day, R-Pearland, said in his announcement. O’Day won a special election runoff in January to replace Rep. Glenda Dawson in the district covering all of Matagorda County and northern Brazoria County.

Well, I can’t say for sure he’d be the shortest-serving legislator ever, but he’ll still clock in with less than two full years of tenure, and that ought to put him in the top ten at least. The dynamic of this doesn’t change much from a special election to a regular open-seat election. The Republicans will be heavily favored, but the right Democrat could make a race out of it. We’ll see who steps up to run.

Vince had this reported last evening. He also has news of primary challenges in El Paso and Waco. Check ’em out.

Is it Halloween already?

It’s often said that Christmas season seems to start earlier every year. Maybe that’s because Halloween season is starting earlier, too.

(Another view is here.) This will please Olivia, who loved pointing out the Big Pumpkin every time we drove past the Party Boy costume/novelty shop at I-10 and Studewood last year. When the calendar rolled over to November and the Big Pumpkin went back into storage, she was upset about it and kept asking where it was. We told her it was asleep – it’s amazing what kind of BS you can get away with telling a 2-year-old. Anyway, even as Labor Day still looms in the future, the Big Pumpkin is back for another long and glorious Halloween season. She’ll be so happy.

Sheehan on Purpura

Since the general consensus around Houston seems to be that the Tim Purpura firing was justified, I thought it might be a good idea to present an alternate view, that of Joe Sheehan from the Baseball Prospectus.

Firing Purpura, as McLane did yesterday, is an act of incompetence. Not only was it Purpura’s work–he ran the Astros’ player-development operations for seven years prior to becoming GM–that built the pennant winner, but with the expensive problems he inherited and the meddling of McLane, it was impossible for him to move the Astros in the direction they needed to go. He was essentially a caretaker, needing to preside over a rebuilding process and never being allowed to do so, and he’s now out of a job largely because his employer has returned to being completely irrational about what his team is.

Purpura’s performance as a GM was a mixed bag. He made his share of missteps, such as the [Willy] Taveras trade and the Woody Williams contract. However, he showed a terrific ability for making the smaller moves that add value at very little cost. In three seasons, Purpura made something-for-nothing pickups such as Mike Lamb, Aubrey Huff, and Mark Loretta. The player-development program he built continues to generate contributors such as Luke Scott, Wandy Rodriguez (check out his peripherals this year), Chad Qualls, and Troy Patton. If left to his own devices, I have no doubt that Purpura would have limited the Astros’ rebuilding process to a few short seasons, and come out on the other side with a team prepared for a long run of success.

Instead, he’s out of a job. Tim Purpura isn’t to blame for the Astros’ disappointing 2007 season, and that he’s being fired for it is ridiculous. Drayton McLane set these events in motion by abandoning what had worked for close to a decade–staying out of the baseball staff’s way–and instead making his own bad decisions about what the Astros needed. McLane wanted a year-long coronation of Craig Biggio, and he got it. He couldn’t have that and a contending baseball team, however, and his refusal to see that–and his subsequent dismissal of Purpura and Phil Garner as scapegoats for his own mistakes–ranks as one of the game’s great embarrassments of 2007.

Much the same sentiment is expressed by Tom Kirkendall, though he is more understanding of the move. So there you have it.

UPDATE: And Sheehan’s colleague Nate Silver makes the case against Purpura.

I think we can break the general manager’s job into three broad compartments, those being (i) scouting and development; (ii) transactionally-based talent evaluation and analysis, and (iii) interpersonal and intraorganizational skills. And I think Purpura comes up short in each of those departments.

In the scouting realm, the Astros ranked 22nd of 30 teams in PECOTA’s analysis of minor league talent, 28th in Kevin Goldstein’s ranking of the same, and dead last in PECOTA’s rankings of the overall 25-and-under talent stock. The Astros have had a handful of player development successes, but their system is poor enough to be past that tipping point where the option of a quick-turnaround rebuilding effort is largely off the table.

In the talent evaluation realm, Purpura’s highest-stakes transactions – the nine-figure signing of Carlos Lee, and the Jason Jennings deal – grade out badly (indeed, this is not merely perfect hindsight; they were viewed skeptically at the time). The Astros can also be blamed for their inaction in a number of areas, whether it’s failing to offer Roger Clemens arbitration, or allowing run vacuum Brad Ausmus to retain his hold on the catching position.

The intrapersonal skills category is the hardest to evaluate without inside knowledge, and the one where Purpura deserves the most sympathy. Meddling owners like Drayton McLane are almost always counterproductive. It isn’t uncommon to see owners block trades, or to be willing to open up the purse strings for some free agents but not for others, but it’s extremely unusual to see the owner essentially jump two levels down and interfere with the job of the field manager, as McLane looks to have done by mandating that Craig Biggio play every day until he reached 3,000 hits. This is terrible from an organizational culture standpoint; Purpura’s ability to manage Phil Garner was undermined by McLane’s insistence on doing the same.

At the same time, the general manager’s job is not just about managing one’s subordinates, but also managing one’s superiors. If we make the favorable assumption toward Purpura, which is that he was not on board with the decision to play Craig Biggio every day, we also have to assume that he was unable to persuade McLane of his case. Certainly, we cannot know how many general managers would have fared differently, but we nevertheless have to regard this as sort of a “tough love” indictment of Purpura. I happen to think that the battle might have been unwinnable, but the war was not: if Purpura had been able to articulate (literally and figuratively) a better long-term vision for the franchise, then the downside to playing Biggio would have seemed more tangible.

I think that’s about all I’ve got on this subject. Moving on…

And speaking of red light cameras

Some intersections that currently have them in Houston now have more of them.

Houston police quietly have moved to install new red-light cameras at 20 intersections already monitored by the system, allowing citations for motorists traveling in the opposite direction, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The 20 new cameras are expected to start working Friday. Motorists caught by the new cameras would be issued warnings during a month-long grace period ending in October, police said.

The move to add more cameras, which had not been publicly disclosed, appears to conflict with the terms of a contract the City Council approved in 2006 with American Traffic Solutions Inc., the private company that installs and monitors the cameras.

That agreement includes payment arrangements with the company for a total of 50 intersection “approaches,” or cameras monitoring specific directions at a location.

But department officials said Tuesday that they long had planned to increase the number of cameras at some locations, and they denied the contract limited that total to 50 intersections.

“These are different approaches at those same intersections,” said Executive Assistant Chief Martha Montavlo, who supervises the program.

Montavlo said the decision to add the new cameras had nothing to do with a new state law, which takes effect Saturday, that could require some cities to do engineering studies at new locations.


The department has said for more than a year that its initial plan was to install cameras at 50 intersections.

Montalvo said late Tuesday that she was not aware of any briefings to council members about the new cameras. But she said Police Chief Harold Hurtt had planned to make an announcement later this week.

Randall Kallinen, a lawyer who complained about the cameras before the council Tuesday, said he doubts safety motivated the department to increase the number of cameras at the intersections.

“The idea for the red-light cameras is to pick the problem areas,” he said. “Is it a problem in one direction, or both directions?”

Montalvo has in the past said expanding to more sites was possible, but only after the department hired someone to study the effectiveness of the current cameras at reducing crashes.

Montalvo said Tuesday she had not arranged for such a study, but that one was still planned.

Okay, on the one hand, it seems reasonable that if you’re already monitoring traffic going one way at a certain intersection that you’d want to monitor the other way, too. I realized as I was reading this story that I’d mistakenly thought that was already the case at these intersections. Assuming that the contract with the vendor is understood to mean “intersections” and not “approaches”, I don’t think there’s anything out of line about the concept.

But geez, what’s up with the secrecy? Installations at new locations were publicly announced in advance. Surely announcing this wouldn’t have caused any more fuss. Given that today is Wednesday and the work was to start Friday, how much “later in the week” was it going to be before Chief Hurtt mentioned this to City Council? And yes, the timing with the new state law is convenient, at the least, though if there’s work to be done after Friday, one presumes that an engineering study would still be required. Or was the plan all along to say that since these intersections already had cameras, no such study was called for to add them in other directions?

This does not look good. It gives people who aren’t already suspicious of the cameras a reason to think there’s something funny going on with them. I don’t know why this wasn’t done the same way as before, but I do know that it should have been.

Red light camera enforcement comes to The Woodlands

Back in June, Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved the installation of two red light cameras in The Woodlands, though just for “informational” purposes at the time, as the levying of fines was not part of that. Well, now it is, or will be as of October 1.

Motorists caught running a red light in The Woodlands will be slapped with a $75 citation under a new ordinance adopted Monday by Montgomery County Commissioners Court.

The ordinance enables county enforcement of red-light cameras that have been installed at two busy intersections in the master-planned community.

The action is part of a new state law, Senate Bill 1119, that gives counties the same power as cities to operate red-light cameras and issue tickets.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and Precinct 3 Constable’s Office will review the red-light video and photographs and decide whether a violation has occurred.

The constable’s office will administer the enforcement program. Precinct 3 Constable Tim Holifield said there will be a 30-day period in which violators will receive a warning from Redflex Traffic Systems of Arizona, the contractor hired to operate the cameras.

Law enforcement will begin issuing $75 citations beginning Oct. 1, Holifield said. Violators will be hit with an additional $25 if they pay late, he said.


The cameras are on Woodlands Parkway at Woodloch Forest and East Panther Creek. Woodlands Parkway is a major east-west thoroughfare that connects to Interstate 45.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Ed Chance, whose precinct includes most of The Woodlands, said additional cameras might be installed in community but no decision has been made yet.

Like ’em or hate ’em, more and more you can’t escape the red light cameras. Be aware of where they are and drive accordingly.

Texas Democratic icons endorse Noriega

A little video goodness for you this evening:

That was from Monday’s press conference at the GRB. Here’s the man himself:

Text of Noriega’s remarks are here. As always, if you like what you see and hear, you know what to do.

Bacarisse to step down tomorrow?

When I wrote that District Clerk Charles Bacarisse was rumored to be resigning on Friday to make official the run for County Judge that everyone knows he plans to make, I figured if that if the rumor were off it’d be by being too early. Turns out, it may have been off by being a little late.

Harris County District Clerk Charles Bacarisse is expected to announce his candidacy for county judge on Wednesday, ending months of speculation about whether he would seek the job after being passed over for it earlier this year.

Bacarisse told the Houston Chronicle last week that he had no plans to declare his intentions before Labor Day. But a close political adviser, Jim McGrath, indicated Monday that Bacarisse would make it official this week.

Asked if that was true, the district clerk hedged.

“I want to wait until I speak at the press conference to say anything, for obvious reasons,” Bacarisse said. “I don’t want to trigger the ‘resign to run’ provision until I trigger it.”

Well whaddya know? I suppose that makes sense, since announcing such a thing right before Labor Day weekend isn’t exactly a great way to get noticed. And he’s gotten an extra day in the news cycle out of it, too. Nicely done.

This comes as a surprise to me:

By state law, the county’s 59 district court judges are tasked with appointing a replacement to fill the remainder of Bacarisse’s term.

He was elected to a four-year term last November. If the judges fail to reach a unanimous decision, Gov. Rick Perry must order a special election to fill the vacancy.

The latest Perry can call a special election for the November ballot is Oct. 7, according to the secretary of state’s office.

If the judges do not agree before then, the earliest an election can be held is on the next uniform election, May 10.

“The district judges have been aware that this was coming along and they have a committee in place,” County Attorney Mike Stafford said.

“I don’t think it will take them long to meet. I’d be pleasantly surprised if they came to a unanimous decision, though.”

It was my impression from reading this statute about county elected offices that a District Clerk vacancy would be filled in a similar manner as that of County Judge, which is to say that the next election would be in November of 2008. Apparently, that’s not the case, though I can’t personally confirm that as my attempts to search for a more on-point statute were unsuccessful. If anyone can do better than I at this search, please leave a comment.

Given this, it would seem that Robert Eckels’ resignation earlier this year will have the extra bonus effect of making the county spend money on a special election. How nice for us. At least we can reasonably expect it to be this November, when the city of Houston and various Harris County independent school districts would be voting anyway. Of course, if the turnout for this special election is skewed more heavily towards the city of Houston and less towards the rest of Harris County, that might very well provide a leg up for Loren Jackson. That would be a nice and somewhat ironic coda to the whole saga, I think. We’ll see what happens.

U-line DEIS hearing post-mortem

Yesterday Metro held the only public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed University Line alignments. The DEIS is a pretty thick volume – two volumes, actually – and I want to thank Christof for summarizing it so well here and here. I don’t think we would have had the volume of comments that we heard yesterday if the DEIS hadn’t been made so accessible.

The hearing lasted something like three hours, with maybe 70 speakers total. I kept score between the pro-rail and anti-rail folks for a while, and my estimate would be that the rail on Richmond supporters outnumbered the opponents 2 to 1. There were a few people who liked the so-called Culberson option that runs from Richmond to Montrose to 59 to Kirby to Westpark, but most of the people who want rail support the Richmond-Cummins alignment.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the anti-rail comments were a little ridiculous. There was a lot of bait-and-switch talk concerning the ballot language and the Westpark and BRT controversies. I think Burt Ballanfant handled those comments pretty deftly, but I’ll get to that later. A couple people talked about how dangerous the rail would be for children who play outside along Richmond, which confused me, because I don’t think that Richmond in its current state is an especially safe playground. And there was a bit of “You say people are going to ride the rail, but I don’t think they will. I wouldn’t ride the rail” talk too. A lot of commenters raised genuine concerns about problems they saw in the DEIS – some with trees, congestion, property takings, etc. and I’m sure they’ll be reflected in the FEIS.

The most important comment, I think, came from Griff Griffin and was echoed by Metro board membr Burt Ballanfant. Griffin talked about organizing the first anti-Richmond rail rally fifteen years ago, but now it’s clear that the public support is behind rail on Richmond. He’s learned to deal with that, and he’s concerned about implementing this responsibly. Ballanfant said much the same thing, and he discouraged the opposing factions from wasting time fighting with each other and slowing down this process (i.e. lawsuits that he believes will probably be ruled in Metro’s favor anyways). I think they’re both totally right: from the DEIS, there’s a pretty clear winning alignment. Now we have other things to think about – station locations, minimizing the negative impact on neighborhoods and businesses as we build, and preserving trees and yards and property as much as possible. It was refreshing to hear this from these two and from several other speakers as well. I’m sure we’ll hear lots more about implementation as the process continues. I’m excited about it, because I know there are people on both sides of the alignment debate that are very passionate about preserving neighborhoods and being socially responsible, so I’m confident that we’ll end up with a very attractive University Line.

I managed to get my two cents in at the hearing too. There was only one other student that I recall speaking, and she didn’t specify where she goes to school. Her parents own El Pueblito on Richmond and she spoke pretty briefly against rail. So I was glad to skip class to go to the hearing and make sure that the students’ perspective will be considered. I copied my comments after the jump, if anyone’s interested. Metro blogger Mary Sit and Lydia from the HGAC asked me for copies of my statement, so you might see this floating around elsewhere too.


Trees and the Universities line

We know that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Universities line says that nearly 200 trees may be affected by the construction and location of the line. Christof listed mitigation of this as a wish list item for Metro. If this Q&A with Metro chairman David Wolff is any indication, someone is listening.

Q: Some who live or work along Richmond fear that the actual number of trees lost will be much larger than 197 when you add trees on each side of the street to those in the median. What’s the real total?

A: I don’t know the actual number, but it will be less than the one in the DEIS report because we’re very much committed to transplanting and replacing trees.

Q: A lot of people will see the loss of mature oaks as a huge negative. Two sets of tracks and boarding platforms take up space, and the trains need room overhead for the power line. How can you avoid taking out a lot of trees?

A: Some will have to be removed, but with others you may be able to go in and have professional pruning done so the wires can go underneath them. A lot of trees may need to be picked up and moved 10 or 20 feet, but they will stay in the corridor to keep the feeling of greenery and shade and beauty.

Q: We’re talking about live oaks, with deep roots and massive trunks. How can you transplant those?

A: Some may be too big to move, but trees larger than you might think can be transplanted. I have two live oaks in front of my house that came from the parking lot in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, and they’re probably 12 inches (in diameter).


Q: Were you surprised at such large numbers?

A: I was surprised, but what happens with these environmental impact statements is that they make you define the maximum number that can be impacted and then you work that down.

Q: Are you hamstrung by not having a definite route until next year?

A: Not really because all the alternatives have some overlap, and we have an idea from the DEIS what the probabilities are.

Q: Is Metro planning to do this alone? That’s a lot of trees, and moving them isn’t easy or cheap.

A: I’ve asked [board member Burt] Ballanfant to meet with Trees for Houston, meet with the Greenway Plaza people, the Neartown people — anybody in the neighborhood who wants to have input.

That all sounds good. As with many things associated with this project, the result ought to be measurable, so we’ll see if the actions are as good as the words.

In related news, look for an in-person report from yesterday’s public meeting by Alex Ragsdale later today.

Name, height, weight, URL

Baby domain names. I keep thinking I’ve heard it all, and I keep discovering that I haven’t.

A small but growing number of parents are getting domain names for their young kids, long before they can do more than peck aimlessly at a keyboard.

It’s not known exactly how many, but the practice is no longer limited to parents in Web design or information technology.

They worry that the name of choice might not be available by the time their babies become teens or adults, just as someone claimed the “.com” for Britney Spears’ 11-month-old son before she could.

The trend hints at the potential importance of domain names in establishing one’s future digital identity.

Think of how much a typical teen’s online life now revolves around Facebook or News Corp.’s MySpace. Imagine if one day the domain could take you directly to those social-networking profiles, blogs, photo albums and more.

“It is the starting point for your online identity,” said Warren Adelman, president of registration company Inc., which sells basic domain name packages for about $9 a year. “We do believe the domain name is the foundation upon which all the other Internet services are based.”

It should be noted that the phrase “A small but growing number” usually means “A few people this reporter is acquainted with or has heard about here in New York”, which is to say it is more likely to be a phony trend than a real one. I suppose it’s at least a plausible one, as far as these things go. But you know, I think I’ll let my daughters make their own decisions about this sort of thing when they’re ready for it. Who can say what the Internet will be like by then anyway? For all I know, I could be tying them to something that’ll be obsolete in a decade’s time.

Beautifying the bayou

I for one certainly hope that the current efforts to turn Buffalo Bayou into a useful recreational resource are a smashing success. This appeals to me as a preservationist, as an environmentalist, and just as someone who wants to see a vital urban core in Houston. I can’t help but feel a little dubious about the whole thing, though, since Lord knows this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has been tried.

Anne Olson has a different view of Buffalo Bayou. She envisions the bayou at Allen’s Landing as a downtown playground for kayakers, as a background for walkers and joggers, as a green and historic gathering place for strollers, picnickers and tourists.

“Our goal is to activate the bayou with more boating, with hiking and biking, with food, with events,” says Olson, president of Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

“It’s Houston’s greatest natural amenity. It’s where the city was founded. I’m always amazed that people don’t know where Allen’s Landing is.”

She smiles. “It’s our birthplace, darn it. It needs to be more than it is today.”

Turning Allen’s Landing on Buffalo Bayou, where Houston began 171 years ago this week, into an active water and lawn amenity has long been a dream of city boosters. Noble efforts have been made, but attracting Houstonians to the downtown waterway has been sidetracked by, at different times, pollution, floods, lack of funds, apathy, area blight, wrong approaches, homeless campers — you name it.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership is confident the dream will soon become reality. In the spring, it will launch a $3 million rehabilitation of the 97-year-old International Coffee Company Building adjacent to Allen’s Landing, turning it into a site bike, canoe and kayak rentals, dining and other activities. The partnership hired the prestigious San Antonio firm Lake/Flato architects to design the space. Olson estimates completion of the project by fall 2009.

The park could become either a starting place for excursions by foot, wheel or water, or a destination for paddlers to share food and drink. It’s all part of Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s master plan, Buffalo Bayou and Beyond, a 20-year vision now in its fifth year.

Is there, like, a Gantt chart or something somewhere showing the progress and current status of this 20-year project? I don’t mean to be snarky, but maybe seeing a few “Where we were then” and “Where we are now” pictures might help me feel more confident about this endeavor.

“Downtown has been transformed in the last 10 years with light rail and Discovery Park and major efforts by Buffalo Bayou Coalition (now Partnership) and landscaping of the roads,” says Stephen Klineberg, Rice sociology professor and director of the annual Houston Area Survey. “Four-and-a-half-billion dollars have been spent over the last 10 years of public and private investment in downtown.”

No doubt, downtown is a different place now, more of a destination than before. Perhaps that was a necessary first step for real success at turning Buffalo Bayou into something better. Check back with me in 2009 when that International Coffee Company Building renovation is complete and we’ll see how I feel then.

The magic C-note

Now this sounds cool.

A new security thread has been approved for the $100 bill, the Associated Press has learned, and the change will cause double-takes.

The new look is part of an effort to thwart counterfeiters who are armed with ever-more sophisticated computers, scanners and color copiers. The C-note, with features the likeness of Benjamin Franklin, is the most frequent target of counterfeiters operating outside the United States.

The operation of the new security thread looks like something straight out of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This magic, however, relies on innovations produced from decades of development.

It combines micro-printing with tiny lenses — 650,000 for a single $100 bill. The lenses magnify the micro-printing in a truly remarkable way.

Move the bill side to side and the image appears to move up and down. Move the bill up and down and the image appears to move from side to side.

“It is a really complex optical structure on a microscopic scale. It makes for a very compelling high security device,” said Douglas Crane, a vice president at Crane & Co. The Dalton, Mass-based company has a $46 million contract to produce the new security threads.

The redesign of the $100 is about one-third of the way complete. The bill is expected to go into circulation late next year.

Awesome. I can’t wait to see what that will look like.

Astros can Purpura and Garner

No shock here, that’s for sure. I might have thought they’d have waited till the end of the season, and doing a twofer is slightly more unexpected than just giving the manager the heave-ho, but surely there’s no one in Houston who’s actually surprised that Astros GM Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner are now unemployed.

I have no strong feelings about this. Garner is what he’s always been, a retread who had some decent people skills, and didn’t screw up the magic in ’04 and ’05. Purpura was a bit unlucky, but more than a bit unimpressive. It’s a shame for him that he didn’t get more of a chance, but I won’t go so far as to defend him.

I will, however, note that whatever ails the franchise today, it hasn’t been swept away with the two ex-employees. New/interim manager Cecil Cooper shows part of the problem here:

Cooper, 57, is in his third year as bench coach and has experience a minor league manager and major league bench coach following a stellar 17-year playing career with the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers.

“We have the talent,” Cooper said. “It’s just a matter of us going out and playing like we’re supposed to, and believe me we will.”

Actually, the Stros don’t have the talent, as anyone who’s been watching the comic stylings of Brad Ausmus and the entity formerly known as Craig Biggio can attest. To be blunt, this team is playing like it’s supposed to. That’s the issue in a nutshell.

Now, I don’t expect Cecil Cooper to step in and slag the roster as part of his first press conference. Never mind his future job prospects, that’s just bad people management. But if he gets a contract to stick around, and he doesn’t have a frank talk with the new GM about what the talent here is really like, then he’ll be where Garner is soon enough.

Then there’s Richard Justice, whiffing on an evaluation of Purpura’s roster construction skills.

Somewhere along the way, the Astros lost sight of the things that made them so successful over the years.

We might not be having this discussion if Woody Williams and [Jason] Jennings had been what they were supposed to be, but the lack of major league prospects at the upper level of the minor leagues was going to take a toll on the big league record at some point.

I’ll stipulate that the Stros got unlucky with Jennings. There was risk in taking him on, but it didn’t have to turn out this badly. Williams, on the other hand…well, read what Baseball Prospectus said before the season began:

Williams is not a good choice for the front half of a rotation–he`s fragile, and he needs a big park and/or a great lineup to succeed. Signed to a two-year, $12.5-million deal by the Astros, he`s a fly ball pitcher going to the Non-Carbonated Fruit Beverage House of Pain for Pitchers, and, outside of PETCO, hitters pasted him at a .295/.341/.476 clip. Still, he wanted to pitch at home, and, let`s face it, the guy`s a former 28th-round pick who didn`t become a rotation regular until he was 30, he`s 40 now, and he has 120 career wins–it isn`t like he just threw away his shot at the Hall of Fame by heading to Texas. What he might cost the Astros is a different story.

Indeed. BP’s complex player projection system, called PECOTA, put Williams’ median forecast at 6-7 in 27 games (18 starts), 113 innings, with a 4.96 ERA. Given that he’s actually at 8-12 with a 4.84 ERA in 165 innings (27 starts), he’s actually done better than that. But please, let’s be clear: Woody Williams was exactly what he was supposed to be. To think otherwise is just crazy.

So I’d say we’ve now officially closed the books on the 2005 pennant winners. Time to hope that the next one comes quicker than that. My best wishes to the new crew in achieving that.

Anti-smoking ban lawsuit dismissed

Score another win for the city in court.

After a daylong hearing in which the bar owners sought a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller found that the city can regulate alcohol-selling businesses to protect the public health and welfare.

Miller said the plaintiffs, Crazy Frogs Saloon and the Houston Association of Alcoholic Beverage Permit Holders, did not meet the high burden required for an injunction.

In doing so, he rejected claims that the city’s ordinance improperly or unfairly regulated the businesses, or that it was unconstitutionally vague.

“The city of Houston’s smoking ordinance, in my view, does not conflict with the state law that regulates the sale of alcohol,” Miller said. “The mere fact that Texas has enacted laws that regulate the sale of alcohol does not preclude the city from passing ordinances regarding establishments that serve alcohol. Otherwise the city could not impose regulations, such as a health code or noise ordinances.”

Matt Stiles liveblogged the proceedings. I know there was a kerfuffle after the story about Mayor White putting the arm on some prominent law firms to do pro bono work for the city. All I can say at this point is that between this, the Hotze lawsuit, and the tail end of the SOB saga (I’m presuming that recent legislation will moot the Kubosh lawsuit), the Mayor has certainly gotten good results from this. The bars are apparently going to appeal, but it doesn’t look good for them right now.

Now that this has been settled, I hope that all the confusion over applying for exemptions can be cleared up. At least there’s now an application available.

“Did not!” won’t get you out of a red light camera ticket

This isn’t a surprise, right?

Of the 111,000 people caught by red-light cameras in the city of Houston since September, only about 360 have challenged their citations, and only 78 were successful, court records show.

Court and police officials say several possible factors explain the reluctance to appeal and the low success rate. The key, they say, is that the images and video captured by the cameras, which drivers can watch online beforehand, can be precise and compelling in proving violations.

“Once the person sees the tape, they seem to be convinced,” said the Municipal Courts’ presiding judge, Berta Mejia.

I have not been caught by the red light cameras (my daily routines almost never take me through a camera-enabled intersection), but the parking lot where I work has cameras, and a year or so ago I got an email from our security department warning me that I had run a stop sign in the lot. I didn’t think I’d done that, so I asked to see the tape. Sure enough, there it was, some very compelling video evidence of me roll-stopping through the sign. There really isn’t much you can say other than “Sorry about that, won’t do it again.”

So I figure most people don’t bother challenging the citation because they know good and well that they ran the light, as I think most of us do when it happens to us, and most of the rest of them see the evidence and realize they haven’t a leg to stand on. Again, what are you going to say?

At least one critic, Houston lawyer Randall Kallinen, said most drivers probably choose to pay the civil penalty, which doesn’t hurt their driving records, rather than hassle with a trip to the crowded and busy courts building at 1400 Lubbock.

“It’s only $75, so how much trouble will a person go through?” said Kallinen, who has criticized the cameras before City Council.

“A lot of people won’t go through the bother.”

I’m sure that’s true, too. I just figure that most of them, had they bothered, would have realized that they had wasted their time.

The most common appeal, a “general denial” of guilt, was the least successful. At least 170 motorists made this claim, and all but four were forced to pay the $75 fine. The most common reason for overturning a citation came when drivers proved that someone had stolen their vehicle. That happened at least 11 times, the records show.

Some succeeded by claiming the time of the yellow light was too short, or that their license plates had been stolen. Others convinced hearing officers that emergencies or other circumstances excused their actions.

“If they don’t have the sufficient evidence, then they’re probably not going to be found not liable,” said Bonita Tolbert, an assistant director at Municipal Courts.

In a few cases, they succeeded by noting that glitches caused the wrong vehicle to be cited. And in at least one instance, someone who ran a light to keep pace with a funeral procession had a citation tossed.

There’s one category of excuse here that I’d have expected to see but don’t, which is “I got the ticket, but it was my spouse/my kid/my friend/my mechanic/someone else driving the car” excuse. My friend Dan got a ticket some months ago for an infraction committed by his mechanic, for instance. I suppose one reason why this isn’t accounted for here is that in many cases, it’s still a member of the same household who’s responsible, and protesting that it should be your spouse or kid getting the ticket instead of you seems silly. Though I’m sure someone will do it if they haven’t already.

Corporations dropped from TAB lawsuit

Missed this from Friday.

Almost five years after the Texas Association of Business secretly rounded up $1.7 million from corporations to influence the 2002 elections, a judge ruled Friday that the group and three officials must face a civil suit for possibly violating state election laws, while the companies that gave the money were dismissed from the lawsuit.

At issue is whether the association and its officials — President Bill Hammond, board member Mike Toomey and staff lobbyist Jack Campbell — acted as a political committee and are subject to state election laws, which prohibit the spending of corporate money in connection with campaigns.

But state District Judge Joe Hart ruled that the companies, including telecommunications giant AT&T and several insurance companies, were not part of a political action committee. Also, though Hart wrote that the state election law and court decisions on campaign finance are ambiguous, he concluded that the corporate-financed ads did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate.


Hart’s three-page decision is a setback for the Democratic plaintiffs. The ruling effectively removes much of the potential monetary damages from the lawsuit by releasing the corporations as defendants.

Both sides, however, could take something positive from Hart’s ruling.

On one hand, Hart said it is a question for a judge or jury to decide whether the business group was acting as a political action committee, a key element of the indictment against the business association pending before state District Judge Mike Lynch.

On the other hand, Hart wrote that he must assume an ad does not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate unless it uses words such as “vote for” or “vote against,” an argument that has been a cornerstone of the defense in both criminal cases and civil litigation.

Lynch reached a similar conclusion about express advocacy last year when he dismissed an indictment against the business association. But Earle was successful in securing another indictment against the group, adopting the civil litigation’s legal theory that the group violated the law by operating as a political committee that should have disclosed its activities to state election officials.

Austin lawyer Joe Crews, who represents the Democratic candidates, said he was disappointed that the corporations were let out of the lawsuit.

“The law is so scrambled and bad that even a good, bright judge — presented with compelling facts — couldn’t really find a way to hold the corporations responsible,” Crews said.

But Austin lawyer Larry York, who represents Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., disagreed.

Corporations “gave money to be used in an issue ad campaign,” he said. “They basically relied on TAB for what was permissible.”

Austin lawyer Buck Wood, who has a similar lawsuit against some of the same defendants in front of a different judge, said Hart should have left the corporations in the lawsuit until it was determined at trial whether the business association was acting as a political committee.

“The corporations can’t argue that they didn’t know what they were doing,” Wood said.

Hammond sent copies of the ads to some donors as they were being mailed to voters.

The previous update I had on this story was from last September, when Toomey was added as a defendant. Burka wasn’t kidding when he talked about how slow this process has been.

I don’t really have anything to add to this, I’m just trying to keep track of it. Maybe we’ll get a resolution before everyone involved has retired from politics. Judge Hart’s ruling is here (PDF). Be sure also to check out these two sidebars that give a more visual explanation of where we are and what just happened.

Bacarisse to step down?

The word I’m hearing through the local grapevine is that District Clerk Charles Bacarisse will resign his position as soon as this Friday to make formal his run for the GOP nomination for County Judge next year. Now, we all know that not every rumor you hear on the Intertubes will turn out to be true, so don’t go running off to your bookie to bet on this just yet. After all, Bacarisse has already been asked about this rumor and has denied it. But hey, who are you going to believe, the man himself or some guy with a website? Obviously, the latter is way more fun. And for what it’s worth, the rumor is persisting beyond his denial anyway. So make of that what you will.

Now, what everybody and his brother does know is that Bacarisse wants to be County Judge, and that he and his friends have been gearing up for the campaign. He’s taken steps to prepare financially for the run. He’s got to resign sooner or later if he’s going to do this at all, since he can’t raise money till he resigns, and he’s starting out well behind Ed Emmett in that department. So if he’s still the District Clerk at the close of business this Friday, then just scratch out that date in the rumor and add in a new one. The date may not be certain, but unless he’s overestimated his support within the GOP, the fact of Bacarisse’s resignation is. As certain as anything can ever be in politics, anyway.

And when Bacarisse does resign, we’ll have situation similar to that of the County Judge when Robert Eckels took a powder, which is to say that a replacement will be selected (in this case by the district court judges), and there will be an election to fill the remainder of his four-year term next November. I do know that Democrat Loren Jackson, who had been prepping for a run for the Justice of the Peace seat that was left open by Betty Brock Bell’s resignation in District 7 before Hilary Green was appointed to fill it, has set his sights on the District Clerk’s office instead. I’m also pretty sure that there will be some jockeying on the GOP side for the right to be selected as Bacarisse’s replacement, and that there will be a contested primary in that slot as well. All of which means that 2008 just keeps on getting more and more interesting. Stay tuned.

TYC still outsourcing custody of 10-13 year olds

Previously, I noted that the Texas Youth Commission had a secret (okay, underpublicized) plan to outsource care and custody of 10- to 13-year-old offenders to a private company. Now here’s an update to that story:

Upheaval at the Texas Youth Commission could mean a new revenue source for Kerr County from the leasing of vacant beds at its juvenile detention center.

Two companies vying for state contracts to house offenders want to use the 48-bed facility that was mothballed by the county last year amid a fiscal crisis at the center that saw half its staff let go.


County Judge Pat Tinley is optimistic about leasing the larger building, which the county took over in 1997 after the private company that opened it in 1994 declared bankruptcy.

“There are only a limited number of secure long-term juvenile facilities available in the state,” he said.

The state’s juvenile corrections agency sought bids from detention companies last month. But it withdrew the “requests for proposals” so it could assess the impact of laws and operational changes sparked by troubling revelations about abuses of inmates at TYC facilities.

“There’s still a lot of change going on with everything from our treatment programming to our population needs,” said Tim Savoy, TYC spokesman.

But, he said, the agency plans to seek bids Sept. 15 for secure sites to house boys between 10 and 13, and pregnant girls.

I’ll let Grits for Breakfast, who was the first to notice this scheme, take it from there:

The agency issued its last press release in June. There’s no release on the decision to re-issue the RFP for 10-13 year olds in September, just as the decision to cancel the last RFP was ultimately confirmed to the press but never announced. For an agency whose leaders promised a new “transparency,” the decisionmaking process has been utterly opaque, without even public hearings as part of agency rulemaking. While there’s no “stakeholders” list for notification about key decisions, some folks apparently know some things before the rest of us.

This story bubbled up in the media, not from a reporter covering TYC, but from a journalist focused on local politics in Kerr County, where vendors and local officials knew the RFP would be re-released before the public had been told.

So, an RFP was issued, then retracted, then plans formed to re-issue it again without any formal announcement to the public. Privatization of care for 10-13 year olds is not a requirement of SB 103 or the Legislature, it’s just something Ed Owens and Dimitria Pope apparently want to do. Why?

Good question. Sure would be nice to hear some answers, wouldn’t it?

Diana Maldonado for HD52

Eye on Williamson brings word that Diana Maldonado, currently a trustee with the Round Rock ISD, will challenge State Rep. Mike Krusee in HD52. This is a top-tier pickup opportunity for Democrats, as Krusee, who has made himself a target by being the biggest booster of the Trans Texas Corridor in the Lege, barely achieved a majority of the vote in 2006 against the good but underfunded candidate Karen Felthauser. But it isn’t just Krusee’s personal charms that make HD52 attractive. As you can see from the election returns, the district is becoming quite purple, and with Krusee running five or more points behind most other Republicans there, this one is well within reach. Keep an eye on how Maldonado does in fundraising – if she has a good report in January, this race will be on everyone’s radar.

“National Brotherhood Week”

Mark Evanier has been busy digging up old videos of Tom Lehrer performing his wonderful (and, sadly, often still timely) songs. Here is one of my favorites, “National Brotherhood Week”.

As they say, it’s funny ’cause it’s true. Other recent finds include “Werner von Braun” (which as I recall nearly got Lehrer sued for defamation), “So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III)”, and “Pollution”. Enjoy!

The cost of your wedding is about to increase

As of this Friday, the Warren Chisum Marriage Tax, along with many other new laws, goes into effect. That means that if you haven’t yet made an honest man or woman out of your current sweetheart, better get cracking while it’s still a bargain. The rest of you, well, I’d hope for something like this to become available in the near future so the experience can at least be memorable.

Some endorsements for Noriega

Fundraising is of course an important aspect of running a campaign. As we know, Rick Noriega has done pretty well in that department so far (and as we also know, you are powerless to resist clicking on that link whenever I post it), but you also have to show support among the establishment and the electorate. Noriega will demonstrate some of the latter at a press conference tomorrow:

U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega will announce his support from current and former Texas leaders spanning more than three decades. Governor Dolph Briscoe, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and State Senator Rodney Ellis, who briefly served as Lt. Governor, will join Houston’s Paul Hobby in calling for Rick Noriega’s leadership in the United States Senate.

Who: Rick Noriega for U.S. Senate Exploratory Committee

What: Over three decades of Texas leadership will be on-hand to announce their support for Rick Noriega’s US Senate Exploratory bid – including Gov. Dolph Briscoe, Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, State Senator Rodney Ellis and Exploratory Committee Chair Paul Hobby.

When: Monday, August 27th, 2007 at 11:00 AM

Where: George R. Brown Convention Center
3rd Level, Meeting Room 370A
1001 Avenida de las Americas
Houston, TX 77010

Noriega was also reportedly a big hit at last night’s SDEC meeting in Austin. Expect there to be more like this as we go along.

From the “Pollsters With Too Much Free Time” department

How can you tell when it’s a slow news day? When stuff like this is considered newsworthy.

A recent survey of 1,000 Americans who are at least age 50 shows that 29 percent would choose talk show host Oprah Winfrey over real estate mogul Donald Trump as their “celebrity” real estate agent.

The remaining 71 percent were too busy having sex to state a preference.


What’s the over/under on how many votes this guy gets in next March’s GOP Senate primary?

[Larry] Kilgore, of Mansfield, doesn’t say what state he plans to run in (he has endorsements from a legislator in Montana and a congressional candidate in South Carolina) but one can presume he plans to run in the Texas Republican primary against incumbent John Cornyn.

Kilgore got about 50,000 votes in the 2006 GOP primary against Gov. Rick Perry, snaring almost 8 percent of the primary turnout.

His issues are mostly grounded in the Bible and are centered on ending abortion. Here are some of Kilgore’s positions:

Judges shall carry out the death penalty against murderers, including those who abort a fetus, within 24 hours of conviction. Crimes of other bodily injury would result literally in an eye for an eye.

Adultery with a married woman would carry the death sentence.

Public use of vulgar sexual language would result in flogging.

“Judges will flog more severely those convicted of transvestism…”

The state should stop spending money on the “government indoctrination of children” also known as public schools.

Last, but not least, “Texas should secede because the U.S. has sealed its doom.”

Well, at least you know where you stand with him – most likely, in the stocks, awaiting a date with the flogger. Just one question: Would it be a crime for a judge to enjoy flogging a transvestite? And if so, would it be punishable by flogging? We could have an infinite loop problem here.

Not much bonding

Add State Rep. Sylvester Turner to the list of people who aren’t happy with the HISD bond package.

Construction delays at an Acres Homes school have prompted state Rep. Sylvester Turner to pull his support of the $805 million bond issue that HISD is putting on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The roughly $11 million renovation of Williams Middle School, funded by the Houston school district’s 2002 bond issue, won’t be complete by the start of school Monday. Work remains to be done on the library, gymnasium, auditorium and restrooms, Turner said.

“We’re not ready for school,” said Turner, D-Houston. “That concerns me and disturbs me.”

He said he’s afraid the unfinished campus will prompt parents to send their children to better-looking and higher-performing schools in the Aldine and Klein districts.

While conceding that work at Williams is about two months behind, HISD officials said students won’t be affected by the construction. They blamed the wet summer for some delays.

“It’s a renovation, a major renovation, but the school is ready now,” spokesman Terry Abbott said. “The school’s in really good shape.”

That follows some strong skepticism expressed by Turner’s colleague Harold Dutton. Even if you think that Turner wasn’t a supporter of the bonds to begin with, this doesn’t look good for HISD.

And then there’s this press release from the local AFL-CIO:

The Harris County AFL-CIO Council has put its decision “on hold” whether to support the Houston ISD’s $805 million bond election set for this November. The AFL-CIO Council did, however, vote to support the Port of Houston’s $250 million bond proposal and the Cypress-Fair ISD’s $806.9 million bond proposal at the same Council monthly meeting, Wednesday, August 22, 2007.

“Our first concern,” stated Richard Shaw, Secretary-Treasurer, “is that no one from HISD has contacted us to explain the proposal and to ask for our support.” We want to hear from Superintendent Abe Saavedra. It was a total surprise and, frankly, a shock that they had called for an election so late in the political season for this November. We had supported their last two bond proposals based upon their promises of prevailing wages that included health benefits and apprenticeship job training.

All public entities, including school districts, are requited to adopt “prevailing wages” that reflect the current construction market wage rates for the crafts. Douglas McGee, President of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council had an article published by the Houston Chronicle that detailed the opportunity for the Houston ISD to recruit and train members of the community through the apprenticeship programs of the Houston Community College System (HCCS) to build the schools. The current wage rates adopted by the district are 7 years out of date and do not include apprenticeship classifications. McGee cited a similar community training program in the Los Angeles United School District.

“The HISD Superintendent and the Board have refused to take action on our proposal for current wage rates that include apprenticeship training,” continued Shaw. We badly need skilled construction workers and about 42% of HISD student are not completing high school. What’s wrong with this picture? Their “college bound culture” is leaving too many students behind and they do not want to train the community for good jobs. Now they are asking for community support with nothing in return for them – like good jobs.

The City of Houston and Harris County both have current wage rates that provide for apprenticeship training and health insurance for the workers. The last three stadiums and the city hotel were constructed with current market wage rates and trained apprentices. The AFL-CIO Council and the Building Trades have met with the Superintendent and some Trustees on many occasions and have submitted numerous written requests and explanations concerning the wage rates and how the apprenticeship programs work through the HCCS.

“Why must the City and the County be the only ones doing any training through apprenticeship programs?,” asks Shaw. The HISD is an educational/training institution and our community ought to have a chance to get trained for a good job on their construction sites. HISD’s own graduates could enter the HCCS apprenticeship programs and build their neighborhood schools. Such training will fill gaps in the present workforce for skilled craftpersons and for future construction projects on the books now. Let’s use these precious bond dollars twice – once to build needed schools and again to train,” concluded Shaw.

I was at an event for Rep. Ana Hernandez last night, and the subject of the HISD bond package came up in conversation. One person was wondering if the Harris County GOP would mount an opposition campaign to the proposal. From the look of things right now, it’s not clear to me that they have to. I’m not seeing much in the way of organized support for it. HISD has its work cut out for it, that’s for sure.