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December 10th, 2007:

Gold stars for the Noriegas

This year, in addition to recognizing its Texan of the Year (which will come this Friday), the Texas Progressive Alliance elected to recognize a number of other Texans who have contributed to Texas politics and the Progressive cause during 2007. This week, leading up to the TOY announcement, we bring you our Texas Progressive Alliance Gold Stars (one each day through Thursday). I turn the mike over to Vince for the announcement of today’s honorees:

Rick & Melissa NoriegaRick and Melissa Noriega. These two Houston Democrats could easily be called Texas’ new Political Power Couple. Melissa Noriega made news early this year with her run for the Houston City Council seat vacated by Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who resigned the seat to assume the last six weeks of former Congressman Tom DeLay’s term in 2006. Through a special election, a runoff, and a general election battle to win the seat for a full term, Melissa Noriega’s positive message endeared her to Houston voters, earned her statewide media recognition, and helped mark her as part of a new generation of progressive leaders with statewide potential.

Rick Noriega’s story is one that is also well known. A veteran of the “War on Terror,” Rick Noriega started generating buzz early in 2007 as a number of progressive Netroots activists and bricks-and-mortar Democratic activists created a movement to “draft” Noriega into the Democratic Party’s race for United States Senate. Rick Noriega answered the call to service and threw his hat into the ring to take on John Cornyn and the Texas Republican machine in the 2008 election in spite of the fact that he could have easily won re-election to his seat in the Texas Legislature or even run for another office where the fight would have been small to none. Instead, he had the courage to stand up for all Texans and say enough is enough. True people-powered candidates, the Noriegas have both made significant sacrifices to serve the people of Texas. For this and many other reasons, the Texas Progressive Alliance is pleased to recognize Rick and Melissa Noriega among its 2007 Gold Stars.

Congratulations to the Noriegas for all that they have done this year. I’m proud to call myself a supporter of theirs.

Looking Forward to 2008

Starting tomorrow and hopefully going through the end of the year, I’m going to run some guest posts, all on the subject “Looking Forward to 2008”. Basically, I’ve asked a variety of interesting people to write something on this topic for me, and the responses I’ve gotten so far have been a lot of fun to read. I’m still waiting to receive some of these, so the schedule and frequency of these postings may vary – ideally, it’ll be one a day, or perhaps one per weekday, through the 31st, but nothing is set in stone. Each entry will have an intro and a brief bio to tell you who the author is. At some point, I’ll post my own thoughts on this subject as well. I hope you’ll enjoy this little experiment in blog outsourcing. Tune in tomorrow for the first installment.

Developing new rules

I suppose I’m more amused than anything else by this article on how City Council has been taking action lately to impose some new rules on development in Houston. I don’t find anything frightening about the concept, nor am I worried that we’re going to suddenly transform into some Kotkinesque nightmare that no one will recognize. It’s always reasonable to ask if what we’ve always done is still working for us, and it’s reasonable to think that a city that has changed and grown so much in recent years, with even more change and growth forecast for the visible horizon, might need to see how conditions are different now than they’ve been before, and see what if anything ought to be done about it.

I mean, call me crazy, but I don’t think the developers are about to lose a bunch of influence at City Hall. We’ll see a few changes, some of which they’ll grumble about, but nothing too radical. And that’s fine by me for the most part, since I don’t think we need to completely throw out our current approach. But we do need to ask the right questions, and we do need to give some serious thought to a sensible form-based approach for the city as a whole rather than trying to solve the same problem in a hundred discrete neighborhoods. I feel confident we’re up to it, I just hope we have the will.

One thing to comment on from the story:

[Mayor] White, however, has shown no indication that he’s interested in widespread changes. He made it clear that the Old Sixth Ward historic protections would apply only to that neighborhood, and he has instructed his staff to keep the high-density traffic impact ordinance narrowly focused.

In a recent interview, the mayor indicated that he generally favors market-based rather than government-imposed solutions to development problems.

“I’m perhaps a stronger believer in markets and consumer choice on some issues involving development than some people who might vote in the Republican primary,” said White, a Democrat.

And on some issues, like say pollution, the Mayor has been a pretty strong advocate for “government-imposed solutions”. What matters here is what works. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Still one election to go

Early voting begins today for the last election in 2007, the runoff elections in Fort Worth, which include the special election runoff for HD97. Democrat Dan Barrett picked up the endorsement of the Star Telegram as voting opens.

Democrat Dan Barrett has a ready answer for people who contend that the controversies involving Speaker Tom Craddick’s heavy hand in the Texas House don’t matter to the voters in District 97.

“Maybe only the most inside of political wonks know his name,” said Barrett, who is facing Republican Mark Shelton in the Dec. 18 runoff, “but they are upset by a style of leadership that allows Craddick and the people he works with to exercise absolute control by fair means or foul.”

Craddick’s “politics of fear and intimidation” came to a startling climax in the last session, Barrett said, when the speaker declared himself the ultimate authority in the House, but this has been an issue ever since the Midland representative took the speaker’s chair.

“That is so contrary to the very principle of democracy,” Barrett said. Even if people aren’t well-informed about the particulars of government, they still care what happens in Austin. “They want to make sure that things are going OK so they don’t have to watch every single move. That’s why they elect representatives.”

Note the contrast with Austin’s Rep. Dawnna Dukes regarding how much people know and care about Speaker Craddick. We’ll see who’s right. If you live in Fort Worth, please be sure to vote for Dan Barrett. Thanks to BOR for the link.

“Demolition by neglect”

Lisa Gray gives a downer update on the Alabama Bookstop, which is not what I needed after a great weekend.

“Well, there’s one,” says David Bush, wearily eyeing a two-foot discoloration on Bookstop’s high ceiling — one of several such blotches he’s noticed in the historic Alabama Theatre, home of the Barnes & Noble-owned Bookstop.

Concerned that the blotches indicate a leaky roof, the building’s fans have been calling Bush, the programs and information director of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, to see if anything can be done to protect the already endangered building.

The Preservation Alliance can’t do anything, really, but now and then, Bush drops by to take a look. “Over there,” he says, pointing his chin. “Two more spots, over the balcony.”

Bush worries that the blotches are early signs of “demolition by neglect,” the bane of historic preservationists everywhere, but especially a problem in Houston. Too often an owner, intentionally or not, allows a historic building’s small problems to grow into large ones, until the building becomes shabby and sometimes structurally unsound — and thus, less likely to arouse public anger when it’s demolished.

Most cities prohibit demolition by neglect, requiring owners to keep historically significant buildings in reasonably good repair. But in Houston, except in the city’s one tiny “protected historic district,” no laws protect even a city-designated landmark like the Alabama Theatre. “All we can do is make them feel bad,” says Betty Chapman, head of the Houston Archaeological and Historic Commission.

I think we’ve pretty clearly established that Weingarten is utterly indifferent to public opinion on this matter. They just don’t give a damn, and they don’t care who knows it. Oh, they’re smart enough to realize that tearing down beloved landmarks and replacing them with snooty high-rises is something that must be done carefully, but they appear to be prepared to wait it out. I wish there were something that could be done about this, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anything. It’s very depressing to contemplate.

What’s a bond validation lawsuit?

I confess, this story from Saturday confuses me.

In a little-publicized decision, a judge in Travis County signed off this week on the validity of the Houston Independent School District’s $805 million bond election.

The pre-emptive court action means that HISD won’t be handcuffed from selling the bonds, even if critics file a lawsuit against the district for its handling of the election.

HISD took its lesson from the Waller school district, in neighboring Waller County, which has seen more than $49 million in bond money put on hold because of a legal challenge that thus far has received little backing in court.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said Friday. “The election is over. We need to move on and build schools.”

But the legal maneuver has infuriated critics of the bond issue, who plan to officially respond Monday.

[…]

[Three days after the November 6 election], HISD filed a bond validation lawsuit in Travis County. The school board discussed the lawsuit the following week, partly during a closed-door meeting.

Pat Mizell, a partner with the Vinson & Elkins law firm, said he filed the case in Austin because “the Austin courts are more accustomed to this type of administrative proceeding.”

“There was no attempt to hide anything,” Mizell said, adding that HISD posted legal notice of the court action and the school board meeting.

Ty Clevenger, the attorney representing the Waller County resident who is suing the Waller district, disagreed.

“It was a really dirty trick,” he said. “They had absolutely no other reason to file in Travis County other than to hide it.”

The proceedings unfolded without the knowledge of the most vocal critics of HISD’s bond plan, who said they would have appeared at the Dec. 3 hearing in the court of state District Judge John K. Dietz.

As it was, no opponents spoke in court, HISD officials said.

Okay, what the heck is a bond-validation lawsuit, and under what conditions does one file such a thing? I don’t know how to judge this action without knowing if it’s a standard thing to do or not. How often does this happen?

I can say that whatever the case, filing it in Austin with apparently minimal notice does strike me as an attempt to hide things. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, and maybe the bond opponents should have been prepared for HISD to take this action, but still. The fact that no opponents spoke in court is pretty telling.

So anyway. Dirty trick or clever gambit? Help me out here if you can. Thanks.

AT&T to ditch the payphone business

The day in which our nation’s youth will completely fail to grasp the whole Superman/phone booth thing draws ever closer.

AT&T Inc. plans to exit the pay-phone business by the end of 2008, company officials said Monday.

The largest telephone company in the United States is pulling out of the market at a time when consumers are relying more heavily on alternatives, such as wireless phones. AT&T also operates the country’s leading wireless company.

AT&T’s Public Communications unit will continue to honor existing contracts and customer service commitments until the business is phased out. The unit holds numerous contracts at government correctional facilities. All of these customers will receive advance notifications of the company’s specific plans as well as information on other pay-phone providers and product options.

[…]

AT&T officials say pay phones in the United States have declined across the industry from about 2.6 million phones in 1998 to an estimated 1 million phones today.

I’ve racked my brain, and I can’t think of the last time I used a pay phone. They just don’t register on my consciousness since I started carrying a cell. Do you remember your last time?

Dave Mock remembers scoring some change as a kid by checking coin return slots regularly. I don’t think I ever found any money that way, but I do recall a trick a high school buddy of mine used to employ to make free calls from pay phones. There was about a two second grace period after your call connected before your dime (or quarter) was fully consumed by the phone. If you hung up right away after the call connected, you’d still get your money back, as if you’d hung up without a connection being made. I’m not sure why this was the case – answering machines weren’t exactly ubiquitous back then, and the duration was too short to ascertain you’d reached a wrong number – but that’s how it was. Anyway, my buddy had a prearranged deal when he called another friend of his at that friend’s house from a payphone. When the friend answered, Buddy would quickly shout out the first three digits of the payphone’s number, then hang up. After retrieving his dime, he’d call again, this time announcing the last four digits of the number, and again hang up in time to get a refund. His friend would then call the payphone to talk to him. Slick, no? File it under Great Obsolete Scams of the 20th Century. Thanks to Dwight for the catch.