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June 3rd, 2008:

Sheriff’s surveillance unit disbanded

Good.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has disbanded its surveillance unit, which came under criticism after it was revealed its officers watched two brothers who sued the county for civil rights violations.

The Investigative Support Unit’s image has become so tarnished that it cannot be repaired, said Chief Deputy Danny Billingsley, who dismantled the squad Monday after discussing the issue with Sheriff Tommy Thomas.

Its duties consisted almost entirely of surveillance requested by various sheriff’s divisions, such as homicide, internal affairs, narcotics and vice — as well as by smaller police departments asking for help, he said.

The squad — which conducted surveillance of homicide suspects before their arrests and some sheriff’s office employees suspected of illegally collecting worker’s compensation — was not supervised as closely as it should have been, Billingsley said.

But he denied its officers were deployed for political purposes as some have alleged.

“Contrary to what some may believe, this unit was not out going around spying on innocent citizens just trying to gather dirt,” Billingsley said Tuesday. “We have enough real cases that come in with information that we just don’t do that. There’s no need to do that.”

The unit drew criticism after it was revealed its officers watched Sean and Erik Ibarra for three days last fall before the brothers’ civil rights lawsuit went to trial — even though both already had been cleared of criminal charges.

[…]

State Sen. Rodney Ellis called the squad’s disbandment good news, but said he still wants a full investigation of its activities — who it investigated, why and at whose direction.

“There just ought to be a level of transparency there,” Ellis said Tuesday. “There’s a world of difference between an investigation in a worker’s comp case and an investigation because somebody filed a civil rights complaint.”

Billingsley, who said he has requested a full report of the squad’s activities, said he believes much of the criticism is unfair. But he acknowledged the squad’s reputation had become a problem.

“It gets down to perception. If people perceive these (deputies) are out doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing, how do you repair that image?” Billingsley said.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. Maybe someday, some kind of surveillance unit can be reassembled, with a more tightly focused mission and better oversight. Having it be under new management wouldn’t hurt, either. In the meantime, I agree that a formal investigation, by someone who’s been actually paying attention would be advisable, so we can clear the air and understand just what went wrong and how it happened, so that we can be sure it doesn’t happen again.

Sunsetting TxDOT

There may or may not be a change of direction afoot at the Texas Department of Transportation, but there will be some changes coming whether TxDOT wants them or not.

Saying big changes are needed to restore trust in the Texas Department of Transportation, the Sunset Advisory Commission staff is recommending a revamp of its governing board, project planning, and dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The commission’s report, to be released today, comes in the wake of controversy over planned public-private partnerships on toll roads, the route of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor transportation network and questions concerning agency funding figures. The Houston Chronicle obtained a copy of the report.

“The Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the Department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness,” the report says. “Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was ‘out of control,’ advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public.”

The report says, “tweaking the status quo is simply not enough” to restore trust.

The report is here, in all its 157-page PDF glory. The Texas Politics blog has a brief bullet-point summary.

Among the proposed changes, the staff recommends replacing the five-member commission with a single commissioner, who would have a two-year term rather than the current six-year term. The shorter term would put the required confirmation before the Senate more often, giving lawmakers more oversight.

“We wouldn’t have a problem with that,” said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, of the proposal to change from five appointed commissioners to one.

The commissioner, however, still would be appointed by the governor, leaving room for concern by opponents of TxDOT’s policies. That’s because the policies pushed by the Texas Transportation Commission are in sync with those of Perry, who names the commissioners. Opponents of those policies would prefer an elected commissioner or commissioners.

“I wasn’t as much of a stickler on whether there was one, three or five. The most important thing is that they’re elected positions,” said Sal Costello of TexasTollParty.com. “It gets right down to who’s accountable.”

Making the position of TxDOT Chair an elected one is certainly reasonable; I’ve seen similar and also reasonable proposals to make Secretary of State and HHSC Commissioner elected positions as well. It must be noted that the ability to make such appointments is one of the chief powers explicitly granted to the Governor; taking that away would significantly weaken the office. That may be appealing when the governorship is held by the likes of Rick Perry, but it may lose some of that luster when the office is occupied by someone who actually cares about good governance. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t support this idea – I consider myself neutral on it for now – but it’s not something that should be undertaken lightly.

On a related note, Burka thinks that TxDOT Chair Diane Delisi’s recent statements means that the Trans Texas Corridor – by which he means “the grandiose plan conceived by Ric Williamson — a network of privatized toll roads criss-crossing Texas with a 1,200-foot right of way, and funded by upfront payments” – is dead. I hope he’s right.

SBOE to review science curriculum

Get ready for another fight over how we teach kids.

After feuding for months over how to teach schoolchildren to read, the State Board of Education soon will shift to a topic that could become more controversial — the science curriculum.

Science, after all, involves biology. And biology is built on the theory of evolution, raising fears among some observers that social conservatives on the 15-member panel will try to shade textbooks with religion.

“The issue is … whether or not creationism will be taught alongside evolution as science, which will absolutely undermine our kids’ science education and their ability to compete for the best colleges and jobs of the 21st century,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that advocates religious freedom and individual liberties.

Those fears amount to hogwash, says board Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

“I hate to take the air out of their balloon. They’re going to be very disappointed if they come for a fight,” said Bradley, a leader among the board’s social conservatives. “The only thing that this board is going to do is ask for accuracy.”

It’s been 11 years since the state of Texas last updated standards for the science curriculum in its public schools. Things change. Pluto, for example, lost its status as a planet two years ago, but students in Texas still see it listed in textbooks as a planet in Earth’s solar system.

The State Board of Education recently finished a three-year rewrite of standards for the English-language arts and reading curriculum. Some called the process tortured, with revisions slipped under members’ hotel-room doors in the hours just before a final 9-6 board vote.

That was quite the fiasco. See Vince and EOW for more on that.

David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted some board members would try to “replace real science with religious instruction.” He warned that the “intelligent design” theory preferred by evolution skeptics, which holds that living things are too complex to be the result of natural selection, has no scientific support or basis.

“We should rely on scientists to establish the science standards, not nonexperts with a particular religious or political agenda to promote,” Hillis said.

Board members say it is unlikely that intelligent design will even be considered. More likely is a fight over whether to keep an existing requirement that teachers present both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, including evolution.

[…]

Bradley said he does not foresee any successful effort to remove the “strengths and weaknesses” requirement from the science standards.

“Evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven,” he said. “Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions.”

It may sound like a good idea to require teachers to point out the weaknesses of scientific theories, but Hillis contends that when it comes to evolution, “its main purpose is to introduce religious ideas and anti-science ideas into the science classroom.”

“The fact that biological populations evolve is not in question,” he said. “Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon, and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt. The ‘theory’ part of evolutionary theory concerns the experiments, observations, and models that explain how populations evolve.”

Whenever you hear someone refer to evolution as “just a theory”, you know they’re speaking from ignorance. We need much better than that from the SBOE.

Commissioners Court to vote on Grand Parkway segment

Commissioners Court will vote today on a plan to fast-track development of a segment of the Grand Parkway between I-10 and 290.

The long-standing plan to build a 180-mile parkway, a four-lane toll road also called Texas 99, is conceived as an “outer outer” loop around Houston and has drawn fire from environmentalists as a magnet for sprawl.

Developers and other supporters say that growth will come anyway and that the parkway would be better than a hodgepodge of unplanned roads.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said Monday that he pushed to fast-track Segment E “because we have to figure out a way to help with the incredible traffic on U.S. 290.

“The short-term solution,” Radack said, “is to get Segment E built and get them onto the Katy Freeway. It takes people almost two hours to get from Hockley to downtown Houston.”

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett said that under the county’s proposal, the Harris County Toll Road Authority would build and operate Segment E while continuing to negotiate with TxDOT over rights to develop the rest of the parkway.

If the talks break down, he said, the segment would pass to TxDOT, which would pay HCTRA for its costs up to that point.

Emmett and TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said the idea had been broached informally between the two agencies.

The Grand Parkway as planned includes 11 segments through parts of seven counties. The only ones completed are the 19-mile Segment D, from the Southwest Freeway to the Katy Freeway, which is not tolled, and a 9-mile segment from the East Freeway to FM 1405 near Baytown that is scheduled to be tolled in the fall.

Although Segment E would begin at Franz Road in a fast-growing area of suburban Katy, the only major residential developments near the proposed 15.2-mile route lie near the two freeways and along Texas 6 to the east. Two-thirds of the road would go through mostly open country.

I’m going to outsource this one to Robin Holzer of the CTC, who sent out an email last night listing all the reasons this is such a poor idea:

We know that it’s critically important to plan for our future transportation needs. So why wouldn’t we want to build segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway? There are many reasons:

Spend our tax dollars where the people are. Harris County must first and foremost serve the needs of current taxpayers. That means focusing on transportation projects that will benefit the majority of Harris County residents who live and work in our densest, busiest areas. It does not mean building a highway across largely-uninhabited areas to benefit a handful of spec builders.

There is almost no existing demand for this roadway. Further, the population growth models on which the travel demand models rely, assume (circularly) that this roadway will be built. The Gulf Coast Institute recently analyzed GIS census data for the this area. They found that in 2005, of the 80,420 people who lived within 3 miles of the proposed segment E route, almost 66,000 – 82% – of them lived within 3 miles of either IH-10 or US-290. The analysis reveals that fewer than 15,000 people lived along the proposed route of segment E. The Katy Prairie is not where the people are.

Invest in the priority projects instead. Even as a toll road, this project won’t be free. Every County project poses an opportunity cost in the form of other projects the County is unable to take on. Reconstructing the congested US-290/IH-610 interchange which affects hundreds of thousands of current taxpayer-travelers, or extending the Hardy Toll Road to downtown, are more important projects.

Segment E would subject thousands to worse traffic congestion. This proposed roadway is expected to lure another 100,000 people or more to live in a far-flung area with inadequate infrastructure to serve them. Worse, an analysis by the Gulf Coast Institute revealed that in 2005 there were only a scant 2,257 jobs in the proposed corridor. That means that more than 97% of residents would be entirely dependent on cars for travel. Rather than relieving traffic congestion, segment E would create significant additional congestion on US-290 and IH-10.

Invest in local access instead. As the Houston Chronicle detailed last month, Harris County residents aren’t clamoring for new highways; they need new ways to get to the store (May 5, 2008 “Suburbanites ran, but couldn’t hide, from traffic pain”). Before we build any new highways, the County should invest in the local streets and sidewalks county residents need to live their daily lives.

Residential patterns are changing. With $3/gallon gas behind us and $4/gallon gas just ahead, Harris County residents are making different choices. Many people are choosing to live closer to where they work, and for most people, that means closer to central Houston. Investing in roads that assume people will continue to want to live ever-farther out just isn’t a smart bet any more.

Harris County residents value Katy Prairie wildlife and habitat. The Katy Prairie is a world-renowned ecosystem for wildlife habitat, and hosts thousands of species of birds. Thousands of people annually visit northwest Harris County from all over the world to experience the birding opportunities available in this coastal prairie habitat. These visitors represent a small economic engine – ecotourism – that Harris County should develop and benefit from.

Katy Prairie includes strategic agricultural land. As fuel costs continue to rise, shipping food long distances will get less and less economical. As our region continues to grow, access to secure local food supplies will become more and more important.

To put it somewhat less delicately, who cares how long it takes to drive from Hockley into Houston? How is it possible that that is a substantial enough concern to warrant spending this much money on making it faster to get from Hockley into Houston?

[The Grand Parkway Association’s David] Gornet said construction of Segment E could start in early 2009 and be completed in 2013 for about $450 million.

The argument that I always hear when I compare the costs of road building to that of transit is that we get more bang for the buck building roads. Putting aside the question of how true that equation will continue to be as gas prices continue to soar, how is it possible that Segment E of the Grand Parkway will do more for mobility than any piece of the Metro Rail expansion as of the year 2013? Maybe the people who would be living there twenty or thirty years from now will derive enough benefit to make this worthwhile, but then as Robin notes if we don’t build it, maybe they won’t decide to live out there. So why make this choice, when there are so many other things that can help people get where they need to go right now?

Commissioners Court will take up the matter this morning at 10 AM at the Harris County Administration Building, 1001 Preston, 9th floor chamber. If you want to express an opinion on this, that would be the time and place to do so.

UPDATE: As noted in the sidebar here, they voted for this. No surprise, unfortunately.

Wind energy facility coming to Houston

The Chron has an announcement from the WindPower 08 conference that’s good news for Houston:

Dutch powerhouse Vestas Wind Systems said it will open its first U.S. research and development facility here. The office will open in 2009 and grow to about 100 researchers by early 2010, not including support staff, with more positions likely to come.

“Large-scale renewable energy has to be done in conjunction with major energy companies,” said Ditlev Engel, Vestas chief executive. “There’s no either-or with renewable and traditional fossil fuels. You need them all.”

The announcement came during the American Wind Energy Association’s annual Wind Power conference, which is in Houston for the first time this year and runs through Wednesday. More than 12,000 attendees have registered for the conference at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The conference features panel discussions, hundreds of exhibitors and a job fair.

Texas leads the nation in wind power, with 5,300 megawatts on line, enough to power more than 1.5 million homes, according to the Department of Energy.

In addition to BP and Shell’s wind operations, Houston is home to Horizon Wind Energy, a wind developer that was acquired by Portuguese energy giant Energias de Portugal, as well as the wind development offices for international investment firm Babcock & Brown.

Munich, Germany-based Siemens, the third-largest wind turbine manufacturer, has maintenance staff and a training facility in Houston.

And the University of Houston is part of a consortium that will operate a wind blade test facility planned near Corpus Christi.

Houston Mayor Bill White noted Monday the city is already one of the largest public purchasers of wind power.

“Our goal is that Houston will not just be the energy capital of the world, but for renewables and energy efficiency,” White said.

KHOU and Miya have more. I actually got a press release from the Land Commissioner’s office about this last week, but it got lost in the to-be-blogged-about pile. I’ve reprinted that release beneath the fold, along with a release from Michael Skelly about his press conference with Gen. Wesley Clark; there’s also a short story in the Chron about this. And finally, the newsletter from Day 2 of the conference is here. More to come as we go.

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From the “You might also consider getting a life” department

I’ve admitted my newfound interest in Twitter. It’s a useful and oddly compelling toy service, but I hope someone puts me out of my misery if it ever comes to this:

With all the frustration, confusion, and support going towards Twitter this week, a break from Twitter might be just want the doctor ordered. This weekend users have been asking for alternatives to Twitter. In this post we answer that question in a variety of ways. Here’s a look at several alternatives to Twitter both online and offline, that will help reduce Twitter’s stress levels and temporarily minimize user frustrations.

[…]

If you’d rather not make a switch to another service, try these offline alternatives to Twitter:

  • Phone
  • Events
  • Parks
  • Meetings
  • Fairs
  • Parties/Clubs

Found, naturally, via Twitter. As John says, I hope that’s a joke. And if you’re wondering what the joke is, then I’ll remind you that my Twitterings can be found at http://twitter.com/kuff. Just try not to get too stressed out when you can’t get to them.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 2

It’s time for another edition of the Texas Progressive Alliance‘s weekly blog round-up–the pre-Convention edition. Don’t forget about the Third Biennial Texas Blogger’s Caucus set for this Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the Cedar Door in Austin. Joe Jaworski, Sherrie Matula, Melissa Noriega, and more will be joining us! Click on for the highlights.

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