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June 30th, 2008:

Sheriff apologizes for racist emails

It’s a start.

Reacting to the latest controversy about his office in recent months, Sheriff Tommy Thomas today apologized in person to a local Muslim group for religiously insensitive e-mails sent by members of his staff.

Monday’s appearance before the Islamic Society of Greater Houston was Thomas’ second apology in recent days over staff e-mail, including one message from a top commander that mocks some of the Islamic faith’s core tenets.

“If anyone was offended, I sincerely apologize,” Thomas said. “I hope it’s not systemic of the department.”

Thomas said he planned to discipline the commander, Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who heads the office’s detention command. Thomas said he did not know when that suspension would begin or how many others may also receive similar punishment.

[…]

Smith said today that he regretted forwarding an e-mail he received with religiously insensitive cartoons. He said the sheriff docked a week’s pay.

“It was stupid for me to forward that. It was just cartoons, regarding Muslim terrorists,” he said. “I certainly have a great deal of respect for the Muslim community. They are a very law-abiding community. I regret that that’s being viewed as anti-Muslim because it’s anti-terrorist.

You can see the emails in question here and here. It’s not at all clear to me that Deputy Smith understands why his actions were offensive. Perhaps a little diversity training would be in order here, lest the lesson that gets learned is “only forward nasty stuff from the personal email address”.

The e-mails were revealed after KTRK-TV (Channel 13) sued to stop their deletion. The station reported last week on several e-mails that could be considered racist, insensitive or off-color.

The Sheriff spoke to KTRK as well, and though he whined about being “treated unfairly” by them, I give him credit for doing so. He’s got way more to answer for than this, and finally agreeing to talk to a reporter doesn’t come close to doing it. But it’s a step forward, and we’re the better off for it.

Beckwith’s follies

Remember David Beckwith, the campaign consultant for “Big John” Cornyn? Apparently, he’s been a busy boy at the Burnt Orange Report.

When a staffer for Lt. Col. Noriega made a dumb mistake and falsely represented himself as a blogger to the Cornyn campaign, he was rightfully excoriated. When a Democratic consultant created an anonymous website, he was rightfully questioned. In 2007, user Buck Smith began posting on this and other sites, mainly on threads involving Lt. Col. Rick Noriega or Sen. John Cornyn. He attacked diarists and commenters and provided pro-Cornyn spin on many items. In the interest of full disclosure, and in order to keep everything fair, and since Buck Smith has not disclosed who he is, we thought we would clue you in that he is David Beckwith, John Cornyn’s senior staffer.

We found out his identity because Mr. Beckwith’s email on file with the site is the same email listed on the webpage for his high school reunion class. (We also have a screenshot in case the site is removed soon.)

You know who we are and who we work for. You know who the Democratic consultants and staffers that comment on the site are, and who they work for. Now you know who is the Republican operative, and who he works for. Keep that in mind every time he leaves comments attacking you for supporting Lt. Col. Rick Noriega. Keep that in mind every time he takes to the site to spin for Senator John Cornyn. Keep that in mind when you realize that all of the staffers for Lt. Col. Rick Noriega have disclosed their day jobs, while Senator Cornyn’s staffer lurk in the shadows, using age old dirty whisper campaigns in an online forum.

In fact, Cornyn’s own staffers commented directly on this issue:

“If you’re going to misrepresent yourself, be aware of caller i.d.” Walsh said. “I don’t think misrepresenting yourself is in line with Texas values. I just find it somewhat ham-handed.”

Interestingly, it was Buck Smith who kicked the story off online on an unrelated BOR post. Beckwith linked to no outside material but did get the ball rolling using his deceptive user name with this comment.

After the Cornyn campaign gave an amazingly juvenile response to BOR’s request for a comment about this, Beckwith admitted thr truth to the Chron’s Peggy Fikac. As noted in the comments on the BOR post, Beckwith/Buck Smith even commented on the earlier post about his rumored firing. That would be the definition of sock puppetry right there. Way to go, dude.

On a much nicer note, Rick Noriega is the latest addition to MyDD’s Road to 60 group. Since I posted yesterday, Noriega has gone well past 10,000 contributors and $900,000 on ActBlue – by my rough calculation, he’s raised over $40K on ActBlue since yesterday. Not too bad. And you can move him farther along for the quarter if you hit the link before midnight tonight. Go ahead, do it for Buck Smith.

Upper Kirby versus Trees for Houston

The chairman of the Upper Kirby TIRZ writes a letter in defense of the Kirby storm drain/street widening project that was recently criticized by Trees for Houston.

On the Kirby Drive Storm Drainage and Mobility Improvements Project, however, Trees for Houston is making a mistake using the issue about the trees along Kirby to obscure two more critical issues: street flooding and mobility and safety along one of our busiest and most vibrant residential and commercial streets.

Just last week, a 30-minute summer rain storm caused street flooding in the neighborhoods along Kirby Drive. If we had a sustained storm, let alone a catastrophic storm, like Tropical Storm Alison, most people would quickly trade the present trees along Kirby for the cars they would have to abandon or the homes they would have to pump out. We didn’t create this drainage problem, but we are here to improve it.

The number of cars traveling on Kirby in both directions has increased beyond anyone’s expectations, and the new developments currently under construction will only add more cars to the road. It is unsafe for both cars and pedestrians. The new design for Kirby will increase the mobility and safety of this important street. Period.

We are undertaking this project so that we can create a model thoroughfare for the next 50 years. Indeed, the existing trees will be replaced in greater number. We are un-dertaking this project because when we balance all of the goals that this project must address, we realize that we need to replace trees in order to accomplish all objectives. The remaining right of way will be much more pedestrian-friendly, the power lines will be buried underground and there will be more trees along and in this important boulevard. Approximately nine out of 10 landowners along Kirby Drive agree.

We applaud Trees for Houston and the worthy contributions it has made to our city over the years. We hope that we can continue to work with it in Houston’s best interest. In the meantime, we are moving forward with a plan that takes a larger view and is the right thing to do.

BUDDY BAILEY
chairman, Upper Kirby TIRZ (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone) No. 19

I don’t know that I agree with all his assertions, and I’d love to see a citation for that “nine out of ten landowners along Kirby Drive agree” statistic he pulled out, but as he and his group appear to have won the fight, I’m not sure that it matters much. I will say, however, that while is statement about the number of cars travelling on Kirby increasing beyond expectations (and, I’d argue, sustainability) is true, it really points out the need for alternatives to driving in that area. Traffic flow may be improved by the Upper Kirby project, but no capacity is being added. I’ve harped on this subject before and I’ll say it again: Traffic conditions on streets like Kirby can only get worse, and the only real option we have to mitigate against this is transit. That’s not on any blueprint or long-range plan right now (at least, none that I know of), but I say it needs to be, before Kirby becomes undrivable.

On a related note, the subsequent letter raises an interesting point:

Think outside the curbs and shift some of the traffic load from Kirby to South Shepherd. If South Shepherd Drive from Richmond north to where it comes together with Kirby at Allen Parkway were slightly widened and improved, improvements to Kirby can be done without losing trees. It is a rare instance where two parallel streets come together, so the through traffic is indifferent to the actual street taken. At the southern end, both streets connect directly to the freeway access roads, giving motorists essentially identical outcomes.

If it is done my way, the storm sewers get built, the trees stay put, Shepherd moves up in quality and the redundancy means that a problem on one route does not totally shut down the north-south flow.

BRUCE ANDERSON
Houston

As someone who regularly drives on Shepherd, I can tell you that the biggest problem is the lack of any kind of turn lane. Every left turn on Shepherd causes a backup and lots of lane-changing. Given that a big part of the reason for the imminent demise of Kirby’s trees is the conversion of its Darwinian turn lane into a wider median-with-pocket-turn-lanes, I don’t see how you can accomplish what this guy suggests on Shepherd without needing to widen it a lot, and I don’t see how you can do that. It was bad form, obviously, to have built Shepherd in such a narrow way, but we’re stuck with it now. Nice try, but not gonna happen.

Meeting to discuss commuter rail study

If you’ve been itching to make a public comment about the new commuter rail study, your opportunity is here.

The first public meeting on a new Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Houston-Galveston Area Council offices, 3555 Timmons.

Recommendations in the study, by H-GAC staff and consultants Kimley-Horn and Associates, differ from those in Metro’s 2003 transit referendum in several ways.

  • The referendum called for commuter rail out U.S. 90A (S. Main) and U.S. 290, but only the latter is in the study. To keep costs down, the study recommends sharing existing low-traffic tracks with freight railroads, but Union Pacific says those on U.S. 90A are too busy to be shared.
  • The referendum map also showed potential routes along the Katy Freeway, Westpark, Hardy Toll Road, Texas 3 and Texas 249 (Tomball Parkway), but only the last two are in the study. The other three are shown as possible extensions of Metro’s light rail service.
  • The study recommends starting with a “baseline” system of five routes: U.S. 290, Texas 3, Texas 249, Texas 35 to Pearland, and — as an alternative to U.S. 90A — a route running south along Almeda (FM 521) and turning west through the middle of Fort Bend County.
  • Although the study shows four lines continuing to downtown, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said they ought not duplicate Metro’s light rail service. There also is resistance on City Council, and from neighborhoods such as the Heights, to more inner-city trains.
  • Both the study and Metro’s plans include an Intermodal Terminal on the north side of downtown, but the study recommends putting the main commuter rail terminal outside the West Loop, between Northwest Mall near U.S. 290 and Metro’s Northwest Transit Center on the Katy Freeway. The Eureka rail yard just across the Loop to the east would be used for maintenance and to store trains between rush hours.

I’m not sure how much it matters that the study differs from the 2003 referendum. Some of what the referendum called for, like a line going west on the Katy Freeway, is no longer an option; some of what the study calls for are things that we probably would have gotten around to anyway regardless of the referendum. I suppose there’s always the potential for someone to sue.

We can dance around issues like that all we want, but the bottom line is going to be this:

Kimley-Horn consultant Sam Lott estimated the cost of the five lines and the hub terminal at $2.9 billion.

That’s a lot of money, though perhaps if we just think of it as being the equivalent of the Katy Freeway expansion, it doesn’t seem that bad – I mean, for the price of one freeway expansion, you get five new commuter rail lines. Not a bad swap, really. And with Park and Ride buses full to capacity, increasingly needed. The point is that this isn’t going to happen without federal funds, and that isn’t going to happen without broad consensus, especially since as that Rad Sallee column notes, it’s going to take more than Metro to make this happen. So if you have questions about this plan, like Christof does, now would be a good time to start asking them.

BlueTexas

Now here is a more tangible manifestation of the Obama strategy for Texas: Raising a bunch of money for State House races.

Alexa Wesner caught Obamania before it became fashionable.

The West Lake Hills woman, who’s known Barack Obama since he ran for the U.S. Senate four years ago, has slogged through the snows of Iowa, exceeded her goal of raising $250,000 for his presidential campaign (she’s got a similar target for the fall election), hosted a couple of local Obama fundraisers and dined with the candidate’s wife last fall on a trip to London.

Now Wesner, 36, has turned her sights on what Texas Democrats hope will become the next big thing: winning back the Texas House of Representatives.

[Saturday] Wesner is hosting a high-dollar fundraiser in Wimberley for her new political action committee, Blue Texas, dedicated to spending money on state legislative campaigns. (Tickets are $5,000 a couple to $50,000 for a host committee for an event headlined by Jerry Jeff Walker and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.)

As of Friday, Wesner said, she had raised $1 million in tickets for the event. To put that in perspective, Texas Republicans, with Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. John Cornyn headlining an event in Weatherford this weekend, expect to raise $600,000 for statewide get-out-the-vote efforts this fall, according to Roger Williams, who leads the GOP’s Texas Victory ’08 effort.

Texas Democrats spent $21.5 million, from all sources, on Texas House races in 2006, when Republicans outspent them with $38 million.

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, a Waco Democrat who heads the House Democratic Campaign Committee, says he has no illusions that Democrats will outspend Republicans in Texas this year. But he welcomes Wesner’s help: “We never had a million-dollar event before.”

Wow. That’s mighty impressive. And if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Ms. Wesner before, consider this:

Ask Wesner why she’s set her sights on the Texas House as well as the White House, and her answer shows how new to politics she is.

“It was amazing to me how close we are. We just need five seats,” Wesner said of the Democrats’ chances of winning a legislative majority in the Texas House, where Republicans hold a 79-71 majority. “I’m talking to a lot of people who don’t realize how close it is.”

Wesner’s enthusiasm and a younger network of high-dollar donors has the Texas Democratic establishment excited.

“She’s so refreshing,” said Jack Martin, founder of Public Strategies, an international business consulting firm. “Not only does she not know who’s been mad at one another (in the Democratic Party), she doesn’t care.”

Martin said Wesner called him last fall to attend an Obama fundraiser.

“She didn’t know big shots like me are supposed to be wooed to attend,” Martin quipped. At the event, Wesner was “taking Obama around the crowd like he’s running for the school board,” Martin said.

Martin, a political wunderkind when he worked for U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen a quarter-century ago, said he didn’t recognize anyone at the fundraiser except biker and cancer-fighter Lance Armstrong.

“Everyone was 20 years younger,” said Martin, who is 54.

That’s a lot of new blood getting involved in a meaningful way for Democratic politics in Texas. I keep saying this year is like no other election year. I’d count this as one more reason why.

The Blue Texas website is here – you have to sign up to see most of the content. Turns out one of the founders was my freshman week orientation mentor in college – he sent me that Statesman story, as well as a copy of Alexa Wesner’s remarks at the Saturday event. I look forward to hearing more from these folks in the near future.

Sarnoff on the Heights Highrise

The Chron’s Nancy Sarnoff writes about the Heights highrise, and makes it sound pretty reasonable.

[C]alling it another Ashby high-rise may be a stretch.

For one, the proposal is for an office building.

And the rendering is old. A newer plan is being considered with only nine stories — six levels for office and three for parking, according to Tim Cisneros, the building’s architect.

The developer hasn’t even gone to the city for a construction permit.

“We’re just looking at who’s interested in doing the deal with us,” said Ed Rizk, a real estate broker and developer who’s pre-leasing the building.

Those involved in the project said there’s a need for office space in the Heights, where area businesses operate out of rundown strip centers, outdated office structures and historic homes.

“The options for Class A office space in the Heights are virtually nil,” said Cisneros, who sees the market as small law firms, accountants, architects and other small businesses whose owners live in the Heights.

Residential units were, however, considered for the site.

But condos would generate a lot more traffic than an office building operating just during business hours.

And a shopping center would require loads of parking.

“We’re trying to envision if it’s an appropriate building type,” Cisneros said.

It’s still not clear to me that there’s that much demand for office space in the Heights, but whatever. I still think nine stories is a bit on the tall side for the area, but as I said before, beyond that there’s not much to object to.

The proposed office building would be built on a 25,000-square-foot parcel at 3110 White Oak, just west of the popular Onion Creek restaurant and bar.

It would replace a house and small shopping center and could contain 50,000 square feet of office space and just enough ground-level retail space to support a bank or restaurant.

Land owner and developer Geoffrey Vaughan couldn’t be reached, but his architect thinks the project could serve as an example for acceptable urban development.

“Is it ambitious? Yes. Potentially controversial? Yes,” Cisneros said.

“But I think maybe it could sensitively set the model for some development patterns in Houston.”

I took a couple of photos of the lot where the highrise would be. Here they are:

You can see the entire space from this view. Onion Creek is just on the other side of that telephone pole on the far right.

A view from Oxford, the crossroad immediately to the west of the lot. It’s not very deep, which is why a lot of people were puzzled by this at first. Between this new development and the presence of Onion Creek, I can foresee a traffic light at this intersection sometime in the future. Note the lack of sidewalks on Oxford, which will be an impediment to anyone who wants to walk to this new building.

The misnamed Montrose Skate Shop, on the other side of Oxford, will be the highrise’s other neighbor on White Oak.

Barring any new information, I don’t think there’s much more to say about this until such time as permits start getting pulled, and the neighborhood reacts. In the end, I think it won’t be too contentious, but let’s see what the specifics are before we get too confident.

Turn that thing up!

This is one of those “why didn’t we think of this sooner” kind of things.

City Hall has gotten a little hotter, and not because of a sudden gust of political rhetoric.

Officials adjusted the air conditioning in 100 municipal buildings, hoping that a 2-degree increase in air temperature — to 74 — will help save money. And relieve a most peculiar Houston phenomenon: having to wear a sweater indoors in summer.

“Now that I think about it, I can get away without that thick sweater I used to wear,” said Linda Layton, agenda director for Councilwoman Jolanda Jones. “It’s tolerable now, comfortable.”

Jon Newport, another council staffer, said he feels warmer than he’d like but he can live with the change.

“Whatever we have to do to save the taxpayers money, that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “It’s noticeable, but I wouldn’t say it’s uncomfortable. I haven’t been forced to go out and buy a fan.”

The city budgeted $159 million for its electrical bill in the coming year. Since 2004, it has reduced its energy consumption, in kilowatt-hours, by 5.8 percent, said Issa Dadoush, the director of General Services.

The city doesn’t know how much it’ll save by raising the temperature, but it hasn’t ruffled any feathers, he said.

“We have not received any complaints, and we’ve had some really hot days over the past three weeks,” Dadoush said.

Talk about a simple thing you can do to save the planet. I’ve worked for the past two years in a cubicle that has a west-facing window. When I first got there, all the windows on that floor had these old, ratty, and completely ineffective coverings that did nothing to block the afternoon sunlight. It got mighty warm around there, and I say that as someone with robot-like heat tolerance. As a result, there were many complaints to facilities folks to crank the A/C, something that would not be appreciated very much these days. They eventually replaced all that with miniblinds, which do a much better job of keeping things temperate, presumably including the utility bills. It’s a win-win all around.

So what’s the temperature at your office? Based on this MeMo video, I suspect that article got mailed around quite about at the Chronicle.

Good news: We’re not doomed!

Well, this is a relief.

The most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.

But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists’ wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth? Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN — some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

“Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on,” said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider’s huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

“If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here,” he said.

Of course, that’s exactly what they’d want you to think, isn’t it? It’s all fun and games until someone activates the doomsday machine.

Critics of the LHC filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian court in March seeking to block its startup, alleging that there was “a significant risk that … operation of the Collider may have unintended consequences which could ultimately result in the destruction of our planet.”

One of the plaintiffs, Walter L. Wagner, a physicist and lawyer, said Wednesday CERN’s safety report, released June 20, “has several major flaws,” and his views on the risks of using the particle accelerator had not changed.

On Tuesday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers representing the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The two agencies have contributed $531 million to building the collider, and the NSF has agreed to pay $87 million of its annual operating costs. Hundreds of American scientists will participate in the research.

The lawyers called the plaintiffs’ allegations “extraordinarily speculative,” and said “there is no basis for any conceivable threat” from black holes or other objects the LHC might produce. A hearing on the motion is expected in late July or August.

In rebutting doomsday scenarios, CERN scientists point out that cosmic rays have been bombarding the earth, and triggering collisions similar to those planned for the collider, since the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

And so far, Earth has survived.

“The LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, what it has been doing for billions of years,” said John Ellis, a British theoretical physicist at CERN.

The guys who filed that suit strike me as being nuts, but I’d still kind of like to see the matter go forward, if only to see how a non-scientist judge deals with it. There’s a lot of entertainment potential in that.