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July 7th, 2008:

Getting the new commuter rail lines right

Tory and Christof attended those public meetings on the proposed new commuter rail lines, and have some excellent suggestions for how we can – fairly quickly and at a reasonable price – implement two such lines, both of which would be useful. I think Christof sums it all up succinctly:

If a quick commuter rail implementation is ineffective — if it results in long, inconvenient trips, if it carries low ridership – it might cause riders and voters to give up on commuter rail altogether. So while it’s nice to be quick, it’s equally important to be good. Whatever the first line is, it must be effective.

Go read what they have to say, and do what you can to keep the vision of these lines on track.

Jackson Lee wants hearings on Harris County criminal justice

Well, this ought to be interesting.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee on Sunday called for congressional hearings to investigate what she calls ”the many downfalls” of the Harris County judicial system.

Recent incidents, including a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Pasadena man who shot and killed two men suspected of burglarizing his neighbor, have brought into question whether the system is fair and unbiased, she said.

The Democrat, who represents District 18, said she is also concerned and frustrated about derogatory e-mails circulated in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the handling of DNA evidence by the Houston Police Department crime lab and the number of deaths in the Harris County Jail during the past 10 years.

She also criticized former Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal for explicit e-mails he sent on his county computer.

”With the many misgivings surrounding the Harris County judicial system, it is fair to say that this local judicial system has been tarnished,” Jackson Lee said during a news conference at the Mickey Leland Federal Building. “It is time for all officials to be held accountable and true justice and democracy restored.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. John Legg said Sheriff Tommy Thomas was unaware of Jackson Lee’s news conference and declined to comment.

Jackson Lee said she plans to bring the congressional hearings to Houston in the next couple of weeks.

On the one hand, I think the more scrutiny of the criminal justice system here in Harris County, the better. It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of things to probe, after all, and while we know that the DA is investigating the Sheriff and the Attorney General is investigating the DA, how can it hurt to have some outside eyes looking in on things? The odds of butt-covering would seem to be smaller, in any event, especially with things being done in public.

On the other hand, I think Marc Campos has a point.

[I don’t] think this is a good idea. Congress is the least popular institution in the U.S. of A. Bringing in a Congressional Committee comprised of “Northeastern Liberals” to look into our business would only make local voters feel sorry for the county. The local media has done a pretty good job of letting us know what is wrong with our legal system. Plus, Harris County government, the DA’s office, and the Sheriff’s office do a pretty good job of shooting themselves in the foot on a regular basis. The last thing we need is an injection of a sympathy factor that a Congressional inquiry would create.

Hard to argue with that. I still think there’s value in this idea, but it has to be done with focus and even-handedness, or the value will be lost.

Them that has the gold gets the patrols

Nobody is shocked by this, right?

For decades, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has justified its controversial contract deputy program by saying it puts more officers on the streets to keep everyone safer, not just those who can afford to pay for extra protection.

But a Houston Chronicle analysis of Sheriff’s Office records shows contract deputy positions are filled immediately while dozens of normal patrol jobs remain vacant. In some cases, deputies who were pulled from the traditional patrols to fill contract spots have not been replaced.

Under the department’s contract deputy program, civic associations, school districts and municipal utility districts pay the county to have deputies assigned to specific areas or neighborhoods rather than larger patrol districts that may include dozens of subdivisions.

With nearly half of the department’s 530 patrol deputies assigned to the predominantly middle- and upper-income communities that can afford to sign contracts, lawmen say they are struggling to provide basic services to the rest of unincorporated Harris County.

One 193-square-mile district in northwest Harris County was so strapped for manpower in June that only five non-contract deputies were on duty on Friday evenings and only four worked Friday overnights. At the same time, 21 deputies were patrolling 18 subdivisions and municipal utility districts in the area. Contract deputies outnumbered regular deputies by a 2-to-1 margin on several shifts in another 216-square-mile district in west Harris County.

That’s supply and demand for you. Really, is there anything about this that you wouldn’t have expected?

Larry Cronin, the president of the homeowners’ association for the Thicket at Cypresswood subdivision in northwest Harris County, said he and his neighbors feel much safer knowing one of their three contract deputies always is on patrol. The community used to have a problem with car break-ins, but that went away after the contract was signed around 1995, he said.

“I can have a deputy at my house in two or three minutes,” Cronin said. “They’re very efficient.”

[…]

Former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox issued opinions calling the contract deputy program unconstitutional twice in the 1980s, once before legislators adopted a law authorizing such programs and once after that law took effect. His opinions were upheld in the 1990s by former Attorney General Dan Morales.

But Attorney General Greg Abbott reversed course last year and declared the programs constitutional, as long as county commissioners are sure a contract’s main purpose is to benefit the public, not a private group.

County Attorney Mike Stafford said the public benefits from the additional manpower, even if contract deputies spend most of their time in lower crime subdivisions.

I’m genuinely curious as to how Attorney Stafford arrived at his conclusion. How exactly does, say, Denver Harbor or Acres Homes benefit from the drop in car break-ins up in Cypresswood? Indeed, one could argue that the former Cypresswood car burglars, having been thwarted in their original hunting grounds, migrated elsewhere to places that have lighter or no patrols. Can we show that the decline in car burglaries in Cypresswood was not accompanied by increases elsewhere? If we can, then what Stafford says makes some sense, though I’d probably modify it to “patrols one place didn’t hurt other places”. Without seeing such statistics, however, I’m calling that claim bogus.

Noriega v Cornyn on veterans’ issues

Pretty good story on the recent campaign clash between Rick Noriega and Sen. John Cornyn over veterans’ issues.

The brewing dispute between Cornyn and Noriega over veterans issues escalated amid debate over an expanded GI Bill. Congress passed the measure, and President Bush signed it last Monday, doubling college aid for recent military members and allowing their education benefits to be transferred to a spouse or children.

Noriega chastised Cornyn for not initially supporting the bill, and Noriega’s supporters delivered petitions to Cornyn’s Texas offices demanding that he get behind it. Cornyn later voted for a different version of the bill. He said he wanted a version that allowed the transfer of education benefits, something he said would help with retention in the all-volunteer military.

“The saying is that you recruit a service member, you recruit a soldier, but you retain a family,” Cornyn said. “It’s an important recognition of their contribution as well.”

Cornyn’s father went to college on the original GI Bill after World War II.

Cornyn’s first vote against the new bill didn’t sit well with some in the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose members talked about it at their state convention last week. The organization’s political committee hasn’t endorsed in the Senate race yet and is weighing whether to withhold support from Cornyn because of his position on the GI Bill, said Roy Grona, adjutant quartermaster for the Texas VFW.

“This one was a big one,” Grona said, cautioning that he was expressing only his own views, not those of the whole organization. He wondered why Cornyn didn’t vote for the GI Bill expansion right away, then work later to get it into the final shape he wanted. “To me, it was just an excuse to put a ‘no’ vote on it because the president wasn’t happy with it.”

May they follow in the path of the Texas Medical Association in deciding they have better things to do than support our junior Senator. Speaking of which, remember the AMA’s ad campaign to criticize the anti-Medicare vote that Cornyn (and Hutchison) made? This was on the front page of chron.com on Sunday:

Nice. Keep it up, y’all.

RIP, Dan Cook

Dan Cook, the longtime San Antonio Express News sportswriter who made the phrase “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings” famous, has passed away at the age of 81.

The San Antonio Express-News, for whom Cook worked for 51 years, reported that he died Thursday night after a long illness. Cook was also the sports anchor at San Antonio television station KENS for 44 years, from 1956 to 2000. Most of those years, the station was owned by the Express-News.

It was Cook who first popularized the phrase, “the Opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” while discussing an NBA playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Bullets on a 1978 newscast. The Yale Book of Quotations later concluded it was first quoted in print in 1976, attributed to Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter, and was a variation on an old Southern saying.

In few American cities did one person dominate sports media as did Cook in San Antonio.

Cook worked for the Express-News from 1952 through his retirement in 2003. Between his newspaper and television duties, Cook wrote six columns a week and delivered two sports telecasts and two radio commentaries each day. That’s on top of his duties as Express-News executive sports editor, which he was from 1960 to 1975.

Barry Robinson, former Express-News sports editor and now its director of administration and recruitment, was hired by Cook in 1969. He recalled that Cook once turned down an offer to move to Chicago and become a syndicated columnist to remain in San Antonio.

I read Cook’s columns when I was in college. I don’t always enjoy the old-timers on the sports pages, since they have a tendency to be reactionary about too many things, but I generally liked Cook. He was certainly influential, and his presence is missed. Rest in peace, Dan Cook. Stace and The Walker Report have more.

One last step for Ashby Highrise

I’ve long thought that the Ashby highrise would eventually get built, on the grounds that there really isn’t anything the city can do to stop it. Via Swamplot, I see that the developers are now almost through the permitting process.

Having cleared six of seven departmental reviews, dating back [to] July 30, the project only lacks clearance from Public Works and Engineering’s traffic section.

Developer Matthew Morgan, of Buckhead Investment Partners, said Thursday the four remaining traffic-related concerns will be addressed, and plans will likely be sent back to the city within a week to 10 days.

At which point, the only unresolved issue would be whether or not someone files a lawsuit to stop the project. Which I believe they’d lose, but it could certainly drag things out for a few years.

Morgan said the acceptance of the structural plans meant, in part, “The city is holding true to its promise that it’s not going to regulate building height.”

And I continue to believe that the city needs to address this issue for the future. Whether you believe the Ashby development is a good one or an abomination, a comprehensive review of the city’s form-based codes is long overdue.