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June 17th, 2009:

Leo’s response

Here, for the record, is Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s response to the Ed Johnson business. Basically, he denies everything, admits to nothing, and makes counter-accusations, certainly a time-honored technique when under attack. I’ll stipulate that the charges against Ed Johnson are being made by partisan groups. I find it rather admirable that Vasquez is so willing to go to bat for an employee like this. But man, if he can’t or won’t see how much this looks like a conflict of interest, I don’t know what to say. The voters will sort it out next year, I guess. I think Campos is right that swing voters will see this for what it is. I just hope the resources to make sure they’re aware of it are there.

HOPE press conference on employee efficiency suggestions

Ever think that the city’s employees probably have some good ideas for how they could conduct their business in a more efficient manner? Well, the Houston Organization for Public Employees (HOPE) thought so, and they conducted a three-week survey of their members to get their suggestions. Today they’re having a press conference to announce the results:

Press Conference Advisory

Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE)

Annise Parker, Gene Locke, Peter Brown, and Others to Award City Employees for Their Budget Efficiencies Ideas

WHAT: Press Conference hosted by HOPE, with guest speakers, including Houston’s 2009 Mayoral candidates

WHEN: 12:30 pm, Wednesday, June 17, 2009

WHERE: City Hall Rotunda (1st Fl.), 901 Bagby

BACKGROUND:

At a time when the city is facing a great challenge in providing quality public services with limited resources, many are turning to their greatest resources, their employees, to generate new ideas to streamline processes and improve efficiency. Despite pressure from the city employees union and members of city council, the city never implemented a process to hear frontline employees’ ideas.

The municipal employees union, HOPE, however, generated hundreds of efficiencies ideas in just three short weeks by surveying frontline municipal employees. If implemented, some ideas would result in millions saved, millions generated in new revenue, or, as HOPE’s President Melvin Hughes put it, “Better ways of doing what city employees already do.”

HOPE, along with its very special guests from the political and business communities, will be awarding six city employees for their contribution to this process. (Awards to be presented by Peter Brown, Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and others).

Good to hear that the Mayoral candidates will be there, since it’ll be up to one of them to implement these ideas. Stace has more.

UPDATE: And here’s the post-conference release:

The Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE) today held a press conference, with special guests Peter Brown, Gene Locke, Annise Parker, Councilmember-Elect Ed Gonzalez, and others, to award city employees for their outstanding contribution to the HOPE Bright Ideas contest. The contest, which surveyed city employees, was spearheaded by the municipal employees’ union when the city looked to outside contractors for efficiencies, instead of frontline employees—a free source of efficiencies ideas.

Employees generated concrete ideas that can be implemented today, and can result in huge savings and millions in new revenue. For example, stronger enforcement of dumpster permitting can result in $6 to $10 million in new revenues. Also, cross-training of inspectors across city departments and increased communication can make our residents and neighborhoods safer, and ensure that property owners are adhering to city codes and are being penalized or shut down when residents are at risk.

The survey process was completed in just three short weeks, during which over a hundred surveys were collected. HOPE presented the most profound findings at city council on June 9th, and received overwhelming support from council, including Council members Clutterbuck, Adams, Jones, Brown, Rodriguez, and Khan, who all chimed in to voice their backing for the city employees’ ideas. Council members Brown, Clutterbuck, and Rodriguez even submitted amendments to the city budget in the wake of HOPE’s presentation, including, respectively, creating a commission to promote efficiencies in the city, reviewing the city employees’ ideas and implementing viable suggestions, and cross training inspectors.

With substantial support from the public, politicians, and the media, the voice of city employees has become a force to be respected in the city budget process. Regardless of the top-down style of city management, frontline city employees have shown that they know best where efficiencies are. That’s why prominent community, business, and political leaders will be presenting awards to eight city employees for their contributions to this process. The recipients are:

Grand Prize: Jesse Springer, for his idea of coming up with an efficiencies committee
Runner-Up: Daniel Box, for his ideas on cross-training and data sharing
Runner-Up: Latonja Bolden, for her idea on improving oversight for contracting and procurement
Runner-Up: Sharon Rivers, for her idea of reassessing outdated fee schedules
Runner-Up: John Cantu, for his idea on inventorying surplus items
On behalf of the Aviation Department, HOPE Aviation District Representative Bobbie Jo Taylor, for the idea of increasing airport passenger fees to $4.50
On behalf of the Solid Waste Department, HOPE Solid Waste District Representative Zuri Kadirifu, for the idea of enforcing the dumpster permit ordinance, generating potential revenues of 6-10 million dollars
Honorable Mention: Calvin Miller, for producing the most surveys from frontline employees during the HOPE Bright Ideas Contest

The Houston Organization of Public Employees, or HOPE, is the municipal employees’ union in the city of Houston. HOPE strives to concurrently raise the standard of living for Houston’s city employees and ensure the highest quality public services for Houston’s residents, now and in the future.

Thanks to all who participated!

One more judicial race

This was mentioned as a sidebar to a story about Governor Perry signing a bill, but I think it deserves more than that. There’s a new justice on the First Court of Appeals, which means there will be one more judicial race next year.

Gov. Rick Perry has appointed a Houston attorney to the 1st Court of Appeals to fill the unexpired term of a justice who retired in April, the Associated Press reports.

Michael C. Massengale’s term will expire at the next general election. He replaces Tim Taft of Houston, who was first elected to the court in 1994.

The 1st Court of Appeals has nine justices who hear appeals and original proceedings from 10 counties around Houston.

Massengale is a partner at Baker Botts L.L.P. and is president of the Houston chapter of the Federalist Society. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

Justice Taft won re-election unopposed in 2006, so Massengale or whoever beats him will be up for election for a full term in 2012. If form holds from 2008, Massengale will have a primary challenger as well as a Democratic opponent. He was appointed to Place 8, which as of my Class of 2010 So Far post wasn’t listed as a bench that was up for election. I presume that will be rectified shortly. As you know, I think the appeals court races will be a good opportunity for Dems next year, so I certainly hope new Justice Massengale gets a challenger soon. I’ll let you know when I hear something.

Critics criticize: Film at 11

I’m going to outsource most of the commentary on this week’s Move It! column about Metro critics criticizing Metro for doing something they disagree with to Greg, who says most of what I’d say. The main thing I’d add is that it’s trivially easy to imagine a scenario in which Metro had taken the opposite action – in this case, continuing to operate low-volume bus routes and seeing a rise in cost to correspond with a rise in overall system ridership – only to come under fire from these same critics for wasting taxpayer dollars on services no one uses. It’s not all that hard to sing along at home, you know? Heads or tails, either way Metro sucks. There’s plenty about Metro to criticize, and there are some thoughtful critics of Metro – if I were Bill King, I’d be unhappy about being in the same article as the “persistent light rail critic” that was also present – but so much of what we get is basically a paint-by-numbers routine, and that’s a shame.

Big balloon lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

The constitutional right to have a giant inflatable gorilla in a bathing suit and sunglasses grabbing consumer attention from a Houston business rooftop is the key issue in a trial that began in federal court on Wednesday.

Jim Purtee, owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions, is in court arguing the city of Houston violated his business’ constitutional right to equal protection in the arbitrary enforcement of city sign codes and should pay him damages of $938,241.

Purtee is fighting the city over an ordinance it stopped enforcing when he filed this lawsuit in 2006. But Purtee complains his customers remained antsy and he and his army of 450 inflatable eagles, rabbits, pumpkins, Santas and hot-air-balloon-shaped balloons have suffered for it.

“It cost us a lot of money and it wasn’t incidental,” he said.

Giant balloons will be banned over Houston rooftops beginning in 2010. That ordinance isn’t the subject of this lawsuit, though Purtee said he and others will challenge that next.

This lawsuit is over a 1993 ordinance that said banners, pennants, streamers, strobes, spot lights, whirligigs and inflatable objects were posing traffic and aesthetic problems. That ordinance didn’t ban them, it limited the number of days they could be up and banned business-specific messages placed across them. But the law did not create funding for substantial enforcement of these so-called “attention-getting devices.”

I blogged about the new ordinance banning attention-getting devices, which was passed last November, here, here, and here. The first link notes that the original ordinance, which is the one at issue, limits the use of these devices to 104 days per year, but because the days did not have to be consecutive, and could occur over the 365 day calendar year, it was difficult to enforce. The intent of the new ordinance was to clean up all of that. I think on balance the new ordinance is a good thing, but I can see how the uneven enforcement of the old ordinance could be legally problematic. I suspect the new ordinance is on firmer ground than the one it replaced, but we’ll see. I look forward to hearing what the judge has to say.

Now how much would you pay for that truck?

Sorry, fellas. You’re coming to the wrong place for sympathy on this.

When it comes to iconic symbols of Texas, big trucks and SUVs rank right up there with cowboy hats and boots.

But a new White House plan to strengthen auto fuel economy rules is likely to usher in an era of smaller, lighter and less powerful vehicles — yes, even in the Lone Star state.

Under President Barack Obama’s plan, automakers would be required to boost the overall fuel economy of U.S. cars and trucks they sell by 40  percent in seven years, a move meant to help America reduce its oil usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

Hitting the target could mean a significant overhaul of the U.S. auto fleet, bringing not only more fuel-saving diesels and hybrids, but also a broader downsizing of American vehicles and the engines that power them.

Such changes may not be greeted fondly in Texas, where 1 in 4 vehicles sold is a pickup and large SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban still attract more buyers than most other parts of the country.

“Down here, it’s hard to get a guy who’s been driving a truck for many years to get into any kind of car,” said Jerry Reynolds, a former Ford dealer who has a car advice radio show that airs in Dallas and Houston.

But tougher fuel economy rules do not mean trucks and SUVs are headed for extinction any time soon. Rather, consumers may have to pay more to get them, to cover added costs of fuel-efficient engine technologies, said Philip Gott, a director with economic forecaster IHS Global Insight.

Yeah, well, if Detroit had put half as much R&D resources into improving fuel efficiency as it had towards increasing engine power, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation right now. They bet the farm on a model that was lucrative in the short term, but ultimately unsustainable. And so here we are now, doing what we should have done 20 years ago. Better late than never, I guess. Oh, and speaking of farms, I’m still completely unmoved by the whole cowboy iconography thing, and I still think that one of these days the use of such to sell rural vehicles in an urban place like this will be seen as unproductive. I just hope I live long enough to see it happen.