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July 1st, 2010:

Council Member Johnson arrested

Oops.

Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson was arrested Wednesday night after he initially refused to stop his vehicle immediately when a police officer tried to pull him over, officials said.

Johnson is charged with evading arrest, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

[…]

According to a criminal complaint in the case, Houston Police Officer S. Running attempted to stop Johnson, who “did then and there unlawfully intentionally flee.”

The officer reportedly tried to stop Johnson around 10 p.m. for exceeding the speed limit in an area just north of downtown, but details are sketchy about why the officer initially tried to stop him. A woman riding with Johnson was released, police said.

CM Johnson later posted bond and was released. There will be a press conference today at 2 PM at which we will apparently hear his side of this story. Until then, I’m going to follow the advice of CM Jolanda Jones and not speculate about what did or did not happen.

UPDATE: From the updated version of the story:

This afternoon, the councilman issued a statement on the incident.

“Last night was an unfortunate situation where the officer erroneously surmised that I was speeding and fled his warning a claim I vehemently deny. At no point did I drive over 25 mph, run stop signs, or maneuver around any vehicle. I acted in no way that would give any indication that I was attempting to flee or evade apprehension.”

His statement later reads, “I sincerely hope that last night’s incident was not in response to my constant communication with the police in requesting an end to “speed traps” in the area, and an increase of patrol.”

[…]

This afternoon, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland issued a statement.

“On Wednesday, June 30, about 9:45 p.m., Houston City Council member Jarvis Johnson was arrested and charged with evading arrest after HPD officers attempted a traffic stop.”

“This is a matter to be resolved through the criminal justice system. I want all officers to know that I am proud of their service and commitment to the citizens of Houston, while enforcing all laws to keep the city safe. As Chief of Police, I am proud to be the leader of an organization of dedicated professionals.”

The story says that HPD confirmed it was “not a high-speed chase”. We’ll know more soon enough.

EPA cracks down further

Here it comes.

The Environmental Protection Agency has formally denounced the state’s air-pollution permitting system for some of its biggest industrial plants — and reactions are pouring in.

Texas’s system, the EPA said in its release, “allows companies to avoid certain federal clean air requirements.” The decision, which the EPA had signaled last September, affects 122 plants, whose permitting systems will now be recalibrated in yet-to-be-determined ways. It’s not yet clear what action the federal government will take to force a revamping of the state system.

Here’s more from the Trib, and more from the Chron.

EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz invalidated all 122 flexible air quality permits issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since the 1990s, leaving the facilities to apply for new permits. Most were issued to oil and chemical refineries.

“We’re going to transition these facilities from these flexible permits to standard permits and, by doing so, lower emissions and improve public health,” he said.

[…]

Armendariz said the greenhouse gas regulations will not affect most of the flexible permit holders because the rules are being phased in, with the first facilities covered being new facilities or those with major modifications.

“We started taking this action back in 2007, long before there were any greenhouse gas rules,” Armendariz said, adding his action “has absolutely no connection to the federal efforts to reduce emission of greenhouse gases.”

Armendariz said some of the Texas facilities could be covered by the greenhouse gas rules if it is learned that they used the flexible permitting program to circumvent Clean Air Act requirements.

“If we come across a facility that should have installed new technology in the past and failed to do so, we will engage in discussions with those facilities about upgrading technology,” he said. “That discussion could include new technology, including greenhouse gas technology.”

The flex permits issue has led the EPA to deny one operating permit so far. The state’s Republican leaders can whine and wail and gnash their teeth all they want about this, but the failure is still theirs. If the TCEQ had been doing the right thing all along, we would not be in this position now. And with the TCEQ, it’s never just one thing to worry about.

Even as EPA formally killed Texas’ “flexible” permitting program today, the Perry-appointed commissioners voted 3-0 to allow the developers of a huge pet-coke plant in Corpus Christi another chance to fix their mistakes. As I wondered out loud yesterday, would the embattled TCEQ stick its neck out yet again for a big polluter or would they move in a new direction? Now we know the answer.

Two judges had looked at Las Brisas Energy Center LLC’s air permit and decided it was deeply flawed. In March, they recommended that the TCEQ commissioners either remand the permit or reject it outright. Today, environmentalists and citizens from Corpus Christi pleaded with the three commissioners to at least require the company to start the permitting process over. Instead, Messieurs Shaw, Garcia and Rubinstein unanimously decided, essentially, to give Las Brisas four more months (even though the company’s attorney said they were fine with six months) to resolve the deficiencies in the application. This was about as good as Las Brisas could get considering how scathing the judges’ ruling had been.

Does anyone really think that at the end of that expedited process Las Brisas won’t get its permit? With all seriousness: Why do we even bother with the dog and pony show of contested case hearings? The judges and the protestants have only marginal influence on the ultimate outcome, because the commissioners already have their minds made up. That’s evident from the Perry-era TCEQ’s perfect track record of greenlighting coal and petcoke plants.

It’s just business as usual. And there’s only one way to change it.

UPDATE: Forgot that I had a statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis about this in my inbox: “I urge the TCEQ to work with affected businesses—especially those in Houston’s vital petrochemical industry—to ensure their air permits are in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Environmental regulations like the federal Clean Air Act are designed to protect the public health from major pollutants shown to cause serious illnesses like asthma and cancer. Texas families deserve and expect clean air, and businesses deserve and expect a state air permitting program that complies with federal law.”

Sometimes, government really is run like a business

And that’s not such a good thing, as former deputy state comptroller Billy Hamilton pointed out in testimony before the House Select Committee on Government Efficiency and Accountability.

Don’t expect savings anytime soon. Check out other states that tried the same. Chew the fat with experts and possible vendors. Make sure the private sector’s offering to do it for 30 to 40 percent less than your state agency can, because you have “lower wage costs and no profit requirements.” Write down everything you expect — down to the tiniest detail — before you solicit bids. Bring good lawyers and don’t walk away when the deal is inked: Watch the contractor like a hawk.

[…]

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, the panel’s chairman, asked Hamilton why there are so many problems with Texas outsourcing efforts. Gallego mentioned the Accenture contract to run call centers for social services signups, and other committee members mentioned the fiasco with an IBM contract to consolidate state computer services.

Hamilton said there is a “weird dynamic between state and vendors where the state people sort of imagine in their heads what they want, but can’t articulate it on paper, and the vendors — who want these very large projects — say, ‘Yes, we can do whatever you want.’ And then once the contract is signed, … things go awry.” Bureaucrats ask for things they believe they requested, he said. Contractors respond that it will take a change order and cost the state more money. Things then go downhill rapidly, Hamilton said.

I’ve talked about this before when writing about the state’s outsourcing efforts, and I’ll say again that this is no different than how it usually goes in the private sector. The buyer and the seller have very different ideas about what is and isn’t covered in the contract, and in the end it always costs more and saves less than whatever both parties were saying at the time of the signing. In the case of the state of Texas and the religious fervor with which many of our officials believe that the private sector is always better than the public sector, it’s a recipe for disaster, as we saw with HHSC and Accenture. I don’t know what schemes might be cooked up by the next Legislature as part of its efforts to balance the budget, but if any are, we should keep Hamilton’s words and our own past experience in mind.

Austin ponders its urban rail future

As with so many things these days, how to pay for it is a big issue.

The Austin City Council, looking at a daunting $1.3 billion tab to build a proposed urban rail system, voted Thursday to spend $100,000 for a study on how to pay for it.

The council also approved a measure effectively delaying a bond election on rail to at least 2012 from 2011 , a date Mayor Lee Leffingwell had endorsed earlier this year. That resolution, which like the rail study contract was approved unanimously and without discussion at Thursday’s meeting, directs the city staff to prepare for what would likely be a massive bond election to authorize borrowing money for parks, libraries, public safety and other city needs in additional to rail.

[…]

Capital Metro, its finances tight after building the MetroRail commuter line that opened in March , probably would be able to contribute little or nothing to this second and much different rail project. The city in effect took over planning and construction of urban rail in 2007 .

The line would be 16.5 miles long, with almost 34 miles of track because it would have dual lines throughout, according to a Thursday presentation to the council.

[…]

City officials said they estimate the line will have 27,600 boardings each weekday by 2030 — at least a decade after its first segment would open. MetroRail’s ridership so far has been less than half the 2,000 boardings a day that Capital Metro predicted for the first year when voters approved that project in 2004 .

Aside from the $1.3 billion price tag to build it, officials project annual operating costs of up to $25 million . The city estimates the electric-powered trains would run seven days a week, including 16 hours each weekday, with 10 minutes between trains. The trip from each end to downtown, the city says, would take just over 30 minutes.

I’ll leave it to Mike Dahmus to explain why this is worse than it looks for Austin and its rail future. Metro and Houston’s light rail network are not where I want them to be right now, but when you consider where Austin and Dallas are, we could be a lot worse off.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance is fired up and ready to go with its post-convention blog roundup.

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