Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

August, 2010:

Videos of the city’s Wal-Mart presentation from last week

You can see three videos on Mayor Parker’s YouTube channel from last week’s meeting at the GRB to discuss the Wal-Mart development on Yale. This includes the Mayor’s opening remarks and the city’s slide show presentation, a bit less than 30 minutes in all. Give it a look if you want to prepare for tomorrow night’s meeting.

Judicial Q&A: Sherri Cothrun

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

I am Sherri Cothrun and I am running for election as Judge of the 246th Family District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 246th Family District Court has jurisdiction over matters including divorces, division of marital property, child custody, adoptions, paternity, termination of parental rights, cases involving Children’s Protective Services as well as enforcement proceedings relating to child support and possession (visitation) orders.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I will bring a more contemporary perspective to this court that reflects my greater understanding of the realities the families of Harris County are facing in today’s world. This includes the reality that the poor and middle classes are not receiving the legal assistance they need to pursue their family law cases. This is an equal access to justice issue that affects both self represented litigants and those who have legal counsel.

Issues relating to step and blended families are increasingly prominent at the Family Law Center and I believe, as a step mother for the last 13 years, I have unique insight into the complex dynamics of these relationships that will be beneficial as a Judge.

I have a greater understanding and practical experience with the technology of today and will move the court into the 21st century with electronic filing capabilities and a comprehensive court website with forms and tutorials to address the increasing number of self representing litigants and increase the access to justice for all before the court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have litigated, mediated and arbitrated family law cases in Harris County for 29 years. I am a Board Certified Family Law Specialist and a member of the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists and the Gulf Coast Family Specialists.

5. Why is this race important?

The Judges in family courts decide the most basic personal issues of family life: where your children live; the financial obligations of each parent in raising the children and the division of your property accumulated during the marriage, just to name a few. The families of Harris County deserve judges who know and will follow the law and will consider the individual facts and circumstances of each family. With a national divorce rate of approximately 50%, these may be the courts that will affect the most people and, most importantly, our children. I encourage all voters to become informed and take the time to research the candidates by checking their campaign web sites ( and attending upcoming events at which they can meet the judicial candidates in person.

6. Why should people vote for you?

The families of Harris County need a judge who is familiar with the technology of today, understands the issues of step and blended families and the growing problem of equal access to the courts and who is committed to a diverse and multilingual staff which will reflect the diversity of our county and will improve the trust and confidence in our judicial system. I will be that Judge.

Federal education funds still in limbo

All talk, no action.

A high-level meeting of state and federal officials aimed at finding a way for Texas to access $830 million in emergency education aid failed to produce a clear path forward, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“This afternoon’s meeting was cordial, with all parties trying to get these education funds flowing to Texas classrooms as quickly as possible,” Education Commissioner Robert Scott said in a statement.


U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, added a provision to that bill that singled out Texas’ education money and required the state to provide assurances that it would maintain current education spending levels for the next three years. Other states have to agree to that spending level for only one year.


Scott said that talks will continue with the Department of Education.

Education Department press secretary Sandra Abrevaya said: “We are working constructively with state officials to figure out how we can, subject to statutory requirements, get these funds to serve Texas students.”

How hard is this? Seriously. Money comes with strings all the time. Other states have to meet the same requirement for one year. What’s the problem?

I note, by the way, that despite all the earlier saber-rattling and lawsuit-threatening, all is currently quiet on the legal front. Has Team Perry quietly retreated, or are they biding their time? Maybe we’ll know when an agreement is finally reached.

What about the classical music?

This Chron story adds a dimension to the KTRU debate that I haven’t seen discussed before.

Classical music fans in the city’s southern and western suburbs may not be able to hear the station intended to serve their interests.

“It’s all static,” Clear Lake resident Jay Bennett said of the radio signal that would be designated for classical music and arts programming if the deal goes through. “It seems odd that they would degrade their (classical music) signal and alienate a lot of their listeners.”


[N]ot everyone in the sprawling metropolitan area now served by KUHF would be able to hear static-free programming on the new station, which would be renamed KUHC.

The 50,000-watt KTRU tower is north of Bush Intercontinental Airport, with its signal reaching about 30 miles in all directions, UH spokesman [Richard] Bonnin said.

Some people can hear it farther out, depending on the terrain and the listeners’ radio equipment.

KUHF’s 100,000-watt transmitter in Missouri City reaches 50 miles or more in all directions, Bonnin said.

The university knew about the limits to KTRU’s reach when it began negotiations for the transmitter and license, he said.

Their proposed solution to this is HD radio, which is to say pretty much what had existed before for those wanted classical or NPR 24/7. I have three questions:

1. How expensive would an upgrade to a 100Kw transmitter be? My guess is “very”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible.

2. Would there be any technical reason why KTRU couldn’t be upgraded to 100Kw? Like another station nearby on the dial whose signal would be obliterated by a stronger one at 91.7, for example.

3. If the transmitter cannot be upgraded for whatever the reason, would this be grounds for the FCC to disapprove the sale?

I don’t know, so that’s why I’m asking. If you do know, please leave a comment.

More on Metro’s finances

The Chron reports on Metro’s current financial situation. I think you can largely sum this up as follows:

“Clearly, Metro is burning through its cash,” said Steven Craig, a University of Houston economics professor specializing in public finance.

Craig said the declines in Metro’s reserves are “frightening” because its growing light rail network will require the agency to spend more on operations and to pay off debt.

Metro’s decision to begin construction on three light rail lines without assurance of the $900 million federal grant was aggressive and risky, Craig said. Metro had expected the grant to be finalized in April.

Greanias said FTA authorized it to proceed with certain projects, which he said historically means that an expected grant is forthcoming. Greanias said he has instructed his staff to review how Metro would respond if the grant is delayed much longer or even rejected.

When the FTA grants come through – I’m going to be optimistic here – these questions largely go away. If for whatever the reason that doesn’t happen, or if it takes a sufficiently long time for it to happen, then a day of reckoning arrives, and it won’t be pretty. Metro will surely join the ranks of transit agencies that have had to cut service and/or raise fares in that case. Far as I can tell, it’s as simple as that. There’s a special board meeting scheduled for today, so perhaps there will be some news related to that afterward.

Paper ballots on the menu

The county’s plan for dealing with the loss of all of its voting machines includes some low technology.

Despite a fire that destroyed Harris County’s voting machines Friday, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said she intends to keep all polling places open with replacement machines on Nov. 2.

Commissioners Court approved Kaufman’s emergency plan this afternoon to spend $13.6 million to buy 2,325 electronic voting machines and supporting equipment.

“Your polling place is going to be open early and on election day. You’ll be able to vote conveniently as you’re accustomed to doing,” Kaufman said afterward.

Kaufman’s request included 1.4 million paper ballots, which will be distributed to polling stations as a backup in case a shortage of machines leads to long lines.

As PDiddie notes, it was reported by Mary Benton that paper ballots will be made available to “anyone who asks” for one. The statement about keeping all polling places open is to address the concerns of Democratic elected officials, who wrote a letter to the Justice Department about the possibility of precinct consolidation and fewer voting machines in minority areas.

I feel like the immediate concerns have been addressed, and I’m reassured that everyone involved is going to do the right thing. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, though – how many machines will we have, will election judges know what to do with the paper ballots, what happens if the fire marshal makes a ruling of arson – and I don’t see that getting cleared up any time soon. I’d still like to know why it is that all the machines were stored in one place, and why we didn’t already have a written disaster recovery plan. Imagine how screwed we’d be if this had all happened a month from now. We’d better take the lessons we learn from this very seriously, that’s for sure. Hair Balls has more.

Interview with State Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis

We move from the House to the Senate this week for conversations with the Democratic Senate delegation of Harris County. First up is State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who served three terms on Houston City Council in District D before being elected to represent SD13 in 1990. Ellis has championed many causes in his time in the upper chamber, with criminal justice reform and issues relating to innocence being the most prominent. He authored the bill that enabled the creation of the new Harris County public defender’s office and was the Senate sponsor of the bill that created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, and has led the push for a statewide Innocence Commission. In addition to that, he authored the bill that created the back-to-school sales tax holiday, and has been a leading proponent of expanded gambling in Texas. Those were among the subjects we discussed:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

School social media policies

The DMN has an interesting look at how Dallas-area school districts handle social networking by its employees.

[S]chool districts and teachers trying to reach and engage students and parents find that using the latest and most popular technology is faster, cost-effective and meets students and parents in their communication comfort zones.

Some teachers have established their own blogs and Facebook pages for their classes.

“It’s a wonderful way to reach out and get immediate feedback,” said Bob Morrison, superintendent in Mansfield ISD. “If you have your students subscribing to a classroom Facebook page and they’re having a debate about a topic, the teacher can see that and use it in her class.”

Large districts, such as Dallas ISD and Fort Worth ISD, have established districtwide Facebook pages. Some have created Twitter accounts, blogs and YouTube videos to spread district news. Mansfield ISD is working to create a smartphone application that would allow parents to check their children’s athletic schedules or add money to their lunch accounts.

“Technology is here. You can either embrace it or run away from it. We chose to embrace it,” Morrison said.


The Mansfield ISD employee handbook warns teachers that electronic communication should be limited to “matters within the scope of the employee’s professional responsibilities.” For classroom teachers, that means “matters relating to class work, homework, and tests” and for employees directing extracurricular activities, a similar stick-to-the-subject directive.

The policy also prohibits employees from “knowingly communicating with students through a personal social network page.” Employees may have their own social media pages for personal use, but they are to communicate with students through separate professional social network pages only and must allow administrators and parents access.

That’s a sensible attitude, and a sensible approach. Obviously, it’s more relevant today in districts where home computer use is more prevalent, but again we know that Texas schools will be using technology a lot more in the near future, so it’s best to get your arms around this now.

The article notes that the Texas Education Agency prefers to let individual ISDs set their own policies on this rather than impose a standard from above. So I wondered: What are HISD’s policies regarding social media for its schools and employees? I didn’t find anything on the HISD website, so I sent an email inquiry to them. Here’s the response I got:

Access to social media and networking sites (like YouTube and Facebook) are blocked from district computers at all schools and offices. We do not have a district Facebook or YouTube page. But, HISD does have a twitter account and following. The messages are posted by our communications department or by the superintendent himself. We do not have a policy addressing social media sites someone may access and post on during their off duty hours. We do address the issue to some extent in the Code of Student Conduct through our policies regarding cyber-bullying. There is also a state law that makes it a crime to access a computer from someone else’s account and post matters under their name with the intent to make others believe that the account holder is posting it. Additionally, the district can take action for matters posted by an employee, if it has a direct and substantial impact on their performance of their duties, or if it appears that there is a relationship that goes beyond the professional relationship between teacher and student. Employees are not restricted regarding their ability to have an account on a social networking site, however, as the article demonstrates, there are a lot of pitfalls should matters posted on the site extend beyond professional matters and stray into personal matters.

I actually found several HISD-related Twitter feeds, including HISD Media, HISD Recruiter, HISD Special Ed, and the main HISD feed itself. Superintendent Terry Grier is on Twitter, as are at least four trustees: Greg Myers, Paula Harris, Harvin Moore, and Anna Eastman. I have to say, I rather like the Mansfield approach, and I hope HISD will give this some more thought.

Them that has, gets

This is how it works in this state.

Some of Texas’ most vulnerable residents – the very poor, the mentally ill, those suffering from birth defects, and children from troubled families – would lose state support and services under several new budget-cutting proposals.

In one of the deepest proposed cuts, made public Tuesday by the Health and Human Services Commission, monthly welfare payments to extremely poor households with children would be cut about 20 percent, to an average of about $57 per person a month. In two-parent families, payments per person would be slashed by half, to about $33.

Earlier, agencies overseen by the commission proposed other deep cuts, such as reducing by 6,000 the number of mentally ill people in North Texas who receive treatment from the region’s mental health system; closing 26 beds for psychiatric patients at the Terrell State Hospital; and eliminating 40 percent of the slots in a program that provides medical services for children with conditions such as epilepsy and cerebral palsy , and to people of any age who have cystic fibrosis.

So, to sum up: We cannot ask people who own million dollar homes to pay a few more bucks in property taxes because, well, we just can’t. It’s not on the table, so don’t ask. People who have nothing, on the other hand, are just gonna have to tighten their belts and get by with less. Any questions?

The sidebar to this Chron story about the different budget-balancing approaches of Rick Perry and Bill White goes into some more detail.

The Texas Grants college financial aid program would be slashed, dropping the number of students getting grants by 23,745.

Child-abuse prevention and early intervention would be cut, dropping 14,000 youths from abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency prevention programs.

Beds would be cut at five state hospitals, including San Antonio State Hospital. This means 1,400 fewer Texans with mental illness would be served at the five hospitals each year.

Community mental health services would be cut, so nearly 10,000 fewer adults and nearly 2,400 fewer children would get services each year.

Immunizations would be reduced, leaving an estimated 56,000 children without state-paid vaccinations.

The Department of State Health Services’ children’s preventive dental services would be eliminated, leaving 9,000 children without care from the program.

The South Texas Health Care System in Harlingen would get funding cuts that would mean 49,000 fewer prescriptions would be offered and 6,000 fewer procedures performed.

If these sound like good ideas to you, ideas that will actually save money in the long run, then you should be voting for Rick Perry. If you think that maybe, just maybe, it’s a better idea to find enough funds to prevent some or all of these cuts from being made, then you should be voting for Bill White. The choice is clear.

The next Wal-Mart public meeting

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker
Cordially invites you to attend
A 2nd public meeting regarding the Koehler Street Development

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice
4701 Dickson Street
Houston, TX 77007

You are cordially invited to attend a 2nd public meeting regarding the Koehler Street Development, also referred to as the possible Walmart project. I want to provide residents another opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns about traffic, drainage, noise, crime and lighting issues. This meeting will focus solely on areas of the development that are under the city’s control. Only city representatives will be present.

Free parking is available in the school parking lot located on Dickson Street.

For additional information, contact Cecilia Ortiz, Mayor’s Citizens Assistance Office, at [email protected] or call 832.393.0955 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              832.393.0955      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday, September 1 at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.


Annise Parker

Mark your calendars. For more information about this week’s meeting, see Nonsequiteuse, who took photos of the city and Wal-Mart slides that were presented, and who has another suggestion for Ainbinder and Wal-Mart.

Angelika Theater closes


“After 13 years of continued service to the Houston community, the Angelika’s lease has been terminated by the Angelika’s landlord….”

No word yet as to whether the Angelika, one of a global group of affiliated theaters, will reopen outside of the Bayou Place location downtown.

As one commenter said, “Houston, a city of 5+ million, only has 1 independent/alternative theater now?” That’s just wrong. Hey, if the Alamo Drafthouse doesn’t move into the Alabama Theater, maybe the Angelika can. Can’t hurt to ask about it, that’s all I know. CultureMap has more.

Cause of fire that destroyed voting machines still not determined

I sure hope it’s not arson. Lord knows, though, there’s a million conspiracy theories you could spin if it turns out it was.

Houston’s fire marshal’s office hasn’t made a ruling on whether Friday’s early-morning fire was accidental or deliberately set, said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, who hopes to hear something on the cause early this week.

“It would break my heart to think someone would do something like this to the election process,” she said, adding that she was unaware of anyone who might have had a motive to burn down the building.

Maybe you don’t have a suspect in mind, but it’s not hard at all to imagine a motive. Everyone knows Bill White will need a strong showing in Harris County to be able to win the Governor’s race. Perhaps someone who doesn’t want him to win decided to do something about it. I’m not saying this is what happened – we don’t even know if the fire was deliberately set or not yet – just that this is what everyone will be thinking if it turns out it was arson. See the comment thread at Political Wire and Burka for examples of this. Believe me, I very much hope this is a tragic accident.

Kaufman said she and the office’s election administrator, John German, are focusing on figuring out where 15 to 30 staff members will report for work, what the county needs to hold the election and how to execute and pay for the plan. The office is exploring whether to borrow machines from counterparts across the state, among other possibilities.

Harris County Commissioners Court will meet in an emergency session Monday to receive the county clerk’s proposed recovery plan.

Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, said Saturday he hasn’t a clue whether the financial needs will be minor or major. County reserve funds may be available for the expense, Stinebaker said.

So, um, does this mean that the county didn’t already have a disaster recovery plan in place? If you’re going to have all of the voting equipment in one place, shouldn’t someone have asked the question “Hey, what do we do if that place burns down”? Speaking as an IT guy, I can tell you that businesses ask these questions, and they make it someone’s job to come up with and test a plan to deal with things like a sudden, catastrophic loss of a data center. Is this really saying that the county had never considered this particular scenario? Because that sure seems like very poor planning to me.

Weekend link dump for August 29

Try to remember a kind of September…

It’s not violating your First Amendment rights if someone tells you to STFU.

Boy, if you can’t trust the World Bikini Sports League, whom can you trust?

Oh, Staten Island, why must you be such an embarrassment?

Now, that’s how you dress for the beach.

Some things are so stupid I can’t even make a snarky comment about them for the link text.

And sometimes, some things are so depressing that snark fails me as well.

Enjoy your retirement, Sweet Lou. And don’t feel like you have to mellow out if you don’t want to.

Where we went wrong with computer security.

Unlike some bloggers, I am not for sale.

What does your WiFi network name say about you?

OK, traffic here isn’t that bad.

I’m not a big Jerome Solomon fan, but when he’s right, he’s right.

No dissenters, please.

Here’s another great argument for letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

Sue, Shirley, sue!

For people who claim to love the Constitution, they sure want to change it a lot.

Windows 95 plus 15. Start me up!

Does Morgan Spurlock know about this?

Where your stimulus dollars went.

Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman comes out, to no one’s surprise but not everyone’s acclaim.

What a real fortune cookie would be like.

I for one will welcome our new nanobot overlords.

The TYC still has problems

Three years after the Texas Youth Commission was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal, there are still major problems at its facilities.

In a formal complaint asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, Texas Appleseed, Advocacy Inc., the Center for Public Representation and the National Center for Youth Law said the commission is unable to ensure the safety of the 1,700 youngsters it incarcerates because of operational flaws, including inadequate staffing, improper restraints and excessive force.

The complaint also alleges that:

• Youths are not being provided proper medical and mental health care and educational programs.

• Youths are improperly restrained to keep them under control, and excessive force has been used on several occasions.

• High numbers of youth-on-youth assaults continue to plague the agency’s lockups in Beaumont and Corsicana — which last year won the dubious distinction in a federal report of having the second-highest sexual assault rate in the country among youth prisons.

“Our recent visits to facilities indicate broader systemic problems that TYC leadership has not resolved,” the complaint states. “These problems are not isolated to specific sites, but exist throughout TYC’s system of lockdown facilities.”

Youth Commission officials said that the safety of its inmates and staff members remains “a top priority” and that they planned to investigate the allegations.

The commission is “taking this letter and the concerns presented in it seriously,” an agency statement said.

You can read the letter here. Governor Perry, of course, thinks everything is just peachy:

Gov. Rick Perry’s office said in a statement that Texas can fix any problems on its own.

“Since 2007, Gov. Perry has passed sweeping reforms to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in the TYC system, and the state will continue to improve the system without the help of the federal government,” the statement said.

But some other folks think maybe it’s time to tear it all down.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, says keeping young offenders in their home communities has proven more successful than any other approach. Most offenders are from urban areas where there are greater professional services available than in small, rural towns that are home to TYC lockups. “They just can’t get a staff … that is competent to provide safety for the children,” Whitmire says of TYC. If he had his druthers, Whitmire says, he would consolidate and shrink TYC facilities and instead put more money into community-based plans that keep youths closer to home. “It’s just dilapidated,” he says. “They need professional help, and [it’s] just not in these facilities.”

When Whitmire first brought up the idea of abolishing or downsizing TYC, [Deborah Fowler, the legal director of Texas Appleseed] was opposed. She was hopeful two years ago that [Cherie] Townsend, TYC’s new executive director, who had three decades in juvenile justice and a track record of successful programs in other states, could save the agency. But after touring the facilities in recent months and talking to inmates, she changed her mind. “I’m certainly open to ideas and thoughts about how to reform TYC short of abolishing it,” Fowler says, “but my primary concern right now is making sure kids in TYC facilities are safe.”

I will be running an interview with Sen. Whitmire next week. This is one of the topics we discussed. Tune in then to hear more about what he thinks about this.

Rick Perry isn’t the only debate ducker out there

Speaking of debates and those who don’t want to have them, meet Greg “I’ll leave the decision about whether or not I participate in a debate to my staff” Abbott. What are these guys afraid of? Is the thought of defending your record in front of an audience that might not include people who already support you that scary? I guess that like Perry Abbott doesn’t want to face a smart, engaged opponent in Barbara Radnofsky who will aggressively challenge him. Much safer to stick to approved talking points about political matters that don’t really have anything to do with his job.

Marmion Dambrino

A little history was made in HISD last week.

For more than 20 years, Marmion Dambrino has spent countless hours impacting students and student-athletes in Houston ISD. On Friday, she reached the district’s top position in athletics.

Houston ISD named Dambrino its newest athletic director on Friday, making her the first female athletic director in the history of the district. She has worked in the district’s athletic department since 2005 and has been its Senior Athletic Program Administrator since 2007 under former athletic director Daryl Wade. Wade left on July 9 to become the director of the Astros’ Urban Youth Academy.

“It’s a dream come true,” Dambrino said. “It’s a true honor for me.”

Dambrino, 49, has been in HISD since 1988 and has served a myriad of roles from coaching to teaching to academic administration. She has coached in Aldine ISD and Houston ISD and has also served as a secondary assistant principal, associate principal and dean of students in HISD.


Dambrino said one of her primary goals is increasing athletics participation in the district as well as continuing to increase the number of scholarships the district’s student-athletes earn annually.

Wade said Dambrino is dedicated to the district.

“She eats and sleeps Houston ISD athletics,” Wade said. “She stays on the job 24-7. I felt all along that she was the best one for the job and I’m proud that the district took this step. She’s going to do what’s best for the district and right for the kids.”

Sounds like she’s a great fit for the job. As the story notes, three area ISDs also have female athletic directors, but Dambrino is the first for HISD. Congratulations!

Saturday video break: RIP, SRV

Twenty years ago yesterday, August 27, 1990, the world lost Stevie Ray Vaughan in a helicopter crash. Here’s a double shot of Stevie to commemorate him and mourn his loss today.

And of course, the greatest public service announcement of all time:

That still gives me goosebumps after all these years. God bless you, Stevie Ray Vaughan. May you rest in peace.

The one-man debate

One way or another, we will have a gubernatorial debate.

The Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman and the state’s other major newspapers will host a gubernatorial debate this fall, even if just one candidate shows up.

The newspapers, along with Austin public television station KLRU, will deliver a letter to Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Bill White today, inviting them to a debate at the KLRU studios on the University of Texas campus Oct. 19.

Perry has said he will not accept debate invitations until White agrees to release his income tax returns from his time as deputy energy secretary in the mid-1990s.

“If only one candidate shows up for the debate, we will discuss issues with him alone for the entire hour,” says the letter, which is signed by the editors of the American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, as well as Bill Stotesbery, the CEO of KLRU.

How should the debate sponsors best represent Rick Perry?

1. Empty chair
2. Cardboard cutout
3. Guy dressed in a chicken suit
4. Other

Leave a comment and let me know.

One more thing:

The sponsors plan to make the debate available to television outlets around the state. But federal regulations limit how much airtime a station can give a particular candidate, which means a one-candidate debate might not be televised.

“It could affect our broadcast plans, but we will be working over the next couple of weeks to define that more clearly,” Stotesbery said.

Newspapers will stream the debate on their websites regardless of how many candidates participate, but television likely would offer a much broader audience.

The sponsors will invite all candidates who register at least 10 percent support in a September poll conducted by the newspapers, meaning minor-party candidates are not likely to participate.

Seems to me if there ever were a time to be more generous to third-party candidates, this would be it. From a purely partisan perspective, I would prefer to see Bill White have the stage to himself for an hour. I don’t see how the organizers of this debate can justify that. If all the editorial boards that called on Perry to act like a grownup and face the voters in public don’t get their wish, there’s no reason not to let the other candidates in instead.

UPDATE: Nick Anderson votes for the cardboard cutout.

Fort Bend LGBT Political Caucus happy hour Monday

As you know, I’m a fan of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and the work they do. I’m pleased to note that Fort Bend County now has a counterpart to that, the Fort Bend LGBT Political Caucus, which you can find on Facebook and Twitter. If you live or work out that way and would like to get to know these folks, they’ve got a social event planned for Monday:

The Fort Bend LGBT Political Caucus will be hosting it’s second happy hour social at The Vineyard Wine Bar and Bistro in Sugar Land Town Center (16135 City Walk) this coming Monday, August 30 at 6PM. We had a fantastic turn out last time, and got to meet lots of new people. Several candidates stopped by and had a chance to mingle with the crowd and answer questions. Candidates and elected officials are always welcome and encouraged to attend, and we are a NON-PARTISAN organization. The Vineyard has graciously offered to once again provide complimentary appetizers for the group, so please be sure to support them as they support us! If you haven’t had a chance to come by and get to know us, now is the perfect time!

They’re still looking to fill a couple of slots on their Board of Directors, so if that interests you, fill out this form and bring it with you.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes everyone had a good first week of school as it brings you the best of the blogs for the week.


Houston Votes responds

Earlier today Houston Votes responded to the accusations lobbed at them by outgoing Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez. First, here’s their press release:

On Tuesday, August 24, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez made reckless and false allegations against Houston Votes in an apparently coordinated, partisan effort to suppress voter registration and to intimidate citizens into not voting. Sadly, this type of shameful tactic has worked all too well in the past. Houston Votes is committed to non-partisan voter registration and helping register the over 600,000 citizens eligible to vote who are not even registered in Harris County.

Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, said, “Those who propagate lies and distortions like those of Mr. Vasquez and his partisan allies are eroding our democracy, and we ask the Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department to immediately investigate and monitor his office and his radical allies.”

Mr. Vasquez’s histrionic complaints are false and defamatory. Houston Votes seeks to register as many Houstonians as are eligible, which Mr. Vasquez unfortunately sees as a “burden” and a threat. Rather than celebrate new registrants, Mr. Vasquez apparently intends to reduce his workload by intimidating people from registering. He and his staff are paid with taxpayer dollars to process voter registration cards. They should do their jobs without complaining or engaging in partisan, political activity.

The recklessness and falseness of Mr. Vasquez’s allegations, combined with his unprofessional and partisan actions, raise serious questions about his political motivations. Houston Votes is asking the Justice Department to investigate voting rights violations by Mr. Vasquez and his office through a political campaign to intimidate voter registration. The Registrar’s Office has a long history of voter suppression. We have reason to believe that his office is continuing its systematic practice of illegally not approving registration applications from eligible citizens despite public outcry and costly litigation.

Mr. Vasquez’s press conference, as part of his official non-partisan duties, was a political circus, with dozens of partisan operatives present. Mr. Vasquez appears to have abused the power of his office by collaborating with the King Street Patriots, a partisan organization that took credit for uncovering the “fraud” alleged against Houston Votes This political organization’s website states “that current political initiatives must be focused on mobilizing the conservative electorate”. It appears that Leo Vasquez openly coordinated with King Street Patriots to further personal political goals and retard the efforts of Houston Votes in registering people. He also appears to have shared legally confidential voter registration data with partisan political third parties, which is unlawful. Both activities warrant a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Here’s their detailed rebuttal to the allegations. The main points they make are that they had been working with Vasquez’s office to ensure they were complying with the law (here’s the letter they wrote to Vasquez and County Attorney Vince Ryan to set up one such meeting back in July); they had taken action every time an irregularity had been pointed out, including firing workers who were not doing things right; they had tried to contact Vasquez prior to his spectacle when they had heard rumors that he was unhappy with them, but he never called them back; and that Vasquez did not provide any corroborating evidence for the claimed numbers of questionable forms. I don’t recall seeing any reports of such corroboration in previous stories about Vasquez’s dog and pony show. Perhaps someone should have pressed him on that. We’ll see what Vasquez and his comrades have to say next. Neil, who was at this conference and another one held by the teabaggers, has more.

Friday random ten: Talk the talk

If you follow this blog for things other than random music, you know that I do a lot of candidate and officeholder interviews around election time. In honor of all that talking, here’s ten songs about talking:

1. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love – Van Halen
2. Girls Talk – Dave Edmunds
3. I Talk To The Wind – King Crimson
4. If Music Could Talk – Steve Wynn
5. May I Have A Talk With You? – Stevie Ray Vaughan
6. National Talk Like A Pirate Day – Lambchop
7. Talk To Me – Southside Johnny and The Asbury Park Jukes
8. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution – Tracy Chapman
9. Talking Myself Down – The Go-Gos
10. Talking Old Soldiers – Bettye Lavette

What’s talking to you on your iPod this week?

I should note here that today is the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I considered doing an SRV Random Ten, but decided instead to honor the occasion in tomorrow’s video break. But I wanted to mention that here so no one thought I’d missed it.

Entire Song List Report: Started with “Lodi”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Finished with “Love Rollercoaster”, by The Ohio Players, song #3113, for a total of 137 tunes this week.

Ripping vinyl report: More old school this week, as I re-committed my four Trinity University Jazz Band albums (one for each year, naturally) to digital. They had been done early on after acquiring the USB turntable, but before the right input volume level had been determined, and before the turntable manufacturer had released a version of their software that automatically separated tunes into tracks. Now I just need to haul the albums over to a Kinkos to scan them in for cover art – the scanner we now have at home can’t handle anything as wide as that.

Elections equipment damaged in fire

Uh oh.

Harris County voting machines were heavily damaged in a 3-alarm fire at warehouse in north Houston early this morning.

The fire broke out about 4:15 a.m. at the county’s election equipment storage facility in the 600 block of Canino near Marnie, which is near the Melrose Park, fire officials said.

Firefighters extinguished the flames at the football-field size warehouse about four hours later.

No injuries were reported.

Voting machines, including eSlate equipment, were stored at the nearly 27,000-square-foot facility, county officials said. They were heavily damaged in the blaze.

County election officials said they expect to talk with neighboring counties to possibly use some of their voting machines in the upcoming election.

This could be very, very bad. County Clerk Beverly Kaufman has sent out a press release saying she will have a briefing to address this today at 11 AM at the 4th Floor Conference Room, Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston. I sure hope the county has a disaster recovery plan for this sort of thing.

UPDATE: County Clerk Kaufman puts a good face on the situation.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman this morning said she is confident of timely, clean elections in November, even as a fire that destroyed the county’s entire inventory of 10,000 electronic voting machines still burned.

Kaufman urged voters to cast their ballots early to help the county cope with a possible shortage of equipment on election day.

“Because I don’t expect to have 10,000 pieces to work with, no matter what we do, I’m sure that we’re going to be putting on a full court press urging people to vote early,” Kaufman said.

Early voting begins in 52 days, so you can bet they’ll both be pushing for people to use it, since it requires fewer machines, and will be scrambling to get enough of them in place for it. According to Hair Balls:

The Secretary of State is helping Kaufman reach out to the 114 other counties in Texas that use the same voting machines as Harris County and she expects to receive many loaners. She is also negotiating replacement equipment from the vendor, though Kaufman did not have specifics at a Friday morning media conference.

I sure hope we can get enough equipment. Best of luck getting it done.

Interview with State Rep. Kristi Thibaut

Rep. Kristi Thibaut

State Rep. Kristi Thibaut is a freshman representing HD133 out in west Harris County. She’s a former legislative aide and was a fundraiser for various organizations before winning election in 2008 in her second attempt. Hers is a true swing district and this will be one of the top races in the county as she faces off against former Rep. Jim Murphy for the third straight election. We talked about that and other things in our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Vasquez throws a bomb at Houston Votes

I guess outgoing Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez wasn’t quite ready to return to obscurity.

Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez accused a nonprofit group of submitting thousands of bogus voter registration applications in recent months in what he said appears to be a campaign to taint the voter rolls.

Vasquez said his office has received thousands of duplicate applications, including cases in which the office has received six applications for the same person. Other irregularities he cited in the more than 25,000 applications submitted by Houston Votes include cases of underage applicants and people who identified themselves as noncitizens.

“The integrity of the voter roll of Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez lobbed these charges at a press conference that was more political rally than anything else, as he packed the place with the sort of people who are convinced that the streets are teeming with illegal voters. You can just imagine them high-fiving and chest-bumping in the background.

The accusations boil down to some number of duplicated registrations, and some number of registrations with invalid data. Seems to me that’s mostly to be expected in a large voter registration drive.

[Texans Together President Fred] Lewis explained that duplicates often happen when people are not sure whether they are registered or cannot remember if they have registered since they last moved.

Lewis said he had continued to try to cooperate with Vasquez, but that the tax collector, who serves as the county’s voter registrar, had not returned his calls in the past week. He said they had been scheduled to meet this morning to discuss Houston Votes applications.

“He is a disgrace,” Lewis said of Vasquez. “We need to have the Justice Department come in and see what Mickey Mouse stuff he and his office are doing to suppress people.”

It’s entirely possible that Texans Together has been sloppier than they should be. Maybe they’re not up to this task; maybe no one is. But to claim nefarious intent is quite a stretch, and I’ll be very surprised if the District Attorney, to whom Vasquez says he’s going to refer this, makes anything of it. I’m never quite sure how these schemes that Vasquez and his buddies dream about are supposed to work. Are all these people who’ve never voted before expected to show up at multiple polling places and hope nobody notices? Assuming that the bogus and duplicated registrations made it past both Vasquez and the Secretary of State, of course. Sure, that sounds bulletproof to me. I’ll bet Pat Lykos can’t wait to bring that before a jury.

I’ve also never quite understood why some people want to make it so hard for others to vote. I grew up believing that the right to vote was precious and what made democracy the best system of government there is. Apparently, that’s now a matter of partisanship. The story notes that much of the Texans Together board is made up of Democrats. Maybe that’s because the type of person who thinks it’s good for more people to vote tends to be Democratic. It’s been made quite clear in recent years that the type of person who wants to see fewer people vote tends to be Republican, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Houston Votes will have a press conference of their own today at 10:30 to formally respond to Vasquez’s allegations. I’ll update this afterward to include what they had to say. In the meantime, go see what Stace, Neil, John, Perry, and Houston Politics have to say.

Public defender’s office approved


A state panel has awarded Harris County a $4.1 million grant to launch a public defender office, which is expected to start taking cases early next year.

The county plans to roll out the office in phases over the next two years to handle appeals, juvenile cases, adult felony trials and mental health cases. The new office will be a pilot project. It will not supplant the existing system in which judges appoint defense lawyers for the indigent. The county will use a hybrid of both approaches.

“This is a major milestone in the history of the criminal justice system in Harris County,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said. A public defender office offers a greater chance at justice for criminal defendants, she said, as well as taxpayer savings in avoided jail costs. Defendants are likely to spend less time in jail awaiting trial and more likely to receive alternatives to jail sentences — such as drug treatment – with the help of specialized defense attorneys, Garcia said. That could reduce a jail population so large that the county houses 1,500 inmates in other counties and in Louisiana.


The county plans to hire a chief public defender by Nov. 1. The chief will hire a team of attorneys expected to begin working cases on Feb. 1.

That’s just great news. It was a hard slog to get here, but get here we did. Kudos to all involved. Here’s a statement from State Sen. Rodney Ellis about this:

“I commend the Task Force on Indigent Defense for approving Harris County’s $4.1 million grant request to establish a public defender office. If implemented and operated correctly, I believe the office will improve representation of indigent defendants, reduce the county’s jail population, and reduce recidivism, as public defender offices have been shown to do in other parts of the state.

“I also commend the hard work of the county officials, judges, and county staff who revised the public defender plan in response to concerns expressed by Houston-area clergy and national advocacy organizations seeking to improve indigent defense. In particular, I would like to thank Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia, co-chairs of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Public Defender’s Office Workgroup; their colleagues on the Commissioners Court; District Court Judge Mike Anderson; and Caprice Cosper, Director of Harris County’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, for their hard work and dedication to improving indigent defense in Harris County.”

Ana Yanez Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who’s doing some guest-blogging at Grits for Breakfast while Scott is off the grid, joins in the celebration, and notes a couple of other good things that happened today for criminal justice, one of which was the Task Force on Indigent Defense voting to forward the final recommendations made by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel. Here are the recommendations, plus statements from Sen. Ellis and State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon for more.

The state of horse racing in Texas

It’s not very bright right now.

The Texas Racing Commission faced a packed house Friday in the enclosed confines of the Founder’s Room at Sam Houston Rack Park. They heard a tale of woe from an industry in rapid decline, a decline precipitated by a close escape of Texas dollars flowing across the Sabine and Red rivers to horse tracks with a racino attached.

You can imagine what they believe the solution to their woes is. Look, I’m not a horse racing enthusiast. The one only time in my life I’ve been to a racetrack was 1988 at Bandera Downs, which was back before you could place a bet on a race. But I sure do remember being told that allowing bets on races would be a financial windfall for the state. It’s primarily because of that that I remain skeptical about the claims now being made by “racino” proponents; that is, proponents of allowing video lottery terminals – slot machines – at racetracks. I do believe that will draw more people to the tracks, but I don’t see how it’s going to make more people interested in horse racing, and because of that I have doubts about its long-term viability. If the races themselves aren’t drawing people in, what’s to keep them from getting drawn away by some other shiny new object later? Anyway, this is an interesting story about something I generally pay little attention to, so check it out. Thanks to Hair Balls for the link.

The Wal-Mart meeting at the GRB

Lots of sound and fury, that’s for sure.

The city is negotiating a deal with the developer of Washington Heights — a proposed Walmart-anchored shopping center near Interstate 10 and Yale – that would reimburse the local builder for as much as $6 million in public infrastructure improvements.

If the agreement is approved, developer Ainbinder Co. would widen and repave streets surrounding the project, refurbish bridges near the site, develop a bike and pedestrian trail along a stretch of Heights Boulevard south of I-10 and improve underground drainage, among other upgrades.

The improvements are expected to ease traffic congestion as well as prime the area for other future developments, the developer said.

The deal being negotiated is part of a program authorized by the state called a 380 agreement. It allows the city to grant or loan local tax revenue for economic development purposes.

Once the project is built and has met certain performance requirements, Ainbinder would be reimbursed by the city from the increased property taxes or sales taxes created by the development.

Many Heights residents have opposed the plan since they learned of it in early July. On Wednesday night, they continued to voice their concerns about a development they feel is incompatible with their neighborhood.

Besides the nature of Wal-Mart itself, the 380 agreement is probably the least popular aspect of this, from what I’ve observed. It’s bad enough that a Wal-Mart is coming in, the sentiment is, it’s even worse that tax dollars will be used to help them. The city’s position is basically that the 380 is one of the few tools they have to get the developer to do something it wouldn’t otherwise do, which is to say make infrastructure improvements. CultureMap summed this up:

During the Q&A, one Heights resident brought up an interesting scenario. What if they city refused to give The Ainbinder Company the grants through the 380 Agreement and the resulting Houston taxpayer money? Would they still build it?

The answer from Michael Ainbinder was, “Yes.” Except, they wouldn’t have to play nice without the 380 Agreement. They wouldn’t have to make any improvements to the drainage, traffic or plant as many promised trees around the lot.

If that’s true, then the choice is over how they build it. I think too many people still have hope they can kill this to contemplate that choice, however.

My question is what happens if there isn’t any appreciable increase in sales taxes after this gets built, and property values decline as residents fear? In other words, what happens if this Wal-Mart location, which you may recall will have two others not far away as well, fails to generate any of the revenue that the city would use to reimburse it for those infrastructure improvements? Can the city be forced to recompense them anyway out of other revenues, or is it just tough luck for Ainbinder? I hope it’s the latter, but I fear it’s the former. Anybody know the answer?

Or maybe there’s a third choice. Nonsequiteuse, who earlier had a brief summary of the meeting, has a suggestion:

Here’s what I propose. The executive from WalMart who spoke touted the company’s philanthropic largesse. I’ve been raising money in Houston since 1993, and have yet to secure a gift from WalMart. I’ve known about others who’ve gotten $200 or $300 gift cards, or a box of some supply or another, but nothing on a grand scale.

Time for WalMart to go big and acknowledge that they don’t need corporate welfare to turn a profit.

I’d like to see WalMart donate the cost of the infrastructure improvements back to the city. In essence, the city would not have to pay for the reimbursement to Ainbinder. The city actually has mechanisms in place to accept a financial donation like this. It could then be earmarked for donations to various projects and nonprofits directly affected by development in the central city.

I suspect we can file that under “When pigs fly”, but it would at least end the griping about “my tax dollars” going to Wal-Mart/Ainbinder for this project. You never get if you don’t ask, that’s for sure. Maybe at the next meeting, which a poster on the Stop Heights Wal-Mart page who was there till the bitter end said there would be (location TBD), someone should bring that up. Swamplot and Hair Balls have more.

UPDATE: Here’s another drawing of the proposed site. And see Mike’s comment for the answer to my question about the 380 agreement.

Judicial Q&A: Al Leal

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

Al Leal, Candidate for Harris County Criminal Court at Law #4. I am a native Houstonian, University of Houston graduate (B.S., Psychology/J.D., Law), Vietnam veteran and former criminal court judge.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court administers misdemeanor criminal cases punishable by confinement up to 1 year in Harris County Jail and/or fines of up to $4000.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this position because I believe my educational background, service as a mental health counselor in Vietnam, and prior experience as a county criminal court judge will enable me effectively and positively impact the lives of those that come before me. I also believe our courts should reflect the diversity of our county, of the 15 county criminal court judges in Harris County only one is a minority.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have over 35 years experience in criminal law, including 12 years serving as judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law #9. Many of the cases that come before a county criminal court involve substance abuse and mental health issues and I feel that my service in Vietnam has given me hands on experience in addressing these issues. I am proud to be able to say that I was ranked well-qualified 3 to 1 over my opponent in a 2010 Houston Bar Association poll. I have also been endorsed by diverse groups of fellow attorneys, including the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston, the Houston Lawyers Association and the Pasadena Bar Association. Other endorsements include the GLBT Political Caucus and the Harris County AFL-CIO Council.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because many offenders coming before a county criminal court are in the criminal justice system for the first time. A county criminal court judge has the unique opportunity to literally turn someone’s life around, particularly our youth. The decisions made on the county criminal court level can prevent individuals from becoming career criminals, financial burdens to taxpayers and a danger to our public safety.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I ask the voters in Harris County to vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate in the race. I possess over 35 years criminal legal experience, including 15 years of judicial experience. My military service, providing mental health counseling in Vietnam, will allow me to better address the mental health and substance abuse issues that come before me every day in Harris County Criminal Court #4. My professional experience, combined with my military service and commitment to community service, uniquely qualifies me for this position. If I am elected, the residents of Harris County will be getting a judge who will be ready to serve on day one, bringing experience, diversity and a willingness to make a positive impact on those who come before me in Harris County Criminal Court #4.

Metro’s cash crunch

From last week, a story about how times are tough at Metro.

Facing a $49 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has begun to slow construction on two light rail lines and may embrace more drastic measures in the coming months as uncertainty grows over a $800 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

Senior Metro officials emphasized that they did not anticipate any cuts to services due to the financial pressures and expressed confidence the FTA grant needed to pay for an estimated 30 miles of additional rail in Houston is forthcoming. But they nevertheless have begun to weigh the impact of continued delays on construction plans that anticipated completion in 2013.

“There’s going to be some tough choices that we’ll be making here, no doubt,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

So far, officials said, the work that has been put off has been minimal on the North line, which is expected to run from north Houston to the Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park. Metro has delayed road reconstruction work on Fulton Street and has put off awarding a contract for the expansion and construction of a rail facility on Fannin at the south end of the line near Reliant Park and the 610 Loop.

All things considered, this could be worse. I directed some questions at Metro about this and another story (more on that in a minute), and one of the things I got back was this statement from Metro’s Raequel Roberts:

It’s important to clarify the financial report given in [this] board meeting.

In actuality, METRO does not have a cash shortfall.

METRO began FY 2010 with $136 million in its fund balance and had originally projected ending the year with $68 million. Current projections show that balance coming in at $87 million, which is a $49 million reduction from the beginning balance.

This represents far more than the 15 percent of its operating budget that METRO keeps in its fund – or “rainy day” – balance.

Of critical note to our customers, this means there will be no service reduction or fare increase.

In other words, this isn’t any different than what the city of Houston has done the past two years, and what the state will almost surely do next year. Obviously, you can’t keep this up forever, but the whole reason to have a reserve fund is to cushion the bump during hard times. According to Metro’s Chief Financial Officer Louise Richman, with whom I had the chance to speak earlier this week, sales tax collections were higher than what they had projected for this year, so the trends are in the right direction. In addition, the work that Metro had been doing on the North and Southeast lines that they will be suspending is work that is supposed to be paid for by the FTA funds they’re waiting for. Metro was basically fronting itself the cash to get started on this work in anticipation of getting the funds later, but as it is taking longer than expected they’ll have to wait. Put all that together, and assuming the FTA funds come through in a still somewhat timely fashion, and things look a lot better.

Of course, there was also an Examiner story from last week about Metro’s investment portfolio, which could affect its ability to get those funds:

The decline in unrestricted cash could spell problems for Metro beyond the obvious ones.

As a condition of receiving funding as part the Federal Transit Authority’s New Starts program, which includes the already-under-construction North and Southeast lines, an applicant must receive at least a “medium” accumulated rating based on five categories.

One of the categories, “current operating financial condition” requires a liquidity ratio (cash, accounts receivable and nonrestricted investment portfolio vs. current liabilities) of at least 1-to-1 to avoid receiving a “low” rating for that category.

Based on the June 2010 unaudited report, Metro’s rating for 2009 appeared to be about 0.79-to-1, having fallen from 1.55-to-1 in 2007 to 1.03-to-1 in 2008, according to Metro financial reports for those years.

The main reason why I contacted Metro to ask about this stuff was because I didn’t see a comment from them in the story. There’s an updated version now in which CFO Richman discusses the cash balance, and the liquidity ratio is corrected to be 0.86 to 1 instead of 0.79, but the main question I had was whether or not this particular metric meant disqualification for the New Start funds, and they said no, it does not. CFO Richman also reiterated what Metro CEO George Greanias said in that updated story, that the “quick ratio” isn’t the only metric used, and she went into some more detail about how liquidity can be determined. I was not in a position to be able to take notes while she was speaking to me, and I’m not quite able to reconstruct it all from my memory, but the gist of it was that they strive to make conservative calculations that still leave them above the 1-to-1 mark, that they make these calculations both with and without certain federal funds and required expenditures, and that they feel confident that they are still meeting the FTA guidelines. The bottom line for me was that I asked if what was reported in this Examiner story was a cause for concern regarding the FTA funds they’re waiting for, and they said no, it was not. So there you have it.

Bad building design

I have two questions about this story, which is about the poor design of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center downtown.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos calls the building at 1201 Franklin “the most poorly designed criminal justice center in the United States of America.”

The main problem, courthouse users say, is that too many people try to use too few elevators starting about 8:30 every weekday morning. The building opened in 2000 and the problem has existed since day one.

Possible solutions may be on the way, county officials said last week. Those include smarter docketing, renovating the first floor and spending millions to install four new elevators.


The root of the problem seems to be that planners did not understand that defendants out on bail, defense lawyers and prosecutors constantly move between floors using the elevators.

The four stairwells, secreted behind heavy wooden doors in each corner of the building, are seldom used.

Defendants sometimes have to go between three different floors to check in, pay fees and go to court. Hundreds of defense lawyers and prosecutors float around the building’s 11 floors of courtrooms all morning.

1. How is it that the “planners” did not foresee these problems when the building was being designed? Did they not understand how the system worked? I suppose perhaps something about the way things worked may have changed between the design phase and the grand opening, but if so the story doesn’t say. Or did they make bad assumptions, such as that people in an unfamiliar building would seek out the stairways instead of waiting for the elevators that are right in front of them?

2. How exactly is it that it’s taken ten years for these issues to be addressed? I understand that building new elevators is not a project that is undertaken lightly, but most of the other fixes are administrative in nature. What took them so long?

Murray Newman, who commented on this story before it went online, also wrote about this issue back in May, suggesting that scheduling changes could help a lot:

Why do Harris County Criminal Courts at law make all people on bond come to court every 2-3 weeks? Why don’t the courts give the defendant’s lawyers enough time to investigate the case and then come back to court when they are ready to do something on the case, like plead or go to trial?

This is completely unnecessary and a monumental waste of time for lawyers, defendants (people who have real lives and real jobs yet people who are being forced to take off work for almost a full day while their case is pending, people who are “presumed” at this point to be innocent). Why can’t Harris County follow proper manners and etiquette and extend a little professional courtesy to the people charged with an offense and the lawyers representing them and allow the parties to appear at mandatory court dates less frequently?

In Galveston County, they actually let you come to court about once every 6 months so you can actually have time to work on your case. Montgomery County will give you a 3 month reset. Fort Bend and Brazoria also show the same courtesy. Harris County, however, will make a person come to court about 5 times in a 3 month period.

Why does Harris County do this?

There’s also an interesting comment from one of the aforementioned planners, which suggests they did see this coming but were disregarded. Well, at least now I know.

Commuter rail along US 90A

Here’s an update on a piece of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum that has been largely quiescent till now, the proposed commuter rail line from the Fannin South station to Fort Bend County.

Though efforts soon stalled after a 2003 referendum in which voters approved a light rail expansion, the project has seen renewed political support, in particular from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who has been working closely with Fort Bend mayors to revive the project, and U.S. Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who have thrown their weight behind congressional efforts to secure the needed funding.

The 90A rail project is anticipated to cost $250 million, with the hope that half of that amount will be funded by the federal government. Officials are reluctant to give an estimated completion date due to the uncertainty of federal funding, which is typically a long process. Adding to that challenge is the state of the U.S. economy.

“The question is when will the federal money be available, and how quickly can we do it after that? said George Greanias, Metro’s recently-appointed acting president and CEO. “The moment the federal funds come in, we will move forward into construction as fast as we can.”

Greanias also reaffirmed Metro’s support for the project.

“We’re very committed to this,” he said. “We think it’s an essential part of building a network of rail.”

The planned four-stop, 8-mile rail would extend from the city’s existing Main Street Line to a terminus in Missouri City, with stops at Fannin South, Buffalo Center, Chimney Rock and Missouri City. The ride would be 30 minutes start-to-finish, and connect many of Texas Medical Center’s employees who live in Missouri City to their work.

Metro expects initial ridership for the line to be 12,000; with that population expanding to 23,000 by 2030. The train cars would likely be the same Siemens cars used by Metro’s existing rail lines, with the capacity to run 65 miles per hour, Grenais said.

Additionally, Sugar Land, which has voiced concerns in the past of how a rail would affect traffic flow in their neighborhoods, recently passed a city council resolution supporting Metro’s 90A rail proposal to extend the rail from Main Street to Beltway 8, with the caveat that “support … does not necessarily constitute support for extensions of commuter rail further west to Sugar Land.”

Link via neoHouston, who analyzes the proposed route and suggests an alternative, which goes right into Sugar Land. He’s not the first person to come to the conclusion that extending such a line into the population center of Fort Bend, which has a regional airport and will soon have a baseball stadium, makes all kinds of sense. Christof Spieler, now a Metro board member, came to the same conclusion back in 2008. He was critiquing the original 2004 H-GAC study that drew up a 15-mile line into Rosenberg, but the same idea holds true: Put the line where the people are. Seems so easy when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it’s more complicated than that. As neoHouston notes, Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend, which is why this proposed line ends at Beltway 8. Support out there is steadily increasing, but it’s still early days. And of course there’s the money issue. Rep. Green has moved the ball forward, and with help from his Democratic colleagues but no interference from Tom DeLay, there’s reason to hope. Maybe if Sugar Land sees that this is really coming, they’ll begin to want to be a part of it. We can hope, anyway.

DeLay “headed to trial”

After day one of the pretrial hearings, Tom DeLay will get his trial, and he’ll go before his co-defendants.

Motions to dismiss the charges against the former Sugar Land-area representative on the grounds of misconduct by prosecutors remained pending late Tuesday, but visiting District Judge Pat Priest made clear that he likely would rule against dismissal. Priest then sealed the courtroom to hear arguments over secret grand jury proceedings leading up to DeLay’s indictment in 2005. The hearing is expected to continue today.

“The defense is standing in a very deep hole with a very short stick, but I don’t want to preclude them from presenting their case,” Priest said.

When DeLay and his attorney, Dick DeGuerin, of Houston, exited the courtroom they indicated they felt certain the case would go to trial. DeGuerin said it is only a question of “when and where.” DeLay is trying to have the trial moved to Fort Bend County.

In a major victory for DeLay, Priest ruled against a request by Travis County prosecutors that they be allowed to take two other defendants in the case to trial before DeLay. Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, who managed the political committee at the center of the controversy, have not been seeking a speedy trial, but DeLay has.

“We need to try Mr. DeLay first because he’s the one who has been wanting a trial,” Priest said. “There’s such a thing as a speedy trial and five years later it’s time he gets it.”

I suspect the reason for wanting to try Ellis and Colyandro first is more about optics than legal strategy. Convict them, and it ratchets up the pressure on DeLay. If they get acquitted, you can bet your mortgage that the charges against DeLay will be dismissed. Doing it the other way around, Ellis and Colyandro might see their charges dropped if DeLay prevails, even if the evidence against them is stronger. This case has always been about DeLay.

As for the change of venue motion, I don’t have any strong feelings about that. Frankly, I think enough time has passed that it shouldn’t be too hard to find a jury who isn’t familiar with the case, or its main actors, in any county. Tom DeLay just isn’t that notorious any more. Moving the trial to San Antonio or Waco would be fine by me. I note with amusement this poll that claims 40% of Travis County residents believe DeLay is guilty as charged. Putting aside the question of how many randomly sampled people believe any high-profile criminal defendant is “guilty” (my guess is that 40% isn’t far off the mark), it also says that 16% think he’s not guilty, while the rest don’t know or have no opinion. Given that the population of Travis County is a bit more than a million, reducing that by 15% to account for the foreign-born, reducing again by 24% to account for minors, the 44% of “don’t know/no opinion” people represent about 290,000 adult citizens. I’m guessing you could get a fair jury from that pool.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

District Judge Pat Priest said the U.S. Constitution requires a case to be tried where the crime occurred unless there is unusual prejudice against the defendant. Priest said he believes the former Sugar Land-area representative can be protected in the jury selection process.

“We can give Mr. DeLay a fair trial in Travis County,” he said.

Priest said he would not close off DeLay’s attorneys from raising the issue again if it proves impossible to pick an impartial jury. He set a tentative trial date of Oct. 26, a week before this year’s elections.

Something else to look forward to this year. Anyway, DeLay has sworn vengeance on the Travis County DA’s office after he wins his case. Mighty big talk for a guy who’s basically a nobody nowadays, but I guess having the spotlight back on him for a few days has given DeLay a bit of his old swagger back. And I couldn’t write all of this stuff about the man formerly known as The Hammer without acknowledging Juanita.

More on the red light camera Council vote

The fuller version of the Chron story addresses the question about whether the petition drive was lawful or not according to the city’s charter.

“It is your absolute sworn duty to place this on the ballot,” [Mayor Annise] Parker told council.

Several camera supporters on council disagreed, saying the proposal was “illegal” because it circumvented rules in the city charter that dictate that efforts to overturn city ordinances through referendum must be concluded within 30 days of a law taking effect. Since the red light camera ordinance was passed in 2004, some council members said, the petition was too late.

“Items like this don’t belong in the city charter,” said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who led the fight against the amendment. “Otherwise, we would be like California. … Anything we vote on at this table could be overturned by petition.”

[City Attorney David] Feldman, who forcefully argued that it was council members’ “mandatory ministerial duty” to put the amendment on the November ballot, acknowledged that the city charter does hold referendum proponents to the 30-day time limit. State law, however, has no such provision. He argued that state law would trump the charter in this case.

Clearly, that will be one of the issues for a judge to rule on, if and when someone files suit to stop the referendum. I want to also call your attention to this comment by JJMB from my previous entry that clarifies things further:

The City Charter itself has both a “referendum” section and an “initiative” section. The Kuboshes have avoided both of those procedures. “Initiative and referendum” are the way that voters have reacted to specific laws for hundreds of years. The hurdles are higher — react within 30 days and get 10% the highest Mayor election turnout in the last 3 years for referendum, or no time limit but 15% for an initiative. Notwithstanding the news reports, I believe that the initiative route has also been suggested as the way this should go — maybe not by KHS, but by some council members and lawyers.

I believe one could be a stickler and say that the 30 day process is the only way to go to rescind an ordinance that the representative body already put in place. But I read Kuffner’s prior post, and I’m willing to let the Kuboshes proceed with the initiative process, even though literally — and for 200 years — that is used to put a new ordinance in place without the representative body.

But it seems that the Kuboshes don’t want to go either of the way that the City voters — who put the City Charter in place — have established as the correct path.

Instead, the Kuboshes use state law to amend the charter itself. So along with “governance” type sections about whether the Mayor is strong or weak, how many councilmembers, term limits, voting procedures, etc., they want to add a specific red light camera rule. This is not the historical use of “referendum.”

But the 15% path is what … 40,000 signatures? So the Kuboshes took the easier 20,000 signature route.

Actually, by my calculation based on 181,000 votes cast in the last Mayoral election, it’s a bit more than 27,000 signatures. I’m unsure as a result of checking that figure where the 21,000-and-change figure for getting on the ballot this year came from, but if that was the standard, then a 15% threshold would be 31,500. Either one is more than the total that the Kuboshes submitted.

Anyway, JJMB’s comment clears up my confusion from that earlier post. I only quoted from section 3 of the city charter, entitled “Referendum”. I had skipped over section 2, entitled “Initiative”, because of this language:

The initiative shall be exercised in the following manner:

(a) Petition. A petition signed and verified in the manner and form required for recall petition in Article VI-a by qualified electors equal to fifteen per cent. of the total vote cast at the Democratic Primary for the nomination of Mayor and Commissioners, next preceding the filing of said petition, accompanied by the proposed legislation or measure in the form of a proposed ordinance or resolution, and requesting that such ordinance or resolution be submitted to a vote of the people, if not passed by the Council, shall be filed with the Secretary.

I saw the word “recall” and assumed it was specifically about recall elections, so I didn’t read this all the way through. Given that this mechanism exists, I take back my comments about the 30-day window being too restrictive. If this is the requirement for an effort outside of that time frame, then it’s clear that the Kuboshes have fallen short of the signature total needed, and it would seem that a state judge would be likely to toss this off the ballot. But again, until someone actually sues and a judge actually rules, it’s on.

One more thing:

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones questioned why council members did not put up a similar fight against another charter amendment proposal backed by powerful engineers that asks voters to tax themselves for an $8 billion program to shore up the city’s infrastructure and fix flooding problems.

“I just want us to be consistent,” Jones said.

The difference here is that the Kubosh effort is aiming at overturning an existing Council-enacted law, while the Renew Houston effort is not. At least, that’s how I perceive it. But I take CM Jones’ point.