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October 7th, 2010:

HISD versus Prop 1

This would be a tough obstacle to overcome.

HISD Board President Greg Meyers on Wednesday raised the specter of teacher layoffs if the school system is forced to pay an estimated $2.5 million to $3.5 million a year in drainage fees under Mayor Annise Parker’s plan to implement the ballot initiative should voters approve it in November.

“There are some high emotions against this measure from several board members,” Meyers said. “I can’t speak for every one of my colleagues, but I do know there are concerns.”

Meyers said the new fee — which he called a tax — would put the Houston Independent School District in a financial pinch.

“While we understand the benefits of reduced flooding, we also have to look at the complete impact that it’s going to have on us educating our kids,” Meyers said. “If you start looking at the impact, about 70 teachers will have to potentially be laid off.”

The cost to the school district represents less than 1 percent of its $1.6 billion operating budget.

“We don’t feel one taxing entity should tax another taxing entity,” Meyers added.

I can understand that argument, but schools are affected by flooding, too. What would HISD do about this if Prop 1 fails? Is doing nothing acceptable to them? That’s what I’d like to know.

As for the claim about “potentially” laying off teachers as a result of this, that sounds like a negotiating tactic designed to force Mayor Parker and Council to reconsider its no-exceptions stance. Indeed, in the end, the HISD board voted unanimously to ask for an exemption on the fee. I generally believe that there’s always a way for a deal to be struck, but I have the feeling that the Mayor is going to hold the line on this, as to do otherwise would open a large can of worms. Which means that attempting to defeat Prop 1 may be HISD’s only recourse. It’s not clear to me what that might mean in practice, but it did draw a sharp response from the Vote For Prop 1 campaign. From their press release:

The Vote FOR Prop 1 Campaign regrets to learn that the Houston Independent School District is taking a position against the best interests of our city, taxpayers, and most importantly our children.

HISD should do a more responsible job of managing taxpayer funds before laying off teachers and opposing a fiscally responsible plan to keep its students safe.

In short, HISD should cut the waste, not the teachers.


The full release is beneath the fold. In the “Timing is everything” department, I note this Hair Balls item:

Several months ago, Houston ISD superintendent Terry Grier delivered dread news to an aghast school board: HISD was short by $37 million (actually it was originally set at $39 million for a couple days) in its bond fund projects money.

Almost immediately, some people well acquainted with the district’s finances engaged in some heavy-duty head scratching. Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett couldn’t figure out where this sudden deficit had come from and gave it a tougher look.

Well, today, Grier announced he was “Pleased, but a bit embarrassed to announce that instead of a $37 million shortfall, the district has a $73 million surplus.”

According to Garrett, HISD has historically kept its bond-projects money in three pockets: change orders, so-called “owner’s contingency” or project contingency funds and budgeted reserves and contingency for inflation.

When one person in the bond office decided to review the funding, his ensuing report was “in error” because he didn’t know about all the reserved funds, Garrett said.

[…]

Trustee Anna Eastman warned Grier that the under budget/over budget news means: “We’ve got some work to do to rebuild the trust of the public.” Larry Marshall pressed the point later with Grier, asking if he “got it?”

Grier acknowledged he did.

Oops. Good news, but still: Oops. Martha, who doesn’t care for the Prop 1 attack on the HISD board, has more.

UPDATE: John isn’t happy, either.

UPDATE: Stace disagrees with Martha and John.

(more…)

Endorsement watch: Civil district courts

I suppose I was too quick with the kudos for the Chron on their endorsement schedule. They still haven’t endorsed in the Lite Guv and AG races, in any Congressional or state Legislative race, or in any county races, not to mention most of the zillions of judicial races. They take a small step on that latter score today with ten Civil District Court endorsements, split evenly between the Rs and Ds. For the Democrats:

55th Civil District Court: Dion Ramos, the Democratic incumbent, was elected to this bench to fill an unexpired term in 2008.

113th Civil District Court: Christina Bryan, a Democrat, is a Harvard Law graduate who would bring 18 years of civil litigation experience to this bench.

234th Civil District Court: Tanner Garth, a Democrat, is the challenger for the 234th bench.

269th Civil District Court: Katie Kennedy, a Democrat, has 16 years’ experience on the civil court bench and 23 years in private practice.

281st Civil District Court: Donna Roth, a Democrat, would bring both life and professional experience and passion to this bench.

You can read these candidates’ Q&As here:

Ramos
Bryan
Garth (note: from the primary)
Kennedy
Roth

Q&As for Democratic candidates who didn’t get endorsed:

Shawn Thierry, 157th Court.
Ursula Hall, 189th Court.
Olan Boudreaux, 190th Court.
Bob Thomas, 270th Court.
Paul Simon, 295th Court.

Note that Hall and Thomas’ responses are from the primary – I have updated responses from Hall that will be published later – while the rest are from the general. You can see Q&As for the Republican candidates at Big Jolly Politics.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Kathy Stone

(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 Judge Kathy Stone and I am running for reelection as Judge of Harris County Probate Court # 1. In November of 2008, I was the first woman elected Judge of any Harris County Probate Court by the highest margin of any candidate or incumbent in a county or district judicial election. I have twenty years of judicial experience. I was twice elected to the 55th Civil District Court serving from 1991 to 1998. I continued presiding over cases for the next 10 years as Senior Judge Sitting by Assignment in the Civil, Criminal and Family District Courts, County Courts-at-Law, and Justice Courts in Harris and surrounding counties.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Most people know that families go to Probate Court after a loved one dies to prove that a will is valid and have someone appointed who is responsible for collecting and distributing that person’s belongings according to his or her wishes. The Probate Court does much more than that. Probate Courts help families get a guardian appointed for a loved one who is unable to care for himself or herself. A guardian may be children of an aging parent who is struggling with Alzheimer’s or a guardian may be a parent seeking legal responsibility for a child who is developmentally challenged and becoming an adult. In addition to helping families take care of a loved one, the Probate Court has the same authority as a District Civil Court to hear lawsuits concerning a deceased person’s estate or guardianship matters, as well as any issue concerning a trust. Some of the most complex wrongful death and/or personal injury cases are tried in Probate Courts.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I was elected to this bench in 2008. I am especially qualified for this particular bench because I can utilize my many years of private practice and two decades of judicial experience to be decisive on the many different legal issues that must be resolved in probate. I also enjoy the many people that I assist in going through the probate process—which can be a stressful time. I love being able to make this part of the process as stress free and easy as possible. Because of some of the particular human issues that accompany probate proceedings, it is very rewarding to me to be a part of the judicial system that can help people every day.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In addition to my two decades of judicial experience, I have more than 30 years legal experience. I graduated from South Texas College of Law in 1979. As a student, I was Assistant Editor of the Law Journal and competed in moot court. I am Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law and a Certified Mediator and Arbitrator. I am uniquely qualified to handle every aspect of the probate bench from previously practicing probate law to being able to utilize my board certification in Personal Injury Trial Law and years of judicial experience to allow me to streamline and dispose of complex litigation.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because Probate Court is the one court that will touch everyone’s life in Harris County at one time or another. Every segment of Harris County society appears in this court, all races and nationalities, all socio-economic groups, all religions, creeds and orientations. It is very important that we have a judge on this sensitive bench who will treat all who appear before them with dignity and respect. I feel that I am the best candidate to do that.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have made many positive changes at Harris County Probate Court #1 in the short two years that I have presided over the bench. I have created free continuing legal education courses that are held at the court. The attorneys who take these courses volunteer to provide free legal services in Harris County guardianship cases. Without my pro bono programs, those legal fees would otherwise be paid with taxpayer money. My program has already saved Harris County taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Additionally, I am offering training to non-attorney members of the community who serve as guardians so they can better serve their loved ones under guardianship. This service also saves them legal fees as they are aware of their duties and do not need to call upon their retained counsel as often. I have instituted an online docketing system so attorneys can set their hearing more efficiently at their convenience. Also I have streamlined the dockets to move them more quickly and cleared the backlog of litigation that was in the court. I am very excited to have another four years to continue improving this court’s service to the community.

Disclosure for thee, but not for me

You don’t need to know.

Gov. Rick Perry said [Monday] that he wouldn’t release documents revealing investors in recipients of Texas Emerging Technology Fund recipients.

[…]

The governor’s office is told of investors in the tech fund applicants, a staffer has said. But Perry’s office has refused to release those documents — a stance he reiterated on Tuesday.

“The issue is there are private sector monies and private sector projects and things that are not to be made public because they’re proprietary information,” Perry said. “Or there’s private information that a private sector company is not going to make public because they want to protect that information.”

The issue of Bill White’s tax returns from the 1990s when he wasn’t an elected official is such a matter of principle for Rick Perry that he’ll chicken out of boycott debates. But information about public funds that he’s been dishing out to his cronies is totally off limits. Sure thing.

If you’re just tuning in to this, here is a great summary of the issue, while BOR has a roundup of coverage links and a statement by defense attorney Dick DeGuerin suggesting that it’s time for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office to get involved.

Another lawsuit relating to voter registration in Harris County

As we know, the TDP is suing the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office (again) over allegations that they are still not properly handling voter registrations. That suit followed the ugly accusations Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez and his radical buddies the King Street Patriots made against Houston Votes. Turns out that Houston Votes president Fred Lewis has also filed a lawsuit stemming from that.

A few weeks after [the TDP filed its suit], on Sept. 24, Lewis sued True The Vote. He claims that the group blatantly lied when it said most of its registrations had been rejected, and that the “vacant lot” registrations had been made in 2008 and 2009 — before Houston Votes was founded and when those lots still had homes on them.

“Plaintiffs believe that these are only a small part of the Defendants’ lies that have defamed and libeled Plaintiffs. In addition, Defendants have conspired with others to spread these and other lies,” the suit reads.

According to the lawsuit, [True The Vote president Catherine] Engelbrecht said — at an August meeting which featured DOJ whistleblower J. Christian Adams — that the Houston Votes headquarters is “the Texas office of the New Black Panthers.” In a video on Engelbrecht’s King Street Patriots’ web site, you can see her refer to a building as the “New Black Panthers’ office,” to gasps from the audience. She then mentions that people around the building wear T-shirts that look “suspiciously” like Houston Votes T-shirts.

The Trib has more on this:

The suit arises from comments [Engelbrecht] made at an Aug. 9 True the Vote meeting that linked Houston Votes to the New Black Panthers, a radical black separatist group known for the inflammatory statements of its leaders. The meeting featured a speech from Christian Adams, the Department of Justice lawyer who resigned in June to protest a decision by his higher-ups to drop an investigation into whether the Panthers intimidated Philadelphia voters during the 2008 presidential elections. While introducing Adams, Engelbrecht showed an undated clip of an unidentified black man in dreadlocks on speaking on Fox News, saying, “We have to exterminate white people off the face of this planet to solve this problem.” After playing the clip, Engelbrecht said, “Houston has a new neighbor; the New Black Panthers have opened up an office.” Then she showed an image of the Houston Votes office, saying: “That looks mysteriously like the T-shirt that the Houston Vote group wears.”

The Liberty Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that litigates First Amendment claims, is representing Engelbrecht and the Patriots in the defamation suit. Jeff Mateer, the Institute’s general counsel, declined comment on Engelbrecht’s behalf but said they’ll file an answer to Lewis’ complaint by Oct. 25. In a separate conversation, the Institute’s executive director, Hiram Sasser, called the suit “an effort to intimidate citizens to exercise their rights to free speech and the government,” adding that the Constitution provides broad protection to citizens who engage in political speech.

George says there’s a difference between Engelbrecht’s “known falsehoods” and protected political speech. “The complaining of one side that the other is a genocidal criminal is well beyond the pale of what we allow in America,” he says, noting that citizens can “talk about public matters in any way they want to, but they cannot make up lies.”

You can see the video in question at the Trib link. I have no idea what will happen with the suit, though I welcome any opinions from actual lawyers about it. What I do know is that in a real sense, Vasquez and Engelbrecht and that lot have already won:

Meanwhile, on Oct. 4 — the deadline for registering to vote for the November election — Houston Votes 2010 was well below its goal of adding 100,000 new voters to the rolls. “We had registered around 29,000 as of Vasquez’s press conference, when we lost substantial canvassers, funding, and volunteers,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “I do not have the final number from the database managers, but I believe we registered over 35,000 people.”

Houston Votes brought some problems on itself, and it may be that no one group can register 100,000 people in a place like Harris County in that short a time frame. It’s still a great shame that they ran into such fierce resistance for the act of trying to get people involved in our democracy. Fear is too powerful a force, I guess. Juanita and Glenn Smith have more.

Overview of the Land Commissioner race

You may never have seen a race quite like the 2010 race for Texas Land Commissioner.

Meet Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican, and Democrat Hector Uribe, who offers some mild policy disagreements over the job Patterson has done over two terms.

Both demonstrate good humor and so much friendly feeling that Patterson has invited Uribe to fly with him to campaign events in the small, single-engine World War II surveillance plane the land commissioner pilots.

“You reach a point in your life when you’ve got nothing to prove by denigrating somebody else,” Patterson said of the friendly, sometimes funny campaign the two former state senators are conducting for the land commissioner’s job.

Both got small acting roles in the 2004 “Alamo” movie, both were born in 1946, and both lost their 87-year-old mothers this year. Uribe represented Brownsville and South Texas in the Senate from 1981 to 1990; Patterson represented part of the Houston area in 1993-99.

Running a nasty, negative campaign is “just not who I am,” Uribe said.

The two candidates recently sat down in Patterson’s office to discuss the campaign. Uribe assured Patterson’s office receptionists they could keep their jobs after he wins the Nov. 2 election.

He then proceeded to measure the drapes and Patterson’s desk.

“You’re as funny as a fart in the front pew,” Patterson told Uribe as he jokingly grabbed one of several guns he keeps in the office.

You saw my interview with Hector Uribe yesterday. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Commissioner Patterson a couple of times over the past few years, all having to do with the Kenedy Ranch wind farms issue. I have plenty of policy disagreements with him, but I think he’s been a good advocate for renewable energy, and I’ve said so before in this space. As I noted before, Patterson is admirably willing to show up and defend his record anywhere, any time; in this election season, given the behavior of all of his statewide colleagues, that’s so refreshing it’s downright quaint. I want to see Hector Uribe win this election because his views and priorities are more closely aligned with mine, not to mention that it sure would be nice to have a(nother) Democrat on the Legislative Redistricting Board. But especially in a year where it seems like just about every Republican candidate out there has lost his or her mind, I appreciate the fact that my only real beef with Patterson is over boring, wonky policy matters. I wish a lot more elections were like that.

DA investigating CM Johnson

Oops.

Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson’s office pressured city officials to certify a security firm as a minority-owned business to win a lucrative subcontract for the company, which later gave a 40 percent ownership stake to a close Johnson associate, according to e-mails and documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

The contract and the councilman’s dealings are under investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which last month issued a subpoena to the city seeking information about allegations of “inappropriate contact” between Elite Protective Services and City Council members and potential violations of the city’s ethics policies.

The councilman’s associate, Michael R. Harris, helped arrange for the company, Elite Protective Services, to become a subcontractor for a firm that in 2009 won the city’s two main security jobs worth more than $66 million, according to e-mails obtained by the Chronicle and a lawsuit he filed against the company. Elite Protective Services’ interest in the two contracts is $8.9 million.

Elite officials say they had no knowledge until recently that Johnson or his staff were advocating on their behalf and that they obtained work as subcontractors without the help of Harris, whom the city hired in 2009 as a lobbyist in Austin. They alleged in a countersuit that Harris “continuously stated that a particular City Council member would push to get Elite the subcontract with the city of Houston.”

More on that here. I don’t really have anything to add to this, I just hate to see it happening. Well, that and it’s clearly a good thing CM Johnson didn’t win his primary challenge against Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee this March, as the Democrats have enough trouble to deal with.