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October 14th, 2010:

Email counts, too

I have one thing to say about this.

City officials involved in negotiating a tax reimbursement deal with the developer of a controversial Walmart-anchored retail project near Washington Avenue made dismissive, and sometimes derisive, references to citizens opposed to the development, according to e-mails released to the Houston Chronicle.

For example, in response to a subordinate’s e-mail regarding potential fallout from a July 2 Chronicle report about Wal-Mart’s interest in the site, the city’s chief development officer, Andy Icken, wrote, “In that neighborhood I assume there are some who feel they have access to unique info that makes those folks uniquely qualified to decide what is good for everyone else. … Walmart deals with folks like this everywhere.”

Three weeks later, as neighborhood opposition intensified, Icken responded to a colleague’s comment about Wal-Mart’s growth in the Houston market by writing, “We have had 4 new ones built in the last 2 years without a community comment until they touched the effete in the heights!”

[…]

Councilman Ed Gonzalez, whose District H includes the area in which the Walmart is planned, also was discussed by staff in the e-mails.

As opposition to the project from community groups grew in late July, Icken asked Deputy Finance Director Tim Douglass, the city’s lead negotiator on the 380 agreement, to describe Gonzalez’s stance.

Douglass replied, “Ed is getting a little squishy. Says he’s getting bombarded with complaints. … Ed needs a little hand holding from MAP (Mayor Annise Parker) … he feels like he’s carrying the load on this.”

[…]

Icken said city officials met numerous times with community leaders to address their concerns, including two large meetings called by Parker. Those meetings better represent the city than remarks made in e-mails, he said.

“E-mails just have a way of capturing a thought at the moment, and I think I would simply say that the actions we took in terms of meeting with people and meeting with the community at large best speak to the overall attitude the city had,” Icken said. “And, obviously, in the end, the decision on whether that agreement was passed is one made by City Council and not by staff.”

Hey, Andy and Tim, I just sent an email to all of my effete neighbors saying that you’re a couple of jerks who are clearly too immature to be allowed to interact with the public. But don’t worry, that was just a thought captured at that moment. I’m sure it won’t affect your perception of the overall attitude we have about how the city handled this situation. Swamplot, Campos, and Nonsequiteuse have more.

Endorsement watch: DMN for BAR

I have to admit, I was not expecting to see any Democrats for statewide non-judicial offices endorsed other than Bill White and Jeff Weems, but I am delighted to see this.

[A]fter eight years of [Attorney General Greg] Abbott, Texas can go no farther down this path.

Democratic challenger Barbara Ann Radnofsky offers a viable alternative. She’s a smart, hard-nosed attorney who rightly suggests that the incumbent has done a poor job of picking battles.

Radnofsky, 54, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Now, as then, she sometimes struggles to strike the right tone on the campaign trail as she aggressively argues her case. But she also immerses herself in legal issues, devouring details and offering informed proposals.

[…]

In this race, though, Radnofsky earns our recommendation. She’s well prepared for the job and would back off from battles the state can’t win – and shouldn’t be fighting. Voters should not give Abbott another four years to tilt at Washington’s windmills.

In the endorsements I’ve seen in other papers of Abbott, they’re generally complimentary towards Radnofsky and have been critical of Abbott for his windmill-tilting, as the DMN puts it. It just hasn’t been enough to push them away from the incumbent. Not so for the DMN, apparently, and good for them for taking a stand on it rather than hoping for something hopeless to happen.

Judicial Q&A: Juanita Jackson Barner

(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?

My name is Juanita Jackson Barner. I am a criminal defense attorney with over 12 years experience. I am running for Harris County Criminal Court #9.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

County Criminal Courts of Law hear Class B and A misdemeanors, which includes such offenses as driving with license invalid, burglary of a motor vehicle, assault, animal cruelty, driving while intoxicated, and unlawful possession of a firearm, just to name a few.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

County Court #9 has consistently wasted taxpayers dollars by handing out unnecessarily harsh jail sentences for minor non-violent offenses. The court’s policy of setting specific punishments for particular offenses creates a “one size fits all” system which does not take into consideration the individual case specifics and facts. Judges should treat each case individually and judge it on it’s individual merits. In 2004, County Court #9 became the first court to no longer allow defendants to make payment agreements on their court costs. Instead, Court #9 requires all defendants to pay all court costs and fines in full before final sentencing or the judge will increase the sentence to an additional 10 days in jail. Such a policy creates further hardship and punishment for the defendant and their family. Essentially it criminalizes poverty and potentially creates a greater economic burden on our already overcrowded county jail system. Our courts should not be designed so that poor people have different outcomes than those with money.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Prior to becoming an attorney, I had a successful career in higher education administration which allowed me to develop strong administrative, fiscal and supervisory skills. After obtaining my law degree, I began my legal career as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Texas recovering funds on behalf of Texas citizens that had been defrauded by unscrupulous businesses. A few years later, I began my own law practice specifically to provide affordable legal services to low and moderate income people. I began as a plaintiff attorney, but after realizing the need, I decided to dedicate my practice criminal law. To date, I have handled over 950 criminal cases in Harris and surrounding counties. I am in Harris County courts daily and have experience in every criminal court in the county.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because it is time to stop the madness in our county courts. Throwing people in jail for minor non-violent crimes is simply not working. Every year our jails are more and more overcrowded with young people, non-violent offenders and the mentally-ill. The system that has been in place over the last 16 years has done nothing but create a greater burden on our county tax dollars.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

As someone who was raised here in Houston, I understand the needs of the citizens of Harris County. I care about the people of Harris County because this is where my home and my heart is. I am highly committed to making our county safer for everyone. I strongly believe that criminals should be accountable for their actions. However, I also realize that simply being tough on crime and throwing people in jail is not enough. I will develop programs and alternatives to educate young offenders and deter crime in our communities. Furthermore, I know there are innocent people that walk into the courtroom every day, and quite often many of our current judges have forgotten that fact. I understand the real meaning of justice. Once elected, I will treat every accused person with respect and dignity. County Court #9 will be a level and just playing field. I will require law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys to follow the law. Finally, sometimes even decent hard-working people get accused and can’t afford an attorney. I believe justice should not be about money. People should not have to decide between housing or food in order to have good legal representation. Our courts should not be designed so that poor people have different outcomes than those with money.

One person can make a difference and I am the one that will start the step in the right direction.

Chisum running for Speaker

We may have ourselves another Speaker’s race this January.

State Rep. Warren Chisum is delivering a letter to colleagues today saying he will run for House speaker next year, challenging Speaker Joe Straus, his fellow Republican.

He says the speaker should be elected from the majority of his own party. It was mostly Democrats who gave Straus the initial support he needed to become speaker in 2009.

“The times demand a strong and decisive leader,” Chisum says in his letter to colleagues. “The Texas House has enjoyed strong, experienced leadership under Speakers Laney and Craddick, who were fully supported by majorities of their respective political parties. Sadly, recent history has shown us that when a chamber’s leadership does not enjoy majority support from his own party mixed with good support from the opposition party, his leadership is weak and ineffective. As a candidate for Speaker of the House, I will give Republicans and Democrats an opportunity to decide whether the Texas House wants to lead this session, or whether it doesn’t.”

[…]

Assuming that Republicans maintain a House majority, beating Straus won’t be easy. He still has support from many Democrats and Republicans, and has used his considerable campaign account to help a number of Republicans in their races this year.

Chisum’s letter can be found on QR. On general principles, I’d rather have Straus than Chisum, but it seems to me that since neither one can be elected without significant Democratic support, this would be an excellent time for the Democratic caucus leaders to put together a little wish list of things they’d like to get from a Speaker, and see what happens. (As Trail Blazers reminds us, wacko Leo Berman is also running; it goes without saying that no sane Democrat should come within fifty miles of Berman.) It can’t hurt, and you never know. It will also be interesting to see what folks like Sylvester Turner and other former Craddick Ds decide to do. I don’t really expect Chisum to win, but he can certainly cause some trouble, and Dems may as well put themselves in position to benefit from that if they can.

Endorsement watch: Sweep

A clean sweep of the big five for Jeff Weems.

Weems, 52, who has worked in the oil and gas industry onshore and offshore, is bright, aggressive and attentive, with a keen knowledge of the various aspects of the business as well as an in-depth and fresh understanding of the commission’s duties.

It is hard to believe anyone could surpass his awareness and interpretation of the statutes governing responsibilities of the commission. He clearly realizes that a commissioner has a responsibility to the consumer, the environment and the industry that he is charged with regulating.

Weems wants the commission to better enforce its existing regulations, including those regarding air quality; order more inspections of well sites; address the issue of plugging the huge number of old abandoned wells; require companies to reveal a list of chemicals — to be kept confidential by the commission — used in “fracking”; and be more prudent in assessing rate requests.

Weems has a wealth of other ideas for making the commission function more effectively and efficiently.

[…]

The Star-Telegram recommends Jeff Weems for the Texas Railroad Commission.

Weems also got the nod from the Amarillo Globe-News (thanks to PDiddie for the catch). If it were about qualifications, this race wouldn’t be close. I just hope enough people read these things to make a difference.

Story on Texas’ “dropout factories”

Last month I blogged about this Washington Monthly story about colleges with extremely low graduation rates. Here’s a Star-Telegram article about that, which contains some reaction from a couple of the Texas schools named in the original piece.

One factor holding down graduation rates is the changing makeup of college students. Once, most lived at four-year schools. But a growing trend is first-generation college students from working-class families who help support relatives while taking classes.

That’s a factor at Sul Ross, President Ricardo Maestas said.

Many Sul Ross students take longer than six years to graduate because they have to balance school with work, he said. The Alpine-based university of 2,124 students offers rural communities in 19 counties near Big Bend programs in education, agriculture and animal science. Sul Ross is the only viable higher education option for many students between El Paso and San Antonio, Maestas said.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover or by one data point,” he said. “Yes, we have some problems we have to solve.”

[…]

Maestas said officials at Sul Ross are trying to find out why more students don’t finish. They are also taking a new look at recruiting efforts; students from large cities may not be the right fit for a rural school, he said. Every year, the university loses about half of the entering class, in part because some 84 percent are working students and 53 percent are low income.

It’s at least possible that if the study conducted by the Washington Monthly had used an eight year deadline for graduation, Sul Ross might have fared better, though I doubt it would make that much of a difference. If they really are trying to figure out where their problems are and to take concrete steps to address them, that’s the main thing. Remember, though, that the schools Sul Ross was compared to for this story were schools with a similar profile; in other words, other schools with a high percentage of low income, working students. There’s plenty they can learn from the schools that have better graduation rates.

Michael Dressman, interim provost at UT-Downtown, said that while the ranking shows that improvement is needed, it doesn’t present a complete story. The school is open-admission and serves largely students who also work.

“It’s a kick in our morale,” Dressman said. “We know that we are doing a good job. We are trying to do a better job every year.”

He said his school is being judged on the staying power of a sliver of students — there are 1,000 first-time freshmen in a total enrollment of 12,900.

“I say, judge us by our graduates,” he said. “We rank 33rd in the country in the number of Hispanics graduating with bachelor’s degrees. Many of them took 10 or 12 years to get it, but they graduated.” Dressman said one successful alum is state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.

That’s a pretty non-responsive answer. Again, UH-Downtown, like Sul Ross, was judged in comparison to peer institutions, not to the UTs and A&Ms of the world. That includes a lot of open admission, majority minority, schools that serve working students. If those schools can graduate 50% or more of their students, so can UH-D. What’s their plan to do better? Their current and future students have a right to know that.