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January 3rd, 2012:

Lykos v Anderson

I obviously don’t have a dog in the Republican District Attorney primary fight, but I like a good high-profile political battle as much as the next junkie, so stories about it are interesting to me.

[DA Pat] Lykos argues she is a reformer with three years of improvements under her belt while Mike Anderson, a popular 30-year veteran of the courthouse, is trying to convince voters the machine used to be better run.

“A prosecutor needs to run that office,” said Anderson, who was an assistant Harris County district attorney for 16 years before spending 12 years as a felony criminal court judge.

“It’s an enormous undertaking for anybody,” Anderson said. “It would be very hard for anybody who has never been a prosecutor and never tried a case as a prosecutor to run that office.”

Lykos scoffs at the criticism. She insists that her experience as a former police officer and a former judge lets her put together the big pieces of the criminal justice puzzle.

“We cannot go backwards. Those days are gone,” Lykos said. “We have to work smart, we have to be tough and always fair.”

Like I said, I have no dog in this fight, but at the risk of making Murray Newman‘s head explode, I do think Lykos has been an improvement over Chuck Rosenthal. Might Kelly Siegler have been a similar improvement over Rosenthal? Maybe, though I felt strongly at the time that bringing about change necessarily required a genuine housecleaning. From a crassly political perspective, I preferred to have our candidate C.O. Bradford run against Rosenthal’s top lieutenant than against some outsider. Maybe Mike Anderson would be an improvement over Lykos – maybe the Rosenthal problem was the man himself more than anything else, so that any change would have been sufficient – I have no idea. What I know is that Rosenthal was a clown and an embarrassment, and Lykos, whatever else you may say about her, has not been.

“She is someone who Republican women, who are the heart and soul of the Republican party in Harris County, would die for,” said Harris County GOP chairman Jared Woodfill. “She has earned their respect.”

Woodfill heartily endorsed Lykos.

“She came in to that office at some challenging times and has done a great job,” Woodfill said. “Pat has a very successful record, and the last thing we need is a big primary fight at the top of the ticket.”

I marvel at this, because Democrats would openly revolt if our party chair picked a side in a primary between two candidates of good standing. I can see the merit of Woodfill’s position, though I disagree about the merits of a big primary fight, but we do our business differently, and I prefer it that way.

Republicans will have to decide between the two in April, but there won’t be any confusion about where either stands.

Anderson has attacked Lykos for DIVERT, a program she created that allows the equivalent of deferred adjudication for first offense DWIs, and her “trace case” policy, which lessened penalties for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine or crack pipes.

Lykos says the trace case policy has lowered the jail population by 1,000 inmates and freed up resources for more severe crimes.

As you know, I agree with Lykos on this. That causes some conflict for me when I think about this politically. On the one hand, I’d rather see Anderson win because I like my opponents to be wrong about important things. On the other hand, I’d rather see Lykos win because we’re all better off when bad ideas get rejected. So yeah, I’ll be staying neutral.

Fix those leaks

We lost a lot of water this year, which seems like an especially undesirable thing during a record drought.

At the peak of this year’s record drought, the city of Houston lost more than 18 billion gallons of water through a system that was leaking like a sieve, amounting to tens of millions of dollars wasted in potential revenue.

The largest losses occurred in September and October, when more than 9 billion gallons — about one-fourth of all the water produced during those two months — leaked from a system riddled by countless pipe breaks, according to recently released city records.

“Water is a valuable resource, and we’re blowing it right and left,” said Katie Molina, general manager of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston. “We have to ask why we have so many leaks. Is it all drought-related, or did we let our infrastructure fall into such a state of disrepair that it is now coming back to haunt us?”

There’s some dispute in the story over how much this represented in lost revenue to the city, but I’m less interested in that as I am in how much it represented in lost capacity. The city is looking at tapping into new sources of water to help meet future demand driven by population growth. I’d like to know what the growth curve looks like if we lost a minimal amount of water to leakage, instead of the 18% we apparently lost over the course of the year. Granted, this was surely a worse year than usual for water main breaks, but the point is that we plan our capacity based on peak needs, and higher loss levels factor into that. How much capacity will we really need to add if we take steps to ensure we actually get all that we pump? That’s a question for which I’d like to see a more definitive answer.

Who watches the bounce houses?

As the father of two young children, I’ve been to many places that had bounce houses, from outfits like Pump It Up to back yards with a rented inflatable. As such, this story about the way such things are regulated was fascinating to me.

The Texas Department of Insurance is legally responsible for keeping an eye on what in the industry are known as continuous airflow inflatables — and by millions of birthday party guests as bouncy houses and jumpolines.

Yet legislators didn’t give the agency much enforcement authority. So its oversight can seem underwhelming. The typical penalty for operators who consistently refuse to comply with state rules requiring that they carry liability insurance and get each of their units inspected once a year is a series of strongly worded letters under department letterhead. For especially egregious cases, the law says the attorney general’s office can issue an injunction, though it never has.

Occasionally, the Insurance Department directs complaints to local police, who, according to the law, can cite scofflaws for violations. Word has not spread widely, however.

“I’ve never heard of that,” said Detective John Foster, a Williamson County sheriff’s spokesman. “Never.”

[…]

Without an enforcement provision, the state law is essentially an honor system supported by snitches. The Insurance Department has no field inspectors, so the typical way it learns that a company is in business is when it registers with the department.

“If a new operator came into the state and started up (without registering), we wouldn’t know,” [TDI spokesman Jerry] Hagins said. Notices of violators “usually come from whistle-blowers” — furious compliant operators.

Because the department has no authority to levy or collect fines, its response is limited to registered letters. It has sent about 600 in the past two years. If the offending company still doesn’t comply, the department fires off another, more strongly worded letter.

The missives have spurred resolution of 136 cases, with the companies agreeing to follow the rules or notifying the agency that they are closing up shop. Yet because the agency has no formal follow-up, it’s unclear how successful the enforcement effort has been.

“We’ve had some companies just change their names,” Hagins said. “So we start over again. It’s a moving target.” Meanwhile, the agency lists 480 cases as still unresolved.

For operators who don’t respond to the first strongly worded letter, Hagins said the Insurance Department copies local police on subsequent warnings.

“We don’t hear back from the police very often,” he said.

Sending a letter that says “Stop, or I’ll send you another letter telling you to stop” doesn’t seem like a particularly vigorous enforcement mechanism, but I doubt there will be anything else unless and until someone gets seriously hurt or worse. Until such time, it’s probably not a bad idea to ask the business owner if they’re registered with the Insurance Department, and keeping your own eye on things.

One can ban backer will face recall

The can ban battle in New Braunfels is not over yet.

New Braunfels city councilman Bryan Miranda, who supported a hotly debated container ban on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers, will face a recall election in May after voters signed a petition seeking to oust him from office.

[…]

Miranda did not return phone messages Wednesday. He told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper, which first reported the news about the successful recall petition, that it was an attempt to circumvent the will of the people.

Supporters in New Braunfels approved the container ban in November with 58 percent of the vote.

“The efforts of a few individuals to divide our town and disrupt the democratic process is discouraging to say the least,” Miranda told the newspaper.

In the paperwork they turned in Tuesday, petition organizers accused Miranda of “incompetence and misconduct.” They needed 150 signatures and turned in 279. Of that total, city officials verified 215 signatures, said Danny Batts, deputy city secretary.

Batts said the recall election would be held May 12.

When the recall supporters failed to get enough signatures to take a crack out ousting NB Mayor Gail Pospisil, I thought that was the end of it for now, but clearly not. I have no idea why the deadlines were different for each of these; you have to be a subscriber to the Herald-Zeitung to see its contents online, so that’s no help. Anyway, one more election result to watch for in May.