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April 4th, 2012:

Interview with James Cargas

James Cargas

We come now to the three-way race for the nomination in CD07. The first candidate in this diverse primary is James Cargas. Cargas is an attorney with a background in environmental and energy law who has done two stints in the Clinton Administration in the White House and the Department of Energy. He has also worked for the US Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and as an advisor to the City of Houston on energy matters under Mayors White and Parker. He serves on the board of various energy-related associations and is a founding member of the Oil Patch Democrats. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Homeless feeding ordinance, take three

Mayor Parker does a third revision of the controversial proposed ordinance about feeding the homeless.

Parker has whittled an original proposal that would have set rules on preparation, storage and server training down to a plan that mandates only that groups get written permission from the owner of the property to serve meals there. If the property is a city park, the rule still would apply, with permission granted or denied by the city parks director.

Councilman James Rodriguez, whose District I includes downtown, said that although the proposed rules have been scaled back, “We need to start somewhere.” A long-term strategy to alleviate homelessness also will have to include more money for mental health services and long-term housing, he said.

Several of the city’s largest homeless services groups, such as Star of Hope, support the plan. Several smaller charitable groups still oppose the new rules and have distributed T-shirts to homeless people downtown that bear Parker’s smiling visage and the words “The homeless can still eat in public, but now you have to ask me for permission.”

“Anybody that wants to share food anywhere has to have written permission,” said Nick Cooper of Food Not Bombs, which serves meals four times a week in the plaza of the Central Library and has submitted a substitute ordinance seeking a commitment from the city to provide more trash cans and public bathrooms downtown.

According to City Attorney David Feldman, the new ordinance is needed because current laws have “proven ineffective in preventing the sanitation problems that accrue at popular feeding sites” and because as things stand now “the onus is on the property owner to confront and report trespassers”. Stace calls this a “better explanation of a bad idea”. I don’t think it’s an adequate explanation, and as such I can’t say if it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Are there any examples the city can provide of property owners who were bothered by trespassers and couldn’t get the cops to do anything about it for whatever the reason? Putting it another way, is there someone who can testify that this proposed ordinance would help them? We’ve heard quite a bit from those who say that each version of this ordinance would hurt them, and they make a statement that is both powerful and un-answered. When we were talking about food safety and litter, there was at least an intuitive reason for this ordinance. I don’t feel like I have that any more. Who is this ordinance for?

I posed those questions to the Mayor’s office via email, and am awaiting an answer. I don’t know why that information wasn’t front and center from the beginning, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. I do have these two documents from the Mayor’s office with background information about the ordinance and a report on Charitable Food Service prepared by Marilyn Brown, President and CEO of Coalition of the Homeless Houston and Harris County; I also emailed my questions about the ordinance to her. That document summarized four focus groups done with different audiences that have a stake in this discussion – current and former homeless individuals; downtown businesses and management districts; faith-based and volunteer organizations that feed the homeless; and other service providers who also provide food. It’s pretty informal but has some interesting data nonetheless. Neither document answers my question, but they tell me a lot more than I knew before. We’ll see where this goes from here.

Still waiting on the new density rules

With all that went on last year in Houston, one item that had been on the table was a revision of Chapter 42, to redefine the rules about density and other codes for developers. The planned revisions never made it to Council for a vote, and the city is starting over with a new cast on Council to get this going again.

Developers and city officials say the first major revisions since 1999 to the city’s density rules, known as Chapter 42, are necessary to accommodate the next wave of Houston’s growth. U-Haul recently announced that Houston is the No. 1 destination in the country for movers for the third straight year.

Projections are for Houston’s population to grow by more than 27,000 people a year in coming decades.

Without rule changes, they will not find affordable places to live in Houston, Mayor Annise Parker warned.

“We have to continue to find ways to preserve a range of housing opportunities for our residents. We don’t want to become a city where if you have lots of money to spend you can find a place to live and if you have very little money to spend you (don’t) have good housing stock available,” Parker said.

The heart of the Chapter 42 amendments is taking the cap of 27 houses per acre that exists inside the Loop and extending it out to the Beltway. That would allow many more houses to be built than currently allowed on typical 5,000-square-foot lots.

“We’re not getting new single-family residential being built from 610 to the Beltway,” said Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for developers. “We’re losing a lot of our population to the county and to the surrounding cities.” That means longer commutes and fewer city property tax revenues.

Increased density means cheaper houses because developers can fit more of them on the same piece of land. Depending on the location and the type of dwelling, the new rules could knock $100,000 off the sales price, Sanders said.

This story is more a recap than a report of something new, so I don’t have anything new to add as well. I will simply note again that there’s more empty, or at least greatly underdeveloped, space in Houston than you probably think. I’ve gone on at length about the Fifth Ward, but recent travels around the city doing interviews have reminded me of other areas that are as wide open, in places like Sunnyside and Hiram Clarke. My point is that the city of Houston already has a lot of room to accommodate that projected growth and more. Some of it absolutely needs to be in the form of more dense development, but some of it also needs to be taking advantage of this existing space. What both of these have in common is a need for improved infrastructure to make them viable and desirable. If we don’t solve these problems, we’re going to lose out to the places that have solved them.

Again with judicial elections

Here we go again.

Texas is one of seven states that holds partisan elections for judges, a practice that one watchdog group says can lead to conflicts of interest.

“We have a judiciary at the highest level, the Texas Supreme Court, that gets 40 to 50 percent of its campaign money from the very people who are practicing before that court,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a follow-the-money political watchdog.

He thinks a fix is pretty easy: Move to an appointed judiciary. And he’s not alone. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Wallace said as much in his State of the Judiciary speech before the Legislature in 2011.

“A justice system built on some notion of Democratic judging or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Wallace told lawmakers.

He argued that appointing the judiciary would keep judges from bending to political winds.

“I would eliminate straight-ticket voting that allows judges to be swept from the bench, not for poor work, not for bad ethics, not for bad temperament, not even for controversial but courageous decisions — but purely because of party affiliation,” he said.

McDonald said the biggest problem with party affiliation is that it can draw judges into the same ideological battles fought by candidates seeking legislative office.

“Our judges act as if they’re politicians,” he said. “They run on partisan ballots, they raise money, they get elected on partisan ballots. They’re more politicians then they are judges in many respects.”

I’ve said this multiple times, so I’ll try to keep this brief. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that you can de-politicize the process of selecting judges. If you go to a gubernatorial appointment system, it means that judicial wannabees will spend their time sucking up to whoever is Governor. Under this Governor, that would mean every judge would be a federal-government-hating Republican. Even with a more even-handed Governor, if the appointment system comes along with “nonpartisan” retention elections, do you really believe that players like Texans for Lawsuit Reform will sit idly by? Of course they won’t. About the only difference I can see is that fewer people would be casting the ballots. How exactly is this an improvement?

I’m not saying the current system we have is best, just that every time another one of these stories about how appointing judges would lead to a golden era of puppies and sunshine appears no one ever bothers to bring these points up. To me, this debate is roughly equivalent to the debate over term limits. Both are presented as solutions to the problem of how money influences elections, but to me they’re at best workarounds and at worst admissions of defeat. If the problem is with the influence of money on elections, then the solution is to reform how elections are financed. How we get there in the era of Citizens United is, I freely admit, a daunting challenge. Maybe a kludgey workaround is the best approximation of a solution we can achieve. If that’s the case, then let’s at least be honest about it.