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April 18th, 2013:

How you can help West, TX


A massive explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, Wednesday night, sending scores of injured to area hospitals, sparking fires and triggering evacuations.


— “It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

— Some 10 to 15 buildings have been “totally demolished” and “probably 50 homes (were) heavily damaged,” said George Smith, community emergency medical services director.

— The fertilizer plant was near an apartment complex and a nursing home, authorities said.

— Some people might be trapped in collapsed buildings, Smith said.

— “I expect there’s going to be many fatalities and many more injured people,” he added.

If you live in the area, you can go to the Capitol Area Blood Bank of Central Texas to give blood. You can also make a contribution to the American Red Cross Heart of Texas or the American Red Cross of Central Texas. Visit either of their Facebook pages – Heart of Texas, Central Texas – for up to date information and more ways to help. Here’s a West, TX people search and news page. There’s lots you can do, so please do something to help.

Should Travis County DA Lehmberg resign?

Perspectives on that are colored by politics right now.

Rosemary Lehmberg

While Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg sought to put her weekend drunken driving arrest behind her, debate over her political future reached the State Capitol on Monday, where lawmakers weighed in on whether she should resign and how a replacement might be chosen.

Some officials pointed to an obscure provision in state law that allows a district attorney to be removed from office for being drunk. The provision also says that a single county resident could start such a removal.

If Lehmberg, a Democrat, were to resign or be removed from office, Republican Gov. Rick Perry would appoint a replacement who would be subject to confirmation by the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Chapter 87 of the state’s Local Government Code lists among the “general grounds for removal” of a district attorney and other county officials “intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.”

Under that law, a removal petition could be filed by anyone who has lived in Travis County for six months and is “not currently under indictment” for a crime here. The petition would be filed with a district judge, and a trial would be held on the charge — with a jury to determine the official’s fate, according to the law.

While there was no indication Monday that such a petition was being contemplated, an unofficial online petition to Gov. Rick Perry seeking Lehmberg’s removal was gathering signatures at The petition by “Beth S” in Cedar Park said Lehmberg, as a result of her arrest, “is not a person to lead this county in delivering justice.”

That petition has now been filed, though Lehmberg has said that she has no intention of resigning. She has also said that she will not contest the charges against her and will accept whatever punishment she receives, which will depend in part on the result of her blood alcohol test, which is still pending. If her BAC was less than 0.15, she will be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, for which the maximum sentence is a $2000 fine and six months in jail. More than that is a Class A, for which the max is a $4000 fine and a year in the pokey.

I’m curious about two things. One is how often District Attorneys get into legal trouble of their own, and how often they resign as a result. Surely Lehmberg isn’t the first DA in Texas to be arrested for drunk driving. What are the precedents here? We in Harris County saw Chuck Rosenthal resign in 2008, though that was a far different situation than Lehmberg’s, not least of which was that the pressure on Rosenthal came largely from his fellow Republicans, who correctly saw him as a major liability for them heading into that fall’s election. How often have DAs been arrested for something, and how often have DAs resigned for whatever the reason? It would be nice to know so we could have some context to evaluate Lehmberg’s case.

Also, while the max sentences Lehmberg can receive include jail time, it seems highly unlikely to me that a first time offender such as she will see the inside of a jail cell. What is the typical range of punishment for a first time DUI offense, in Travis County and across the state? I’m hardly an expert on this, but if you made me guess I’d assume that things like a fine, probation, alcohol counseling, and a suspension of her license would be in the mix, but not jail time. Those of you who do know more about this, please speak up in the comments. Does one’s perception of Lehmberg’s position change if that’s the actual punishment she’s likely to face? If she were County Attorney or Tax Assessor or some other office – I’m sorry, but that obscure law about drunk DAs needs to stay obscure – would that change your perception? These are the things I’d like to hear more about.

Finally, on the matter of the petition to remove Lehmberg, BOR has a good analysis of what it means and what the procedures are, as well as a copy of the petition itself. It’s not quite as straightforward as news reports have made it sound. Interestingly, there’s a connection between the law being cited to remove Lehmberg and the attempt by the HCDE to oust Michael Wolfe. Which didn’t work, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, if nothing else this has the potential to be some entertaining political theater, so keep an eye on it.

Mattress Mack’s Uptown rant

There’s a lot missing from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s screed in the Sunday op-ed pages.

When you get right down to it, the recent announcement that the Uptown Houston Management District wants to spend $177.5 million to “redesign and widen” Post Oak Boulevard and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through the heart of the Galleria area tells you everything you need to know.

What does it say?

It tells you that here in the fourth-largest city in America, our Metropolitan Transit Authority is so tarnished by corruption and scandal, so riddled with $1.3 billion in debt, and generally so ineffective that they now must rely on a local taxing district to do their job.

So one “rogue” organization, as Mayor Annise Parker referred to Metro back when she was running for office, is passing the baton of an incredibly expensive and very ineffective transportation program to an even less transparent organization – the Uptown District.

Folks, this is not progress. It’s government at its worst.

First, if the Uptown District wants Metro to provide bus service up and down Post Oak, they could do that right now without spending an additional dime. But this isn’t about buses.

It’s about paving the way for light rail and helping the contractors and developers who live off city contracts and make generous campaign contributions.

I wish I could quote the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece of unfocused anger, buzzwords, and vague accusations. It could easily have been a transcript from a talk radio segment. But let’s discuss some of the things that aren’t in this piece.

First, McIngvale’s antipathy to the Uptown Line goes back at least three years, when he and some other Galleria-area businesses, aided by one of the anti-rail-on-Richmond agitators, threw a fit about a design for the Uptown Line that had come to light a few months before. It’s curious that he spends as much time as he does raging about Metro and Mayor Parker and Washington, DC (?!?) since the main driver of the BRT effort, as well as the earlier Uptown Line design, is the Uptown Management District. Management districts are government-created entities, and there are certainly issues about the powers being granted to these unelected bodies, but all that escapes Mack’s wrath.

Second, Mack misses the point about bus service in the Galleria area. The idea here is to provide a dedicated right of way to the BRT buses, as is the case elsewhere with light rail and would be/would have been the case with the Uptown Line, so that they are not stuck in the awful traffic that currently snarls mobility in the region. A lot of people live and work in Uptown, and of course a lot of other people come into Uptown to shop or do business. Some number of the trips they take during the say is from one Uptown destination to another. Ideally, the Uptown BRT line would provide a viable alternative to them to driving from point A to point B, which in turn would help un-snarl things a little more. A BRT line could make such a trip quicker than driving, factoring in walking and waiting on the one hand and navigating a parking structure on the other. A bus line using the same streets as your car cannot.

Third, remember that part of the Uptown plan includes tying the Uptown district into Metro’s park and ride system, which Mack never mentions in his jeremiad. While it’s not clear (at least to me) how this will be done, it should be obvious why this is a good thing. Having the BRT line in place so that one isn’t stranded during the say will make using the park and ride service that much more attractive. Add bike sharing to the mix, and you can make non-car transit into and out of the Uptown area, and around it for those who live there, viable in a way that it just isn’t right now. How can this not help with mobility?

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, the voters did approve the Metro 2012 Solutions plan, which included a light rail line in Uptown, back in 2003. We’re not going to get exactly that with the Uptown BRT line, though we may yet someday, but as is so often the case with opposition to this and to the University Line, those expressing that opposition simply ignore that electoral result. This is the vision people voted for. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be blamed on Metro and some of which cannot, that vision still isn’t and may never be completely fulfilled. But that vote mattered, and the default direction should towards its fulfillment, not away from it.

Senate committee to take up interim maps bill

From Texas Redistricting:

The Texas Senate’s state affairs committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday, April 18, at 2 p.m. (or upon adjournment) to consider SB 1524 – State Sen. Kel Seliger’s bill to adopt the court-drawn interim maps as permanent.

As drafted, the bill would apply to all three maps that are currently in litigation (state house, state senate, congressional).

As of this time, the House redistricting committee still has not scheduled a hearing on the companion bill filed by State Rep. Drew Darby (or any hearings for that matter).

Here’s SB1524. These are the interim maps, and the Abbott strategy that has puzzled me so. There’s no remaining argument over the Senate map, so making that one permanent should cause no grief, but the House and Congressional maps remain in dispute and could be modified further by the San Antonio court even if Section 5 is thrown out, given the DC Court’s finding of discrimination in them. Be that as it may, I don’t expect the process to be as contentious as it usually is, on the grounds that everyone in the Legislature was elected under these maps, in most cases by comfortable margins. As one of the Trib’s insiders notes, the incumbents all like the existing maps. So we’ll see how this goes, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a lack of fireworks. Having said all that, I completely agree with the Express News.

Here’s a better idea: Take to heart the federal court decision that denied preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and then craft maps that give minority voters a shot at the representation their numbers merit. Failing that, the San Antonio federal judges will have to craft better maps.

The best move in any case would be to ultimately remove the responsibility for redistricting from the Legislature, whose members will always be more concerned with re-election and party dominance than drawing maps fairly.

Clearly, the attorney general is hoping — not without reason — for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case to gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states with histories of discrimination to get changes to voting and election law precleared. Texas is appealing the lower court’s refusal to grant preclearance to the state’s maps.

But even if Abbott gets his desired ruling, that doesn’t mean the retrogression and discrimination didn’t happen. It will simply mean states such as Texas can get away with its shenanigans until — or only if — they are challenged under a different section of the Act, a much more difficult task for challengers.

Lawmakers should reject Abbott’s recommendation.

I’m not going to hold my breath for any of that. For a much more detailed look at the continuing dispute over the Congressional map, see this Texas Redistricting post about treatment of Hispanics in North Texas, and this post about Travis County. There’s a whole lot more that could and really should be done, but what matters is what’s legally required, and we won’t know that for some time.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 15

The Texas Progressive Alliance is settling in for another long hurricane season as it brings you this week’s roundup.


Astrodome anti-climax

That’s it?!?!?!?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. board of directors approved a resolution Wednesday calling for staff to collect ideas for what to do with the vacant Reliant Astrodome between now and June 10.

The Sports Corp., the agency that manages Reliant Park, would analyze any proposals its receives before bringing them to Harris County Commissioners Court on June 25.

The court has the final say on what should be done with the aging stadium, on which the county still owes about $30 million. The time frame set by the Sports Corp. is aligned with the court’s scheduled consideration of the county’s capital projects plan on June 25.

Seriously? We’ve been talking about this for over five years, and there have been more what-to-do-with-the-Dome studies than I can count. How is it that the HCSCC doesn’t already have a firm idea of what’s practical or not?

From KTRK:

“We have had people approaching us, asking us questions and they want to sit down and talk to us about the idea, so that way we can evaluated them and make a decision,” said Edgar Colon with the HCSCC.

Turning it into a parking lot has been suggested by the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo as well as the Houston Texans, who play in nearby Reliant Stadium. Their estimated cost was around $30 million and no funding source was named.

Now the Sports and Convention Corporation says it would cost more like $50 million, and says it is weighing a wide variety of ideas from turning into a plaza to preserving it.

“It is not that we are solely considering demolition of the Astrodome. We are considering that as one of the possibilities, one of the alternatives, among six, seven or eight that we are considering,” Colon said.

Engaging the public is never a bad idea, but what are the odds someone will have an idea that hasn’t already been proposed? Make a decision about what options are the most viable and send them to Commissioners Court already. Sheesh.

UPDATE: More from Hair Balls.

According to the paperwork passed about after today’s meeting, it appears that the HCSCC has given private entities until June 10th to submit their proposals for turning the Dome into a hotel, a ski-jump facility, a coliseum of Roman re-enactors, or any of the thoroughly bottom-dollar approaches those behind the plans have concocted. After conducting feasibility studies — have to make sure the money’s backing the plans — HCSCC will then pass the ideas along to the Commissioners Court for discussion at the June 25th Capital Improvements Program hearing.

If they so deem, the HCSCC “may also recommend one of more public purpose plans” to suit the Dome’s transformation. While there’s no guarantee that a public option will be on the table for the June 25th hearing, it seems unlikely that a location that’s gained as much sense of public ownership as any building in Houston would come to a final vote without a potential for communal ownership.

Of course, all of this could end up being moot, as explained in the HCSCC’s resolution’s final point. “If a referendum vote fails or is not ordered, the HCSCC respectfully requests that the Commissioners Court directs HCSCC to prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.” The threat of demolition, of another patch of pavement and parking, hangs behind the forthcoming decision, whichever form it may take.

So if you have an idea, go ahead and let HCSCC know about it by June 10.