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May 9th, 2014:

Friday random ten: Blame Canada

Another Friday random ten list inspired by another list on the Internet I stumbled across. Here are ten of Canada’s favorite songs, by Canadian artists, from that list.

1. If I Had $1000000 – Barenaked Ladies
2. Heart of Gold – Johnny Cash (orig. Neil Young)
3. American Woman – Flying Fish Sailors (orig. The Guess Who)
4. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
5. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
6. Summer Of ’69 – PYT (orig. Bryan Adams)
7. Angel – Sarah McLachlan
8. Tom Sawyer – Rush
9. The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats
10. Rockin’ In The Free World – Neil Young

There’s no Cowboy Junkies or McKenzie Brothers on this list, which seem like oversights to me, but then there’s no Celine Dion either, so I guess it all evens out. Have a very Canadian weekend, y’all.

Pratt’s resignation deal

Now here‘s an interesting twist to the story.

Denise Pratt

Former family court Judge Denise Pratt’s resignation in late March was part of a deal to avoid indictment, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said Wednesday, asserting that the document tampering case would have been difficult to prosecute and that the agreement was the best and quickest way to get the rookie jurist off the bench and bring the “ongoing damage to a stop.”

In a shorter statement issued the day before, Anderson described Pratt’s actions as “reprehensible” but made no mention of the deal, saying only that prosecutors concluded after investigating the judge that “while there may have been probable cause, her actions did not rise to the level of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.”

Anderson issued that statement on Tuesday in response to criticisms from Democrat Kim Ogg, her opponent in the November general election. Ogg lambasted the incumbent district attorney this week for not prosecuting Pratt, saying the “weight of the evidence” brought against the Baytown native was more than sufficient to bring charges and that the absence appeared suspicious because Pratt and Anderson – both Republicans – had shared a political consultant when the allegations were brought.

Asked on Wednesday to clarify the statement, Anderson issued a lengthier one saying that her office “made a hard decision – not to prosecute a difficult case against Judge Pratt in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary – and we believe that it was consistent with our primary responsibility to see that justice is done.”

“The agreement we reached brought the ongoing damage to a stop and allowed the system to begin the process of repairing the harm already done,” the statement said. “Obviously, Ms. Ogg did not participate in the two-month investigation of Judge Pratt by four experienced and apolitical Public Integrity Division prosecutors and she does not have the benefit of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence against Judge Pratt. This office does have the benefit of that knowledge, and made the professional assessment that the process of getting Judge Pratt before a jury for trial would take years and that the likelihood of success would be uncertain at best.”

[…]

She was under investigation again this year after dismissing more than 630 cases without warning to lawyers or litigants on the final two days of 2013 – the subject of Enos’ second criminal complaint, filed in January – and resigned on March 28, pegging her departure to “relentless political attacks.”

The statement announcing her immediate resignation and the suspension of her re-election campaign made no mention of a deal with the district attorney.

After Pratt’s departure, Enos and other lawyers said they believed it was tied to a deal.

Ogg on Tuesday had called on Anderson to request an independent, special prosecutor be appointed to investigate Enos’ complaints. Ogg said the county’s top prosecutor should have done that in the first place to avoid the appearance of impropriety as she and Pratt shared the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore, at the time Enos’ complaints were filed.

On Wednesday, Ogg said it was “unethical” for Anderson to use evidence that she suggested was insufficient to charge Pratt as leverage to force her resignation, describing it as a “secret plea bargain.”

“An ordinary citizen is rarely, if ever, offered an opportunity to resign from their job in exchange for dismissal of a criminal complaint and this confirmation by the district attorney of a secret plea deal reveals this district attorney’s double standard: One standard for fellow Republican judges and a different standard for ordinary citizens,” said the former prosecutor and head of Crime Stoppers.

It’s certainly the case that at the time of Pratt’s resignation, there was no mention of a deal. Does this mean that the complaints filed in Feburary have now been dropped? Here are the two statements made by DA Devon Anderson. My reading of them suggests that indeed Pratt is no longer under investigation of any kind. From the first statement on Tuesday:

In early January of this year, The Harris County District Attorney’s Office received additional complaints against Judge Pratt and a new investigation began. Prosecutors in the Public Integrity Division investigated every single allegation. The District Attorney’s Office came to the conclusion that Judge Pratt’s conduct was reprehensible, and while there may have been probable cause, her actions did not rise to the level of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed.

Sure sounds like the investigations are finished to me. Now let’s look at this bit from the second statement:

This office made a hard decision – not to prosecute a difficult case against Judge Pratt in exchange for her voluntary and permanent resignation from the judiciary – and we believe that it was consistent with our primary responsibility to see that justice is done.

Emphasis mine. With all due respect, what enforcement mechanism is in place for this? What is to stop Denise Pratt from moving to, say, Polk County and running for judge there? What’s to stop her from becoming a visiting judge? There’s no official mark on her record, after all. As I understand it, the latter complaints were both misdemeanors, so the statute of limitations will run out on them before too long. What would stop her from running for judge, or maybe Justice of the Peace in a Republican-friendly precinct, at that time? And why is this a better outcome than presenting the evidence to another grand jury and letting them decide for themselves? Maybe with an actual indictment in hand you could have gotten an enforceable deal.

I have to think that at some level, Devon Anderson gets this. If this deal had truly been the best possible outcome, and if it had been something she’d been proud of, or at least satisfied with, why wouldn’t she have announced it at the time? Don’t you tell people when you’ve done something good? Politicians running for office generally do. And when they do something they’re not all that keen about, they don’t. Anderson’s actions here are speaking pretty loudly. She could have said her piece when Pratt resigned, but instead she kept her mouth shut while Pratt blathered on about how she was run out of town by her political opponents. Maybe Devon Anderson could make a case for the deal, but I don’t see any merit to allowing the misinformation to stand. Am I the only one who thinks there’s still more to this story?

Metro unveils draft bus re-imagining

Here’s your proposed new bus system.

Transit planners kicked off a major shift in Houston bus service Thursday, betting that the benefit of faster service on key routes will outweigh riders’ concerns about adjusting to new schedules and service patterns.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday released a draft of its “reimagining” plan, intended as a sweeping upgrade to the region’s bus system. The map, which officials say will change over the next few months based on public suggestions, focuses on distributing service more efficiently.

Some officials said the plan, if approved in about four months, could help increase ridership by 20 percent or more after two years.

Metro buses, still operating on a system largely developed in the 1980s, are essentially delivering the best service for Houston in 1990, said Geoff Carlton, a consultant on the reimagining plan.

“New job centers exist that maybe didn’t a while ago and we need to respond to serving them,” Carlton said.

Often, bus routes are redundant, especially downtown, wasting resources. Some buses also take circuitous routes to cover neighborhoods where few people ride.

The changes involve about the same about of service, but make service on some major lines much more frequent by developing a grid pattern. Popular north-south and east-west routes that pass by major job centers like Greenway Plaza, southwest Houston and the Uptown area will have buses arriving every every 15 minutes or less.

Less-popular but important routes will have service every 30 minutes or less, while low-use routes in less dense areas of Houston will have service every hour or less.

With the changes, which also re-route buses to avoid some delays like freight rail crossings, 93 percent of current riders will be able to catch a ride at the same bus stop they use now, according to the analysis used to create the map.

The full Chron story is here. See TransitSystemReimagining.com for all the details, and see here for a copy of the presentation that was given to the board. As it happens, I’m in that seven percent of riders who will not be keeping his old bus stop; the current #40 bus that among other things ran down Bayland in the Heights is no more. I’ll have some other reasonable options, and as someone who generally only rides once a week it’s not a big deal. The #40 was not heavily used – the closest replacement to it, the new #17, is one of the “every hour or less” routes – and the overall gain in the system looks to be vast. Certainly, the new routes, which operate as a grid and which operate much more frequently out west where they’re really needed, are sensible and easy to understand. My first impression is positive, and I think it will go over well and will be well received. There will be plenty of opportunities to give your feedback to Metro, and I’m sure all of our friendly neighborhood light rail critics who have been just begging Metro for years to Do Something about bus service will be right there giving their honest appraisals and cheering them on. Anything less on their part would just be tacky, after all. What do you think about the new routes?

San Antonio City Council has its first hearing on Uber and Lyft

Sounds pretty familiar.

Chief William McManus said Wednesday that the Police Department might impound vehicles belonging to Lyft and Uber drivers if they continue to violate the city’s regulations for vehicles for hire, such as taxis and limos.

The city has cited 10 drivers for Lyft and Uber for providing a taxi or chauffeurlike service, McManus told the City Council Public Safety Committee.

The citations, which could result in fines of up to $500, were issued because the drivers are charging for rides, he said, which makes them subject to the city’s ordinance.

[…]

Since they started operating here in March, neither company had been charging for rides in order to avoid running afoul of the law, but now both said they are.

At the crowded council committee meeting Wednesday, taxi and limo company representatives, many wearing yellow shirts with the words “Licensed. Insured. Legal,” complained that Lyft and Uber just are trying to skirt the city rules that taxis and limos must follow.

The controversy now will go before a task force, which will determine if and how the city’s ordinance could be revised to allow Lyft and Uber — which McManus calls transportation network companies instead of ridesharing services — to operate legally in San Antonio.

The task force, which would include the taxi and limo industries, the ridesharing companies and the Transportation Advisory Board, will meet with city staff and report back to the council in August.

Leandre Johns, general manager of Uber in San Antonio, called the creation of the task force a “positive development” and indicated the company has no plans to stop operations in the meantime.

He confirmed Wednesday that the company started charging passengers recently.

[…]

In a presentation to council members, Steve Baum, the assistant police director who oversees ground transportation, said the ordinance, as written, does not distinguish between a company that “connects” drivers and passengers, as Lyft and Uber say they do, and one that dispatches, like a taxi service.

He suggested the council adjust the ordinance to allow for ridesharing and to level the playing field for all vehicles for hire.

Most of the council members on the committee supported creation of the task force, but some were hesitant to revise the ordinance, which was amended in August.

Council members also raised concerns that Lyft and Uber are refusing to follow existing regulations.

So they went rogue in San Antonio, too. You know that I’ve been generally supportive of the efforts by Uber and Lyft to enter the market in Houston and San Antonio. I think they fill a niche, I think they’ll expand the market rather than steal business from the legacy cab companies, and I still can’t see any argument for keeping them out. I believe Houston is on the right track with its draft ordinance. And yet with all that, I just cannot understand their engagement strategies. I don’t get flouting the law, or claiming it doesn’t apply to you. Just play it down the middle, make your case for the technology and the free(ish) market, and do the legwork. You’d think their venture capital investors would have put a higher priority on smoothing out the local hurdles.

By the way, as long as I’m talking about better engagement strategies, I should note that Lyft is having a community meeting in Montrose tonight from 6 to 8 to rally support for their efforts. Details here if you’re interested.

Finally, I have no idea what Chief McManus is thinking with that threat to impound vehicles. Seriously? Lawsuit waiting to happen, that’s all I can say.

Here’s the Rivard Report with some more details.

Lyft and Uber drivers are not required to pay fees associated with vehicle for hire operations, obtain expensive commercial insurance, commercial licenses, or go through as extensive training/verification processes required by law. There also is a cap on how many vehicles for hire can operate in San Antonio, another aspect that may come under review by the task force.

It is, in effect, less expensive for Uber and Lyft drivers to operate by circumventing the requirements of the ordinance.

District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales expressed concern over revisiting an ordinance that has just been through a 10-year analysis and overhaul concluding in August 2013.

“I still feel like we haven’t come to any good conclusions,” she said. “I just don’t know that a working group will uncover anything that already has been … I’d be uncomfortable,” with back-tracking the work done previously to the ordinance.

During that process, however, there was no such thing as a “rideshare” app in Texas. The startups were just starting to gain traction in California. “We were not a part of that conversation … We weren’t even conceived of,” said Uber Dallas General Manager Leandre Johns after the meeting. “These regulations don’t apply (to Uber).”

Johns said Uber is looking forward to being a part of the conversation about changing the ordinance, but that Uber will continue to operate and violate the current ordinance in San Antonio. When asked if Uber would be telling their drivers about the ordinance and citations after the meeting, Johns said no. ”We haven’t received a cease and desist order yet.”

[…]

SAPD Assistant Director Steven Baum gave a presentation of SAPD and TAB research gathered since April.

“A majority of cities have taken a middle ground,” Baum said. They don’t outright ban TNCs, but they don’t let them operate without some sort of regulation. “The transportation industry is changing … if concessions are made for one (type of company), we’d do them for all.

“The permitting process, licence process, driver qualifications …. those standards are fixed across the industry.”

District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher voiced a concern that there might be a “relaxing” of standards to accommodate Lyft and Uber.

Relaxed is the wrong word, Baum said. “Changing the manner in which we ensure the standard is met” is more accurate.

Dozens of advocates on both sides spoke passionately in City Council Chambers to more than 100 people in the room at the peak of the meeting.

Reading from a prepared statement, 80/20 Foundation Deputy Director Scott Meltzer said the real issue was San Antonio’s lack of ”robust consumer choice options in transportation,” and how these new companies fill that gap.

“Ridesharing companies, such as Lyft and Uber, are becoming part of the menu (that) talent is looking at when they research the qualities of a city,” Metzer said.

I think that’s a bit of an overbid, but I don’t think it’s that far off. A lot can happen between now and August, so we’ll see how this plays out. The Current has more.

Combs tells strip clubs to pay up

Interesting.

Susan Combs

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is pressing the state’s strip clubs to cough up millions of dollars she says they owe under a new “pole tax” even though the $5-a-patron fee still faces a court challenge.

“Any claim that ongoing litigation is a basis for nonpayment of the Sexually Oriented Business Fee is not valid,” insists an April 11 letter from the comptroller’s tax division that was sent to roughly 200 clubs in Texas that offer nude entertainment.

The fee, which strip club attorneys have claimed is an unfair tax, has been the subject of legal fights virtually since it was passed in 2007 as a way to fund programs for sexual assault victims and health care. The strip clubs’ lobby organization, the Texas Entertainment Association, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the fee, arguing that erotic dancing is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. But in 2011, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the fee did not violate free speech.

A new challenge, still under consideration by the 3rd Court of Appeals, argues that the “pole tax” is unconstitutional because the fees are not used appropriately. In the April 11 letter, Combs’ office said the continuing legal battle doesn’t mean the clubs can avoid paying all the fees they owe since the law took effect six years ago.

[…]

“They don’t like to be seen or heard,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said of the club owners. “And I think that is what caused them to get in the ditch on this thing.”

So far, Dutton is the only lawmaker defending the clubs. In an April 23 letter to Combs, he asked the comptroller why her office decided last month to send out letters while the clubs’ latest court challenge is awaiting a decision from the 3rd Court of Appeals.

“I did send her a letter, asking her what has changed,” said Dutton, who opposes the fee. He said that if sexual assault programs need money, “the Legislature ought to step up to the plate and do that.”

Instead, what often happens, he said, is that lawmakers create fees against things they don’t like, like strip clubs.

“Where does it end once you start down that road?” he said.

A spokesman for the comptroller’s office, R.J. DeSilva, indicated in an emailed response that there was nothing remarkable about the timing of the collection notice.

“Our agency regularly sends notices or updates to taxpayers on various taxes and fees,” he wrote. “This particular notice was to remind business owners that the Sexually Oriented Business Fee is still in effect while litigation continues.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the strip clubs’ challenge after the Texas Supreme Court determined that the fee does not violate the First Amendment.

Now, the clubs are arguing that the state “fee” is really an occupation tax that should be directed to public schools under the Texas Constitution. They contend that the fee violates the state Constitution, which requires that one-fourth of occupation taxes go to public schools, because none of the money goes to schools.

The clubs’ attorneys are also asking the court to consider free speech provisions in the Texas Constitution, which they claim are broader than that of the First Amendment.

The state maintains that the fee is not an occupation tax, though, and it rejects arguments that it encroaches on free speech.

I must have missed the news about the second lawsuit, because I didn’t find anything in my archives about it. As noted, the original lawsuit was decided in favor of the state in 2011 by the Supreme Court, so it’s fair to wonder why now, almost three years later, the state is finally demanding payment from the clubs and rejecting the argument that ongoing litigation is no excuse. That said, while I may sympathize with Rep. Dutton about how the Lege should appropriate money for various things, the fact remains that the strip club fee was passed by the Lege and has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and wishing that the Lege did its business differently doesn’t change that. Not clear what effect, if any, this may have on the city of Houston’s strip club fee, which is also still being litigated.