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May 15th, 2014:

NDO delayed two weeks

I thought it would be over by now, but it’s not.

RedEquality

A proposal to extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender Houston residents, which had been swiftly advancing to a City Council vote, stalled Wednesday as council members voted for a two-week delay to allow more public input on the increasingly divisive measure.

Mayor Annise Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, said she had the votes to pass the ordinance Wednesday but hopes to pick up even more before the council’s May 28 meeting. The 12-5 vote in favor of delay reflected not an erosion of support, she said, but the council’s desire to address constituents’ questions.

“There were several council members who fully intend to vote for the item who asked for an opportunity, in the interest of complete transparency and openness on this issue, to have another round of conversations with their various constituent groups,” Parker said. “This has never been about getting something rushed through. It is about getting something right.”

Most opposition has come from clergy, from conservative megachurch leaders to black ministers. Opponents said they, too, plan to continue rallying votes; council offices have been deluged with calls and emails now numbering in the thousands.

The proposal, already delayed one week amid tearful cries of support and angry protestations, has been the subject of intense debate for nearly a month.

Houston political consultant Keir Murray said the delay is driven in part by some council members’ desire to address concerns from community leaders, particularly elderly black pastors, who may be uncomfortable with gay and transgender issues.

“They’ve got the votes,” Murray said. “The mayor and others are just trying to cut colleagues some slack, give them a little time and go back to constituencies and say, ‘We gave you more time to make your voices heard.’ ”

The key piece of evidence here is that an amendment proposed by CM Robert Gallegos that reduced the minimum size for companies to be subject to this ordinance from 50 to 15 was adopted by an 11-6 vote. I can’t think of any good reason to vote for that amendment, then vote against the final ordinance, so I think it is safe to say that it is headed for passage.

But first, more talk.

Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church, said neither his megachurch brethren nor influential ministers of color were engaged in the drafting of the law, saying, “We’re willing to sit down at the table and talk.”

Asked whether there were any protections for gay and transgender residents he could support, Riggle said only, “Let’s sit at the table and see.” But he added, “Gender identity is a term that is a problem.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen noted that scores of faith, nonprofit and community leaders have announced their backing for the proposal.

“The idea that somehow this was a secret process, particularly after how many countless hours of public hearings we’ve had over the last few weeks, is interesting,” Parker said.

Councilman Dwight Boykins pushed for the delay, saying he hopes to convene a meeting for pastors and business owners in his south Houston district: “Within the next two weeks, I think we will come to some conclusion where this city will heal this divisiveness in this city today.

“The people in this city, the ones that have questions about this ordinance, have questions that can be dealt with.”

Councilman Jerry Davis held a similar meeting in his north Houston district, and said many pastors left with a better understanding of the measure even if they remained opposed.

If CM Boykins, who voted for the Gallegos amendment, feels he needs more time to explain things to his constituents, then fine. That’s easy for me to say, since I get to do life on the lowest difficulty setting, but my scan of social media after the motion to postpone indicates that the folks who have real skin in the game are handling this latest delay with grace. My hat is off to them for that.

So this will now be decided on Wednesday, May 28. There will be no Council meeting on the 27th, so the 28th will be both a public-comment session and a Council-vote-on-agenda-items session. That means you have one more chance to tell Council in person what you think, and of course you can continue to send them emails, telegrams, mash notes, what have you. The vote may be highly likely to go in favor, but if you’ve got a story to tell it’s important to tell it. Contact the City Secretary and get on the list of speakers for the 28th.

One more thing. In my previous entry, I analyzed Dave Wilson’s latest piece of hate mail and pointed out two ways in which he was being blatantly dishonest. Turns out I wasn’t thorough enough. See the picture at the bottom with the caption about girls claiming to be “harassed” in the school bathroom by a transgender classmate? Though there is no link provided, that was an actual story that ran on some legitimate news sites. However, it was based on a complete lie put forward by a group of haters, and was subsequently pulled down after it was exposed as the fabrication it was. A reporter named Cristan Williams did the legwork, and you can read her story here, with a followup here. The original “story” was first printed last October, and a cursory Google search would at least indicate that maybe it’s not a hundred percent kosher. Given Wilson’s longstanding record of abject dishonesty, it’s far more likely that he knew all this but pushed the lie anyway than that he was confused or minsinformed. The lesson, in case I haven’t been sufficiently blunt, is that you should never, ever believe a word Dave Wilson says. Thanks to Transgriot and Media Matters for the links.

Meet T-TESS

Texas has a new teacher evaluation system on the way. It won’t come without a fight.

Texas’ more than 380,000 public school teachers are girding for a tumultuous few years as a new method of grading their performance is expected to generate heated legislative debates and perhaps legal challenges.

Already, the Houston Independent School District is facing a lawsuit challenging the effectiveness and accuracy of evaluating teachers based in part on their students’ performance. Legislators have scheduled a hearing on the issue this week as the state prepares to test a similar evaluation model.

For the first time in 17 years, the Texas Education Agency has proposed a new statewide teacher evaluation method, dubbed the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS. According to details released last week, 70 percent of teacher grades under T-TESS will be based on classroom observations, 20 percent on “student growth” data including test scores and 10 percent on self-evaluation.

After a pilot beginning this fall, the finalized method will be rolled out in 2015 and will mandate every school district base 20 percent of its teacher grading system on student performance, which for some teachers includes “value-added data” based on state standardized test scores.

Previous evaluation methods have been voluntary and developed independently of the federal government. T-TESS, on the other hand, was developed to enable the state to opt out of certain student performance benchmarks mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Federal approval of T-TESS is expected.

The T-TESS negotiations between TEA and the federal government have been cooperative, but that is likely to change. Teacher unions are raising the possibility of an HISD-like lawsuit, and lawmakers are preparing for another year of battles on the issue come January.

“Nothing is off the table,” said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Her group’s Houston affiliate is a plaintiff in the Houston lawsuit, and is one of many questioning the legality of the new method.

As noted, a lawsuit was filed over HISD’s teacher evaluation system, called EVAAS. That has to do with the way EVAAS does its evaluations, while the talk here is more over whether the TEA has the authority to implement something like T-TESS. It’s still more than a year before T-TESS would be rolled out, and there’s some suggestion in the story that this timeline is too optimistic. The later it actually goes live, the more likely there will be a court ruling in the suit against EVAAS, which could have an effect on things. There’s also likely to be some political backlash in 2016 one way or another, as education reform is an issue on which there’s a great deal of disagreement, in both parties. Keep an eye on this, it’s not going away.

The Uber/Lyft debate comes to Austin

Get ready, y’all.

The discussion around Austin’s public transportation debate has been at times both fevered and nuanced, driven in large part by social media. There have been discussions about lightrail, late-night bus service, parking ticket waivers, taxi driver accountability and, of course, drinking and driving. But during this call to action, no one name has popped up more than Uber, the black car ridesharing service started and headquartered in San Francisco.

For those who haven’t used the service — which is currently available in 35 countries and dozens of cities across the U.S. including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston — Uber is a smartphone-based app that allows users to tap a button, type in a destination and order a chauffeured black car directly to their front door. On Thursday, May 15, the Austin City Council will vote to approve a resolution asking City Manager Marc Ott to develop a recommendation for personal, non-commercial vehicles services like these.

In a 2013 memo to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Ott and the City Council, then-director of the Austin Transportation Department Robert Spillar wrote that rideshares like Uber must be regulated through a taxi franchise or operating authority, thus ending the chances of the company operating within city limits.

Staff believes that these two services (car/vanpool or licensed vehicles-for-hire) represent the full spectrum of ridesharing activities possible and that smart phone enabled rideshare (SPER) applications either facilitate legitimate car/vanpool activities where compensation is on the basis of trip cost (now legal under City Code); or they are serving as dispatch for a vehicle-for-hire activity, that if not licensed through a taxi franchise or operating authority, is illegal.

Currently, rideshares like Uber, Sidecar and Lyft, among others, are unable to provide service in Austin, due in part to complex regulations and a city code that covers only car/vanpools and regulated taxi and chauffeured rides. Rideshare companies fall somewhere in the middle; unlike a traditional taxi or limo company, many rideshares simply provide the connection between the driver and the passenger, not the actual service itself.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Uber has a petition that has attracted a lot of support. You have to admit, if there’s a city in Texas that would seem like a natural fit for these services, it’s Austin. More here:

“This is an important, pressing issue. We have people on the streets of downtown Austin who need options,” said Chris Riley, Austin City Council member.

Council Member Chris Riley is sponsoring an item on this week’s agenda to look at adding Transportation Network Companies into the mix.

[…]

The Council will vote on the resolution Thursday. If it passes the city manager will have 90 days to come up with a report and pilot program for TNCs.

KXAN has a summary of the resolutions.

Councilman Chris Riley has proposed three resolutions.

1. The first look at creating a pilot program for transportation networking companies to operate during peak times, subject to licensure and safety requirements for drivers and cars. Council members will also look at regulations in place in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle.

2. Another resolution aims to find short-term and long-term solutions to better meet taxi demands.

3. The third resolution asks staff to put late-night transportation options on the city website, and several options are already available on the site.

See here for the full text of the resolutions. It should be noted that Austin has had some prior experience with Uber, during this year’s South By Southwest festival. It was predictably tumultuous.

South By Southwest brings a lot of things to Austin: film premieres, start-ups, newsmakers, bands, traffic and tech savvy out-of-towners.

It’s that last group that might take umbrage with the city’s ride-sharing policy, which outlaws apps like Uber, Lyft, SideCar and since-shuttered Austin-based Hey Ride.

The city contends these services have unregulated – and potentially unsafe – drivers.

Austin plans to enforce city code by impounding drivers’ vehicles and ticketing them up to $1,500 if they’re busted. Uber, which has provided rides to fest-goers despite the City of Austin’s warnings, says their model is the future of traditional taxi services.

This year at SXSW, Uber offered their Uber Black service. It charges a $55 minimum fare and requires a minimum 30-minute wait time between a call or service request via its app, and pick up time.

It’s expensive, but it’s legal. Uber joined with limousine services, allowing them to use their software at a fee as long as they provide the rides.

But Uber’s lower-cost service – Uber X, which uses contracted drivers operating their own cars – isn’t legal, according to the city charter. The Austin Transportation Department’s Gordon Derr says Uber X drivers don’t have the oversight year-round drivers do, and that’s a safety concern.

“The primary thing is that if somebody is being paid to drive somebody around, then that’s a vehicle for hire,” Derr says. “And it’s subject to regulation.”

[…]

Uber contends their drivers are just as qualified. And for now, they aren’t charging customers – which, they say, is allowable under the city ordinance as a purely promotional service.

See here, here, and here for more on that. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am by Uber’s casual approach to the law. The middle of those three links above notes that Uber imported drivers from other cities for SxSW, many of whom not too surprisingly weren’t all that familiar with Austin. As with the possibility of getting a citation for using the service in the first place, you’d think that would not be the best way to make a good first impression. Be that as it may, I figure Austin City Council will approve CM Riley’s resolutions, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Finally, in news that I thought was of interest but didn’t want to devote a separate post to, a mini-link roundup on Uber and Lyft:

They get a warm reception in Washington, DC, where it would seem the local cab companies aren’t held in high esteem. Where’s Mr. T when you really need him?

Some hotshot venture capitalist thinks companies like AirBnB, Uber, and Lyft are setting themselves up for future problems by having raised so many zillions of venture capital. The next wave of transportation innovators will surely be less in the thrall of their financial overlords, and thus better able to return value to all the stakeholders, which includes their customers.

And finally, if you’re going to Cannes this year, Uber has a deal for you.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 12

The Texas Progressive Alliance says Bring Back Our Girls for this post-Mother’s Day roundup.

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