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March 7th, 2016:

Storm protection is expensive

But then so would be getting hit by a truly bad storm.

Building a storm surge protection system along the Texas Gulf Coast could cost between $7.9 billion and $11 billion, and likely would not be completed for about two decades, according to a new study.

The report by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes six counties along the upper Texas coast, comes after years of urging by academics to take action to prevent a massive storm surge like the one spawned by Hurricane Ike.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits of a range of major infrastructure projects – from systems of levees to a giant gate in the Houston Ship Channel.

Robert Eckels, the district president, said even with the highest cost estimate of $11 billion, paying for surge protection is still far cheaper than the aftermath of Ike, which caused more than $30 billion in damage when it hit in 2008.

“Just the damage from Ike is more than double even what the most expensive alternatives are,” Eckels said.

But the study is likely to reignite a debate over how to best balance protecting the coast with the potential harm to the environment posed by artificial barriers.

[…]

The most expensive proposal, with a construction cost of $5.8 billion, involves building a 55-mile storm surge protection system that includes a massive navigation gate across the Houston Ship Channel. The alternative, at $3.5 billion, involves a series of separate systems that would not provide direct protection to the upper reaches of the ship channel.

We’ve been talking about this for years now, and while there’s no consensus on what the best course of remediation is, there’s definitely a consensus that a worst-case storm is a real if small possibility, and its effects would be devastating. Take a look at the Hell and High Water interactive slideshow put together by the Trib and ProPublica if you want to freak out a little. Of course, the first problem that has to be solved for this is how to pay for whatever we decide to do. I personally think that a combination of federal and state funds should be the source, but we can quibble over who pays how much for what. But first, we need to agree to Do Something. The rest can work itself out once we take that step. Swamplot has more.

Mayor Turner appoints new Metro board chair

Good choice.

Carrin Patman

Former Metro board member Carrin Patman will return to the transit agency as chairwoman, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday.

Patman, 59, is a partner at Houston-based law firm Bracewell, where she has represented major corporate clients in fraud and breach of contract claims. She served on the Metropolitan Transit Authority board from April 2010 until December 2013, when she resigned to attend a fellowship program at Harvard University.

“I realize how critical effective, excellent transit is – making sure all of our citizens in the greater Houston area have excellent transit and we build for the future,” said Patman, who will be the first woman to lead the transit agency board.

Board members are limited to four 2-year terms for a maximum of eight years. Patman’s previous service means she is eligible to serve an additional four years.

“She is a visionary leader capable of collaborating with all the different community stakeholders,” Turner said.

The mayor has the option of replacing four other Metro board members – Christof Spieler, Diann Lewter, Barron Wallace and Sanjay Ramabhadran – or retaining them. Turner said he expects to make other Metro appointments in the next two weeks.

[…]

Metro is a different agency today than the one Patman joined six years ago, when its light rail program and budget were in disarray. Now its finances are stable and ridership on buses and trains is growing after a two-year redesign of local service. Two new light rail lines opened last May.

“I think they are going to be inheriting the strongest Metro there has ever been and I am proud that is the handoff,” said Garcia, who was appointed with Patman by former Mayor Annise Parker when she assumed office.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here. Patman’s service on the Board under Garcia makes her well qualified to take the reins now. She helped clean up the mess before, and she’s fully aware of where things are and where they ought to be going. I of course have a few thoughts on that myself and will be writing them down in the next couple of days. Until then, all I can say is that I really hope Mayor Turner intends to ask Christof Spieler to continue to serve on the board, and that Spieler says Yes.

Irving ISD sues AG’s office over Ahmed Mohamed

Oh, brother.

Ahmed Mohamed’s former school district has sued the Texas Attorney General — defying an order to reveal details of a federal investigation related to the Muslim teen’s arrest after bringing a homemade clock to school last year.

Dozens of Democratic U.S. Congress members called for a civil rights investigation of Irving officials last September, after Ahmed was handcuffed at MacArthur High for showing his teacher the clock.

The Department of Justice launched an investigation days later, sending Irving ISD a multi-page letter that outlined accusations of harassment and “discipline of students on the basis of race, religion and national origin.”

For months, Irving ISD has been handing over records to comply with the government’s investigation — even as it has resisted requests by The Dallas Morning News to see the letter that launched it.

Among other reasons for keeping the investigation’s details secret, the district has argued that it expects to be sued, citing a demand from Ahmed’s lawyer to pay millionsor face a civil rights trial.

But the Attorney General’s office rejected those concerns this month and orderedIrving ISD to make the investigation letter public.

Instead, on Thursday the school district took the rare step of suing the state’s highest law enforcement agency — setting up a trial that could take months to resolve.

Irving ISD argues that the Attorney General’s order “is inconsistent with previous rulings … and is simply contrary to the common law understanding,” but cites no examples or other cases to support the claim.

See here for the background. It’s not often that I say this, but I’m really rooting for the AG’s office to win this lawsuit. Way to cover yourselves in glory, Irving.

How is Ken Paxton paying for his defense?

Nobody really knows. Well, nobody who isn’t Ken Paxton, anyway.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

How Paxton is paying for his criminal defense — a legal tab estimated to easily exceed a million dollars — is one of the ongoing puzzles in the case against the state’s top lawyer.

Beyond confirming he would not use campaign contributions or taxpayer dollars, which he cannot by law because the case is not related to his public duties, the McKinney Republican has declined to elaborate on how he is covering his legal expenses. Mateja did not respond to a request for comment.

Soliciting donations for a legal defense fund would be difficult without running afoul of the state’s bribery statutes prohibiting elected officials from receiving gifts from individuals or entities subject to their authority, which, in the case of the attorney general’s office, could be quite broad.

Paxton could be footing the bill personally. But it’s unclear whether that is an option for the former lawmaker, who earns about $153,000 a year as attorney general. Prior to taking statewide office in 2014, he served in the Legislature for more than a decade, making a living as a lawyer and investor. His 2015 personal financial statement, filed as a part of required disclosures for state officials, reported a number of business and real estate holdings, including a title company and cellular tower.

It’s tough to get a full picture of Paxton’s finances from the statement, which only requires officials to report broad ranges of assets. But it does indicate he has a number of shares in stocks and mutual funds, as well as business assets that amount to a minimum of $35,000.

If Paxton is unwilling or unable to pay his legal team on his own dime, it leaves him in a difficult spot. He could step down from office, which would free him up to raise money for a defense fund. But Paxton has said he will not resign — and he has so far faced no political pressure to do so.

He may find lawyers sympathetic to his plight willing to offer their services pro bono or at a deep discount. That scenario also seems unlikely. (Mateja did not respond to a question about whether any of Paxton’s legal team had discounted their services.)

“A case like Paxton’s could easily consume most, if not all, of a lawyer’s time. Unless the lawyer is independently wealthy, he or she could simply not afford to undertake such a time-consuming case without being paid significant fees,” said Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback in an email. Ruback estimated that the collective rate for Paxton’s team could exceed $3,000 per hour, with a total fee for his defense easily passing one million dollars.

See here for the background. Is it in poor taste for me to note that Paxton could claim indigency and have an attorney provided for him? I’m sure Collin County will be delighted to help out. If anyone thinks this would be unfair to Paxton, I’d remind you that people have been represented by court-appointed attorneys in capital murder cases. Admittedly, that hasn’t always worked out well for the defendants, but as far as the state of Texas and more than a few appeals court justices are concerned, it was all hunky dory. I’m just saying, there is a way forward here that doesn’t involve murky ethics or potential conflicts of interest.