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May 6th, 2016:

Friday random ten: In the city, part 9

In which New York gets its revenge…

1. Miami 2017 (Seen The Light Go Out On Broadway) – Billy Joel
2. Mission To Moscow – Hot Club of Cowtown
3. Mobile – Marcia Ball
4. Mobile Bay – Flying Fish Sailors
5. My Home Town / Kalabakan – Battlefield Band
6. My Love Is In New York – Black 47
7. Mykonos – Fleet Foxes
8. New York City Serenade – Bruce Springsteen
9. New York Minute – Don Henley
10. New York State Of Mind – Mel Torme

Hey, remember when Memphis had more songs with its name in the title in these lists than New York did? So much for that. You could argue that “New York State Of Mind” is about the state and not the city, but pretty much everything Billy Joel name-checks in the song – from newspapers like the Daily News and NY Times to neighborhoods like Chinatown and Riverside – are all in the city. There will be more New York next week as well.

Mayor Turner delivers State of the City 2016

Here’s the press release.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Flooding, pensions, City finances and public safety were front and center as Mayor Sylvester Turner delivered his first State of the City before the Greater Houston Partnership. In a major move designed to produce tangible results and instill confidence among residents, the mayor announced the selection of Stephen Costello to fill the new position of Chief Resilience Officer, or Flood Czar. Costello, who is a civil engineer who has worked on numerous drainage projects, will report directly to the mayor and will have the sole responsibility of developing and implementing strategies that will improve drainage and reduce the risk of flooding.

“The April 18 floods had a dramatic impact on our entire region,” said Mayor Turner. “Hundreds of people sought rescue in hastily opened shelters, hundreds more elected to stay in their flooded apartments and homes. Nearly 2,000 homes in Houston flooded and some flooded for the second, third or fourth times. Property owners throughout our area have become weary of flooding in the Bayou City, impatient with elected officials who offer explanations with no practical solutions, and some have and others are close to packing up and leaving our city unless we can convince them that we are going to do exponentially more than what they currently see.”

The mayor also announced that he will soon unveil a plan to put 175 more police officers on the street, called for repeal of the revenue cap self-imposed on the City by voters in 2004 and detailed his plan to address the City’s unfunded employee pension liabilities, a growing obligation that is stressing the City’s overall financial stability.

“There are certain realities that cannot be ignored: the increasing costs to the City simply cannot be sustained,” said Turner. “As we look to 2018, City services will be adversely affected, hundreds of employees will be laid off, and our credit rating will most likely be damaged. But this is a course we need not travel. My mom said, ‘Tomorrow will be better than today,’ and as mayor of this City, I still believe what she said.”

The mayor is already in productive discussions with the employee pension groups about reigning in costs in a way that is least burdensome to employees, reduces the City’s escalating costs and avoids unintended consequences. He has laid out three objectives for those discussions:

  • Lower unfunded pension obligations now and in the future;
  • Lower annual costs for the city now and in the future; and
  • An agreement by the end of the year to present to the legislature for consideration in the 2017 session.

The mayor noted that the revenue cap, which was cited as one of the reasons for a downgrade of the City’s credit rating, puts Houston at an unfair advantage and hinders the City’s ability to meet the needs of its growing population. No other governmental entity in Texas is under similar constraints.

“The revenue cap works against creating one Houston with opportunity for all and the ability to address pressing needs like flooding, transportation and mobility, parks and added green space, affordable/workforce housing and homelessness,” said Turner. “We are competing not just against Dallas, San Antonio and Austin; not just against New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but against Vancouver, Berlin and Singapore. We are an international city speaking 142 languages, with 92 consulates and two international airports within our city boundaries.”

The mayor concluded his speech with a commitment to leading the nation in addressing homelessness and a personal appeal for Houston businesses to join his Hire Houston Youth summer jobs program. Information on the program is available at www.hirehoustonyouth.org.

The full text of the speech is here, and a Chron story about the additional patrol officers is here. It’s a concise reiteration of things Mayor Turner has spoken about often, with no new directions or surprises. You know what he wants to do, it’s a matter of doing it. If you’re wondering how Mayor Turner might be successful at getting the Lege to pass a pension-related bill – as you may recall, I was deeply skeptical of some other candidates’ approaches last year – the answer is that he intends to have an agreement on what changes should be made with all the relevant stakeholders. The Lege may not be interested in solving Houston’s problems, but they will ratify a solution that Houston itself comes up with. That’s the plan, anyway. As I said, the important part is doing it. If nothing else, we’ll have a pretty good idea of how it’s gone by the time of the 2017 State of the City address. The Chron and the Press have more.

Rideshare robocall lawsuit filed

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

Ride-hailing company Uber was hit with a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday over “robo-text messages” the company has been sending Austin customers seeking their support for a controversial referendum on the ballot Saturday.

The suit, filed in federal court, claims Uber violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending “thousands of unwanted text messages” to Uber users in the city without prior consent.

“Uber has violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act … by robo-texting thousands of unwanted text messages to the cell phones of thousands of Uber users in Austin, Texas – all without the prior express consent of those receiving Uber’s text messages – as part of a political campaign by Uber to oppose mandates from the City of Austin which impose various background check procedures for Uber drivers,” argues the lawsuit filed by Melissa Cubria in the U.S. District Court for the Western District.

[…]

On Wednesday, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, a group against the proposed ordinance, called for an investigation into the “questionable election activities” by Uber and Lyft.

“Uber and Lyft’s $8.8 million and growing in corporate spending as of Tuesday is a testament to how far these corporations are willing to go to rule Austin and overturn Austin’s public safety rules,” said Laura Morrison, a former Austin City Council member, during a Wednesday press conference. “It is obscene to see unprecedented corporate millions poured into a political campaign in an attempt to deceive and manipulate the people of Austin.”

Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield also spoke at the conference on the ad campaign, pointing specifically to the frequent texts sent by both Uber and Lyft.

Cubria’s lawsuit contends that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act does not include restrictions on live, manual communications — only generated messages.

“It’s absurd to imagine that Uber paid individual, living persons to manually type and then manually send thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of individual text messages in support of a political campaign underway in Austin, Texas,” the lawsuit reads.

I’ve seen some screenshots of these texts from folks on Facebook. Maybe some were sent by actual people and not an automated process, but who knows? I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Representation in Richmond

One of the smaller elections going on right now has some important questions to answer.

Every time Tres Davis drives over the cracks in the streets of North Richmond, he remembers why he’s fighting for change.

There are few sidewalks or streetlights in the historically black neighborhood. Residents live in crumbling, piecemeal homes or aging trailers.

The Brazos River encloses North Richmond on three sides. On the fourth side is a railroad track. When a train comes by – as one does every 18 minutes – there isn’t a convenient way out of the neighborhood.

Davis’ campaign for an open city commissioner’s seat – and to expand the local elected board and change how members are elected – illustrates a broader quest across Texas for greater minority representation in once-rural towns that are now fast-growing suburbs, where whites are now in the minority but continue their hold on political power.

At 55 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white and 17 percent African-American, Richmond not only fits that mold, but serves as the seat of government in Fort Bend County, one of the fastest-growing and most-diverse counties in the United States.

“The fact that Fort Bend County and Richmond in particular are diversifying so quickly demonstrates the need for racial inclusion for groups who historically haven’t had as much say,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Davis, who is African-American, figures his election to an open city commissioner’s seat would immediately increase minority representation. He is seeking to fill the seat vacated by a white commissioner who recently died. That would give Richmond an African-American and a Hispanic on its two-member commission, along with a white mayor and city manager.

Davis also is backing two propositions that aim to make the city’s elected board more inclusive and responsive to the needs of low-income minority residents.

Proposition 1 would increase the number of city commissioners from two to four. Proposition 2 would have city commissioners elected from single-member districts, instead of at large.

Read the whole thing, it’s quite interesting. It should be clear that it’s harder for a city government to be representative of a diverse population when there are only three elected positions, especially when one of those positions was held by the same person for 63 (!) years. One can argue the merits of single-member districts versus at-large representation, but if this story is accurate, then Tres Davis’ North Richmond neighborhood has been getting the short end of the stick for a long time, and a likely reason for that is that no one in Richmond government has been from there. Having more city commissioners – as the story notes, Richmond is the only city in Texas with a city manager form of government and a council/commission that has only two members – would present an opportunity to alleviate that. Unless there’s something I’m missing here, I’d back Richmond’s Prop 1, and would likely support its Prop 2 as well.

A way to use the Astrodome while we figure out what to do with it

How does a Super Bowl light show grab you?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The future of the Astrodome still might be in the dark, but that doesn’t mean the iconic building can’t return to the spotlight for at least a few minutes.

A pair of 25-year-old Rice University graduates came up with an idea to display a light show on the building’s roof that could come to fruition for the Super Bowl in February. The technological feat would use “projection mapping” to cast images of Houston culture onto the ceiling and through the hundreds of windows of the long-vacant Astrodome in yet another effort to redefine the structure as its fate is debated.

“I was just so interested that we not tear down the Astrodome, that we find a way to repurpose it and make it exciting again,” said Phoebe Tudor, who heads a group called Friends of the Dome and has worked on the light show initiative. “There are probably other things that could potentially happen in it in the future, but this would be such a great thing for now, and relatively easy and relatively inexpensive, compared to other things that may have been considered.”

[…]

Beyond the general concept of Houston history, show specifics have yet to be determined. During the demonstration in March, projectors cast Astros and Oilers logos onto the ceiling and even a picture of an astronaut.

People could come inside to watch a show, while images also could shine through the roof to the outside as nationally televised cameras pan over NRG Stadium during the Super Bowl, [County Judge Ed] Emmett said, potentially creating advertising revenue.

If successful, it likely would be only one of several possible uses of the Astrodome during the Super Bowl festivities, including another proposal to project images onto the outside walls.

The two Rice grads, one with expertise in engineering and the other familiar with projection mapping – a technique that uses multiple projectors to cast shapes and images onto uneven surfaces – came up with the light show idea.

One of the men, Alex Weinheimer of Houston, said he’s always had an interest in baseball, architecture and history. He said he was watching a Texans game one night when the broadcast showed a blimp passing over the Astrodome with its white indoor lights on.

“It’s a very pretty, geometric design,” Weinheimer said. “It’s also fairly unique.”

Weinheimer thought that something more could be done with the stadium. He got in touch with Joshuah Jest, and they began working up a light-show concept.

Tudor took notice of their work and helped put them in touch with the county. Over the past year, they’ve been working out the particulars of the show on a scale model, Tudor said, until they tested their idea in the Dome in March.

“We’ve sort of tried to prove the concept,” Weinheimer said.

Sounds pretty interesting. I confess I’m having “Pink Floyd laser light show” flashbacks here, and the urge to make stoner jokes is strong, but I will remain steadfast. Assuming everyone involved approves this, I could see it being a cool addition to the Super Bowl spectacle. Having a useful purpose for the Dome, even for a one-time event, is a good thing. I wish everyone luck in getting this done.