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January 26th, 2012:

Alford strikes again

Wow.

Dr. John Alford

A key witness before a federal three-judge panel considering the Texas redistricting challenge appeared to make a major concession Wednesday to the case made last week by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

The state’s expert witness, John Alford of Rice University, was on the stand to defend the districts drawn by the Texas Legislature for the Texas House, Texas Senate and U.S. House under the Voting Rights Act.

Alford surprised Davis’ attorney during questioning by agreeing that the reconfiguration of Davis’ District 10 into four parts hurt minority voters and turned back the clock on the ability of blacks and Hispanics to vote for a candidate they prefer.

Davis’ attorney, Gerry Hebert, asked Alford, “In 2008, black and Latino voters in District 10 demonstrated the ability to elect the candidate of their choice?”

Alford replied “yes” and that the candidate was Davis.

“Would you agree,” Hebert continued, “that under the state’s proposed plan that the ability of minority voters in District 10 to elect the preferred candidate was retrogressed?”

“Gerry,” Alford said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“Retrogression” is at the heart of the case that Davis and others are making: that the Republican-dominated Legislature drew the lines of some districts in such a discriminatory way as to reduce the voting strength of minority communities.

Remember, Alford is a witness for the state, not for the defense. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because Alford made a similarly damaging statement about the state’s case in the San Antonio trial. All I can say is that as far as I’m concerned, Prof. Alford can testify for the state any time he wants.

No action on red light camera settlement yet

Going, going...

Houston City Council voted to wait two weeks before deciding whether or not to accept the settlement agreement with camera vendor ATS.

The City Council on Wednesday delayed approval of a $4.8 million settlement with its red-light camera vendor amid questions about the effect of an appeals court ruling that lets two Houston lawyers intervene in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh should be allowed to join in the lawsuit.

Though the city and American Traffic Solutions plan to ask for the case to be dismissed if the settlement is approved by City Council, the Kuboshes said they want to keep the case alive to overturn a judge’s ruling that invalidated the November 2010 charter referendum they organized to ban the use of cameras in Houston. Their attorney also argued in a hearing after Wednesday’s council meeting that the Kuboshes should have standing in the contract dispute. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted them a hearing on Feb. 6 to make their case.

Should the judge allow the Kuboshes to intervene in the contract dispute, City Attorney David Feldman said, he will not bring the settlement back to the council on Feb. 8 as planned.

“I’m not walking into quicksand,” Feldman said. The Kuboshes’ intervention could undermine any deal the city reaches with ATS, he said.

Feldman says that dismissing the suit would wipe away the ruling that invalidated the election; the Kuboshes disagree. They want it enshrined in the charter that cameras can’t be put up again without a popular vote. The city and ATS say that’s already the case, and besides, changes to state law enacted after the city installed its cameras would make re-installing them more onerous and expensive to do. I’m not a lawyer, I’ll let the courts sort all this out, but I do want to comment on this:

David Furlow, an attorney for the Kuboshes, said in an interview following Tuesday’s Council meeting, “The real issue is vindication of the people’s constitutionally protected right to vote.” In Furlow’s view, Hughes has ruled that a local ordinance trumps state constitutional rights. The people’s right to challenge an ordinance should last more than a month, Furlow said.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Seems to me the way to address the issue is with a charter amendment. Surely that’s preferable to taking your chances with a judge. Houston Politics has more.

Anyway. We’ll see what happens with the hearing in Judge Hughes’ court. In the meantime, since I brought up the question of how much money the city currently has in the escrow account that holds previously collected fines, I heard back on my inquiry to the Mayor’s office. According to them there is now about $3 million in that escrow account, meaning that the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be “in the next special municipal election”, whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.

On taking AP tests

You just knew this is what would happen

I guess I’m not clear on what the issue is here.

Since 2009, the number of AP exams taken by Houston Independent School District students has almost doubled. And last year the district reached its highest number of passing scores, marking a 36 percent increase from two years ago.

Still, most students perform poorly on the tests.

Roughly 70 percent of the 21,637 AP exams given in HISD last spring yielded failing scores. At Kashmere High School, students took 127 exams and passed none.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier launched an aggressive effort two years ago to increase enrollment in AP courses, arguing that more students deserved exposure to college-level work, and to require that they take the related exams. As an incentive, Grier decided the district would pay the test fees. The district spent about $1 million on the fees over the last two years.

“I think it’s money very well spent,” Grier said. “Improving rigor is one of our goals.”

As it should be, and having more students take AP tests is a good way to measure and help achieve that. Going by the students’ comments in this story, the experience of taking the test was positive for them regardless of the result. I consider this a first step. If in a few years time the percentage of students passing AP tests hasn’t improved, then HISD will need to re-evaluate what it’s doing. For now, I say they’re going in the right direction.

New bike trail into downtown nearing completion

From Swamplot:

Heritage Corridor West bike trail

It looks like large portions of the 2.8-mile-long Heritage West Bikeway connecting Stude Park to UH-Downtown are close to completion, but the path along portions of the former UP railway won’t open until summer, according to the city. One important still-missing link: a pedestrian bridge over Little White Oak Bayou. Past the University, the 10-ft. wide trail will connect to the Heritage East Bikeway, which continues along White Oak Bayou to Lockwood.

The new western portion will hook up with the MKT hike-and-bike trail both at Stude Park and at Spring St., providing an alternate along-the-bayou path for bicyclists headed downtown from the Heights.

Go visit that Swamplot post for some pictures from the construction. Here’s a map of the MKT Trail for comparison. Both of them will get you from the Heights to downtown, specifically to UH Downtown, with the main difference being that Heritage West is entirely along the bayou and thus off the streets, while MKT goes alongside Spring Street and requires crossing intersections such as at Sawyer and Houston Avenue. MKT is the way to go if you have a destination before UH-D, Heritage is if you want the scenic route. There’s still some construction east of where the two meet up – see the note on the Houston Bikeways Facebook page – so watch out and stay off the trail where there’s still active construction. I know a lot of people who are excited about this, and I’m looking forward to taking Olivia on a ride out that way when it’s done. And when they finally connect MKT to West White Oak, you’ll be able to ride a hell of a long way without having to share space with an automobile. Michael Skelly has more.

UPDATE: Bill Shirley sent me the following picture of the bike trail construction this afternoon:

Making the trail

Way cool.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 23

The Texas Progressive Alliance thanks the state of South Carolina for all the laughs as it brings you this week’s blog roundup.

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