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February 23rd, 2014:

Weekend link dump for February 23

Some Sharknade 2: The Second One news, for those of you (and you know who you are) that want it.

I love Paris in the modern era, because in the old days it really stank.

“Practically every big battle you see in the media arena is, one way or another, a battle between gigantic producers on the one hand and gigantic distributors on the other.” That said, the Comcast/TimeWarner merger may still have a direct effect on you and me.

The 20 best couples of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy.

On misfearing, and not believing in science when you don’t like what it says.

It’s not a crime to be drunk and annoying. Good to know.

“The truth behind Washington’s Birthday, President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, or whatever the hell you want to call it, as briefly explained by puppets.”

“Competition is what drives creative destruction, and it’s valuable for its own sake. We’ve lost sight of that, and it’s time to reverse course.”

Two words: Flying snakes. You’re welcome.

“But I also know that I am a useful representative sample of the abuse that happens to other women.” And now she’s a commandant in an insect army, which is all kinds of awesome.

“We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.”

Universal voting by mail would solve an awful lot of problems.

Go read Mark Evanier on ageism, Sid Caesar, and adapting to change.

Sweden’s tax code has a lot to answer for.

“A charge of failing to return Monster-In-Law in South Carolina, however, will haunt you for life.”

How would you like to protect your online accounts with Ultrasonic Password Security? Maybe someday you’ll be able to.

Five myths of American incarceration.

Let’s talk about snake handling, which is neither literal nor biblical.

“Circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon.”

“The limits of past job losses in that industry suggest increases in the minimum wage haven’t had a tremendous impact on employment, and that puts the onus on restaurants, and others opposing an increase, to explain why the next time would be different.”

The first full-time, female NFL referee could make her debut this year.

The food stamp cuts are hurting WalMart. No wonder they’re backing a federal minimum wage increase.

As someone once said, good ideas don’t need lots of lies told about them to win public support. Or putting it another way, bad ideas don’t need lots of lies told about them to garner public opposition.

See the new Pussy Riot video, with translated lyrics.

Production tax credits can really skew the way TV shows are made.

“Joe Newman recently announced his write-in campaign in Florida’s 16th District, a decision that probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that he’s 101.”

Revisiting George Fleming

Lisa Falkenberg catches up with an old friend.

George Fleming

Trial lawyer George Fleming was calm and gracious when he took questions back in 2012, insisting that his bankrolling of a respected judge’s no-name opponent had nothing to do with his own displeasure with that particular jurist.

“No, no,” Fleming assured my colleague Patti Kilday Hart. “The way I show displeasure (with a judge) is I appeal his rulings.”

Fleming did appeal Judge Steven Kirkland’s unfavorable ruling that could have cost his firm as much as $13 million.

Then the wealthy lawyer of Fen-Phen-fighting fame became the only financial backer of the judge’s Democratic primary opponent, contributing individually and through his political action committee $35,000.

The opponent, now state district Judge Elaine H. Palmer, ran an ugly, bruising campaign with plenty of below-the-belt jabs at Kirkland. He was ousted and is now a Houston assistant city attorney and communications law lecturer at the University of Houston.

Kirkland is back campaigning again this year, trying for another bench: the 113th District Court. And Fleming is back as well, as the sole contributor to Kirkland’s new opponent, Lori C. Gray.

This time, when Fleming took my questions on his contributions, he was practically seething at the media criticism his involvement has drawn. And, this time, he acknowledged his motivations, saying the “personal experience” in Kirkland’s court, which led to years of unnecessary appeals, has driven him to keep the judge off the bench.

Elaine Palmer actually had multiple donors in 2012, though Fleming was one of the bigger ones, and was likely the driving force behind the others who donated to her. Kirkland’s 2014 opponent, Lori Gray, reported $35K on her January filing, all of which came from Fleming and his PAC. I’m sorry Fleming has his undies in a twist about the attention he’s getting, but what did he expect would happen?

To Gray’s credit, she hasn’t engaged in the nasty, misleading mudslinging that marked Palmer’s campaign. Gray, a lawyer for 25 years who won her 2010 primary for judge, says she respects Kirkland and wants to focus on the issues, such as cutting down litigation costs.

But she makes no apologies for accepting Fleming’s money, which she says could never sway or influence her. Fleming isn’t her only supporter, she says, noting she’s got plenty of volunteers giving time and energy, if not money.

“I am not for sale,” Gray said. “I am no slave. I am a private attorney who has a contributor, for whatever reason he chose to support my campaign, I didn’t ask him. And it is not my business.”

I don’t know Lori Gray. She does now have a campaign webpage, but any campaign activity she’s been engaged in has been invisible to me. She didn’t return my judicial Q&A, though she did submit one to Texpatriate. I don’t know why she chose to run for this court, but her explanation strikes me as just a wee bit naive. Gray ran for County Criminal Court #10 in 2010 in a contested primary, winning a close race (page 21) in which she overcame being listed second on the ballot, which was a kiss of death for most other candidates that year. Why she chose to run for this particular Civil District court, the only Civil District court that features a contested Democratic primary and the one in which you have to know George Fleming would get involved, when there were several County Criminal courts lacking a Democratic candidate – County Civil Court At Law #4 also has no Dem running – is a question only she can answer. Maybe she thought this court was the best fit for her talents, maybe she thought it was her best shot to win even with the contested primary, maybe she just thought Steve Kirkland is a lousy candidate. All of these would be valid reasons, but to profess ignorance of Fleming and his motives is not believable. Again, what did she think would happen? Whatever the result of this race, it will serve as another example of what people hate about our partisan judicial election system. I’ve yet to be convinced that any of the (mostly half-baked) alternatives to it are any better, but this adds fuel to the idea that anything else would be better.

DA investigating Judge Pratt again

Here we go again.

Judge Denise Pratt

Two months after a grand jury cleared embattled state District Judge Denise Pratt of accusations she had tampered with court records, the Harris County District Attorney’s office again is looking into the family court jurist.

Houston lawyer Anna Stool, a former federal prosecutor, said she was called in by the district attorney’s office two weeks agoto answer questions about a child custody case she has in Pratt’s 311th Court in which the judge made the unusual move of finalizing temporary orders by scratching out the word ‘temporary’ with a pen and writing ‘final’ above it. As a result, the case – first opened in 2007 – officially was closed.

There was “never a hearing,” Stool said. “I just found the thing by accident because I started checking (Harris County District Clerk) Chris Daniel’s website.”

County and courthouse sources say several lawyers have been called to the district attorney’s office recently to answer questions about cases in Pratt’s court, and that the questioning is part of another investigation into the freshman judge, who is seeking re-election this year.

[…]

Stool is asking for Pratt to be recused from the case altogether. She filed a motion last Friday, after weeks of waiting on Pratt to respond to another request she submitted in late January for a new trial, days before being questioned by the district attorney’s office.

Stool said she decided to file the recusal motion because problems in Pratt’s court have been “ongoing” and, so far, she has gotten “nothing” for her client.

“I cannot explain to her what the problem is, except to tell her that I don’t know why this is happening,” she said. “But I don’t think, based on what’s happened, that I can get a fair trial in this court.”

See here for the previous chapter in this saga, and here for the whole kit and kaboodle. I don’t know what Judge Pratt’s chances are in the GOP primary, but the fact that she’s competitive at all is kind of amazing. Texpatriate has more.

HFD’s budget problems

I’m sure you’ve heard of this by now.

The safety of Houston’s citizens and its firefighters will be compromised over the next four months as the fire department limits the number of personnel on duty and removes trucks from service in an attempt to cut spending, Fire Chief Terry Garrison said Thursday.

“People that are suffering from EMS calls are going to be suffering a little longer, houses and buildings are going to burn a little bit longer, because our response times are going to be increased,” Garrison told members of the City Council’s budget committee. “We’re going to have to change our decision-making model when we get on the scene, because fires will be doubling in size every minute.”

City Councilman Stephen Costello, chairman of the budget committee, rejected Garrison’s bleak prediction.

“I find it hard to believe we’re going to compromise public safety. I really don’t believe that’s the case,” Costello said. “It’s simply a matter of, once we respond to a call, we make sure that we have backup from another station. They do it all the time when they have two- or three-alarm calls.”

City Council members listening to Garrison’s presentation Thursday visibly struggled to balance the two basic priorities of local government: financial responsibility and public safety. Those present voted 7-3 to hold HFD to its original $447 million budget rather than give it additional funding to cover soaring overtime costs. Committee votes are nonbinding but do indicate the will of the larger council.

HFD is on pace to exceed its budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Most of that, $8.5 million, is due to overtime paid to firefighters to cover a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that leaves the chief unable to restrict when firefighters take time off.

The department averaged 90 overtime shifts per day during the second half of last year, and has averaged 47 overtime shifts per day for the last 45 days.

To stay within budget over the remaining four months of the fiscal year, Garrison said, HFD must not average more than 23 overtime shifts per day.

On days the department exceeds that number, fire trucks will be idled and supervisory shifts will not be filled, the chief said.

Under his plan, Garrison said that one in five department engine and ladder trucks could be pulled out of service during the peak vacation months of March and June, and staffing could drop by as much as 10 percent on an average day.

There was an earlier story on this that previewed the problem. The Chron has a dedicated page to the story with a graph showing the various fire stations and what the effect of this would be, with more details here. The committee vote suggests this will pass when it goes before the full Council. Mayor Parker has expressed her support for the plan, saying that the Fire Department managed themselves into this situation and they can manage themselves out of it. It’s hard to read about this issue and not think about the ongoing political and legal battles between Mayor Parker and the firefighters, particularly the pension fund where another lawsuit has been filed over access to their files but also the union, which is now in contract negotiations with the city. I’m sure politics will play a big part in the final Council vote, not to mention in the next election. I am not surprised that CM Bradford, the Mayor’s main critic on Council, is strongly against the proposal to reduce overtime.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the coverage so far, but this isn’t the first time there has been a shortfall due to overtime. In 2010, both HPD and HFD had multi-million dollar gaps to fill. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember how that was resolved, but I presume it wasn’t like this or we’d have had some recent history to guide us as to what the effect might be.

Something I’d like to know more about is the possible solution CM Costello proposed in a letter to the editor last week.

Eighty-five percent of all calls for HFD services are for emergency medical services, not fires. We have top-notch firefighters, but are we deploying them correctly?

While we must be well prepared for fires too, doesn’t it make more sense to scale our equipment and personnel to fit the needs of our city?

The mayor has stated that we must look at the current workload of the department and reorganize. Her proposed budget last year had $2 million built in for a work demand analysis for HFD so we could start this process. This idea got scrapped during the budget process as council members put this money to other uses, including a summer jobs program.

Why are we organized so heavily around fire equipment and personnel when clearly, more emphasis is needed on emergency medical services? The numbers just don’t support our current operation.

I’ve been told the reason we have more fire engine and ladder companies than ambulances is so we can maintain our No. 1 Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating and keep homeowners’ insurance rates low. ISO is a private, for-profit company which has developed a huge database for providing statistical information to evaluate potential risk in certain areas.

Fire departments often use the structure of the ISO rating to justify resources during the budget process. In 1997, Texas became one of the last states to adopt ISO’s Public Protection Classification System. Texas, while adopting the system, does not require insurance providers to use the ISO rating, allowing some companies to use their own data. State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company was the first to stop using the ISO rating system in 2001. Instead of using theoretical data loss, State Farm looks at actual loss within a zip code.

I’m not sure how dependent we need to be on the No. 1 ISO rating. Research indicates that now ISO ratings might have very little effect on homeowners’ insurance rates since some insurance companies do not even rely on them. I’m not suggesting we lower standards in any way when it comes to protecting our citizens. I just want to make sure we are smart about allocating all of our HFD resources, including overtime.

We need to make sure our fire and emergency service delivery model makes sense for Houston in 2014 and adjust accordingly. Until then, budget shortfalls will surely continue.

The point about EMS versus fire services is a strong one, and given that this kind of shortfall is not unprecedented, it makes sense to me that the city ought to do that study CM Costello suggests. Maybe with a more efficient allocation of resources, we can then get serious about hiring more firefighters and EMTs, since as with HPD there is a looming retirement crisis among the current ranks. I’d like to see that work demand analysis get funded in the next budget. Anyone with more expertise in these matters want to comment about that?

Chron overview of Ag Commissioner race

It’s mostly about Kinky and pot, because what else is there to talk about?

Democrat Kinky Friedman is attempting to add a little spice to the crowded agriculture commissioner race by being the lone candidate to advocate legalizing marijuana and tapping it as a new state cash crop.

Of the eight candidates jostling to replace Republican Todd Staples as agriculture commissioner, only Friedman of Kerrville supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it for state revenue. He wants Texas to move quickly before other states follow Washington and Colorado’s lead and legalize the drug for recreational use, which could deprive the Lone Star State of potential revenue, like the $578 million in tax revenue that Colorado expects from first-year sales.

“Texas will be the dinosaur dragged in by the tail,” Friedman said. “We will be the caboose on the train.”

Friedman’s comments on legalizing marijuana follow those voiced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who called for legalizing the drug for medical use and possibly decriminalizing it.

And Republican Gov. Rick Perry who told the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he signed laws putting the state on the path to decriminalization, and suggested that all states, under the 10th Amendment, have the right to decide how to handle the herb.

But other agricultural commissioner candidates from both major political parties were reluctant to voice those types of sentiments, preferring to focus on top priorities like illegal immigration and improved water infrastructure.

“Pot doesn’t really matter,” said Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, another Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner. “What matters is if you have any water.”

Cleburne farmer Jim Hogan, also seeking the Democratic primary nod, said he understands the arguments for legalization, and he said he could favor a shift in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation for Texas drug users.

“If I was a judge and a woman (charged with possession of marijuana) had three kids, I couldn’t send her to prison,” Hogan said. “I could have her rehabilitated, maybe.”

None of the five Republicans in the race gave support to Perry’s comments or bucked their party’s hard line stance against drug possession or legalization.

I ran interviews last week with Friedman and Fitzsimons. Pot is a worthwhile issue to discuss, and I support Friedman’s position on it, but as Fitzsimons says it’s all secondary to water. Sure would have been nice to have seen what some of the Republican candidates have to say about that in a story like this. It also might have been worthwhile to mention the Republican candidates’ self-interested hypocrisy on receiving federal agriculture subsidies. But hey, no one’s really paying attention to a race like this anyway, am I right?