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Idiots protest at school

Jeez.

The kindergarten and pre-K students experienced an early civics lesson Monday morning when they entered Houston Independent School District’s new Arabic Immersion Magnet School for the first day of class.

At least a dozen protestors, some wearing red, white and blue, stood along the fenced perimeter of the campus, just north of the Heights neighborhood, and waved American and Israeli flags. They alleged the public school – one of the first of its kind in the United States, where students will learn in Arabic and English – was promoting radical Islam and rejecting assimilation into American culture.

The demonstration rattled parents on what was already a nerve-wracking day, but with four police officers monitoring the campus, the protestors dwindled after about two hours without incident. HISD leaders continued their inaugural festivities as planned.

“Houston is the energy capital of the world,” Superintendent Terry Grier said during a media tour of the newly renovated campus at 28th St. and Shepherd.

“We need to have graduates who can communicate with people all over the world.”

Grier, who made his first public appearance since having knee surgery three weeks ago, has pushed an expansion of dual-language programs in the nation’s seventh-largest school district. HISD opened a Mandarin immersion school in 2012 without controversy, and now has more than 50 Spanish dual-language campuses. Grier has said he wants to open a Hindi school, and discussions about a French program have taken place.

No citizens protested at the HISD board meeting in November when trustees unanimously approved the Arabic school, but about a dozen critics addressed the board in May and have taken to the Internet to complain.

I got nothing. Go read Jef Rouner, he speaks for me. And if you have the inclination and read this in time, there will be a “demonstration of love and welcome at the school this morning. See that link for what it’s about, and here for more.

Posted in: School days.

Interview with Jonathan Hansen

Jonathan Hansen

Jonathan Hansen

We move on to At Large #4, the other open At Large seat on the ballot this year, currently held by Council Member C. O. Bradford. I have four candidate interviews for this race, and we begin with Jonathan Hansen. Hansen grew up in the newspaper industry, as his family owned three small rural newspapers, eventually selling them off to a larger company. He went from there to teaching economics, having earned a BBA in finance from UT-Austin. Hansen is also a coach and participating athlete with US Masters Swimming. Here’s what we talked about:

(Note: This interview took place before the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Chron Mayoral profile: Chris Bell

It’s “the first in a series of profiles on the top candidates running for mayor in Houston”.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Friends and colleagues said it’s [Chris] Bell’s belief in good government and that streak of political ambition, even in the face of sometimes daunting odds, that have fueled his 10 runs for various local, state and Congressional offices. And so, despite a seven-year break from the political circuit, it came as little surprise when Bell was the first candidate to publicly announce his campaign for mayor, an office he ran for in 2001 but lost to Lee Brown, who bested Republican Orlando Sanchez in the runoff.

In this year’s crowded race for term-limited Annise Parker’s seat, Bell’s first campaign finance report this summer put him behind other major mayoral contenders, which political scientists said didn’t rule him out but would make his path to City Hall tougher. Bell and his team said they aren’t concerned, pointing to his name ID in Houston and a record of showing well at forums and debates thanks to his ease with public speaking.

Bell’s campaign is centered around a promise to “modernize” Houston. He’s focused on mobility issues, pledging to synchronize traffic lights and build 200 miles of sidewalks in his first term as well as education, proposing to work with school districts and use library space for classrooms. Bell has also billed his experience at the local and national level as a boon to the city, dismissing suggestions that his recent campaign losses will be a vulnerability – he’s lost three races in a row.

Bell, 55, has been ambitious in picking races, often seeking election in districts that skew Republican or, as a young lawyer, running as a relative unknown. Bell has also drawn some criticism from colleagues for being quick to go on the offensive and deploying a sharp wit that doesn’t always translate well with constituents.

At his campaign launch on a blustery January day at Sam Houston Park, Bell was careful to fend off perceived attacks from opponents about his election record; “if it’s necessary, I’ll talk about the races they’ve run and lost” he said.

Brett Shipp, a friend of Bell’s since high school in Dallas’ swanky Highland Park neighborhood, said Bell has been running for office ever since there was an office to run for, “a perpetual candidate for student council.”

“He was like this Bruce Springsteen – born to run,” said Shipp, now a broadcast reporter in Dallas. “I think it’s this innate leadership quality that he knows is part of his DNA. And he’s always been kind of a political junkie, a political savant, and he loves politics, and it really kind of fuels his fire.”

Bell grew up in what he said was a middle-class household. His high school was attended almost exclusively by white students, something that became more jarring to Bell when he left for the University of Texas in Austin. It’s there that Bell, who headed the Interfraternity Council and pushed to form a student government, began to truly shift across the political spectrum away from his conservative upbringing.

“I’ve talked about this campaign more than I really probably ever have because I think I’ve sort of reached a comfort level,” Bell said. “When you grow up in a middle-class home in one of the wealthiest areas in the entire state it’s obviously going to have an impact on you. I think it gives you sort of a sense of unfairness in certain instances and kind of more of a desire to stand up for folks who may not be as well connected or as powerful.”

Read the whole thing, it’s a good profile. I’ve known Bell for ten years, and known of him for ten more before that, so there’s not really anything new here for me, but if you don’t know Bel that well, this is a good introduction. I look forward to seeing the other six articles (I’m assuming they’re including Marty McVey in the “top candidates” list) in the series. I hope there will be an equivalent series of articles that go into as much depth about what the candidates would do as Mayor as well.

Posted in: Election 2015.

DOJ asks to get voter ID remedy ASAP

I concur.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Obama administration and several civil rights groups are urging a federal appeals court to fast track the process of temporarily fixing Texas’ voter ID law in time for the upcoming Nov. 3 elections.

In court filings Thursday, the Justice Department and civil rights groups asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow a lower court to start getting to work immediately on an interim remedy to the law passed in 2011 by the state’s Republican-led Legislature.

[…]

The 5th Circuit bounced a portion of the case back to a federal court in Corpus Christi and instructed it to correct the law ahead of the upcoming election while the rest of the case works through the courts. The 5th Circuit noted the lower court should craft a remedy that would “avoid election eve uncertainties and emergencies.”

However, the 5th Circuit is set to retain jurisdiction of the case until Sept. 28.

DOJ and the civil rights groups argue that timeline might not allow for an interim solution to be put in place across the state for early voting, which starts on Oct. 19. They’ve asked the 5th Circuit to allow the federal court in Corpus Christi to come up with a fix earlier.

“The timely entry of interim relief mitigates SB14’s discriminatory result while also minimizing any voter confusion or disruption to upcoming election-day preparations, including poll-worker training and the issuance of election-related information, materials, and notices,” DOJ wrote, referring to the voter ID law by the bill number it was assigned in the 2011 Legislature, Senate Bill 14.

See here for the background. The AG’s office, of course, opposes this, and they have until August 28 to file a response. One possible remedy, at least for now, is to allow voter registration cards to be used as voter ID cards, as was done before this stupid law was passed. The plaintiffs say they are open to that as one option from the menu, though they would like to consider a broader range of choices as well. It sure would be nice to have something in place to address this for this year, especially since we were denied that by the same Fifth Circuit last year.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Why that empty private toll road has been so empty

Someone did a study to try to answer that question.

Speed Limit 85

In the Austin area, more than 220,000 vehicles travel on I-35 on a daily basis. In contrast, SH 130, the tolled bypass around Austin only carries 40,000 vehicles daily. Why do more vehicles choose the I-35 route? What would make travelers, particularly big trucks, more likely to use SH 130?

Associate Research Scientist Tina Geiselbrecht at TTI’s Transportation Policy Research Center recently published a report titled Incentives for Truck Use of SH 130 aimed at understanding the trucking industry’s use of toll roads and the possibility of diverting large trucks to SH 130. Researchers conducted a traffic analysis and found only 14 percent of I-35 traffic volume is vehicles traveling through the region without stopping, and of that volume, only 1 percent are trucks. The other 86 percent of vehicles are local I-35 travelers.

The traffic data analysis shows, overall, SH 130 carries very few trucks. To better understand how to increase truck traffic on SH 130, Geiselbrecht and her team studied incentives for truck use of toll road SH 130.

Geiselbrecht and her team interviewed trucking industry leaders to get their thoughts on the following potential incentives:

  • higher speed limits on SH 130;
  • the presence of nearby amenities and associated facilities;
  • the provision of speed and travel times for alternate routes;
  • use of long combination vehicles (LCVs); and,
  • toll discounts.

The findings suggest many of these potential incentives would not cause a shift to SH 130. Because some operators say it’s not safe to operate large vehicles at high speeds and speed tends to increase the cost of a trip in terms of fuel consumption, higher speed limits are not an effective incentive. Providing travel time information near access points to SH 130 doesn’t motivate truck drivers to use toll roads either because interviews with industry professionals found they already use internal systems that show them travel times and alternate routes.

One potential incentive did arise from the interviews; the allowance of Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs). LCVs allow companies to transport more product on a trip, thereby offsetting some of the toll costs making it a feasible alternative.

“This study supports short- and long-term mobility policy and planning strategies on how to move freight more efficiently in and through Texas. Although diverting truck traffic to uncongested toll roads is positive, the literature, traffic data and interviews revealed the trucking industry is reluctant to use tolled facilities,” Geiselbrecht says. “So it may be a good idea to also think about how to get passenger vehicles to divert to SH 130 since they make up the majority vehicle volume on I-35.”

See here for all my prior blogging on this topic. Call me crazy, but I’m thinking this kind of study might have been useful before $1.3 billion got spent on this mess. Just a thought. By the way, not that it has anything to do with anything, but the Main Street light rail line has a higher daily ridership tally than all of SH 130. I don’t have a point to make with that, it just amuses me. Good luck getting some value out of this albatross. Link via Streetsblog.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for August 23

Your 2015 Bulwer-Lytton Contest winners.

Two words: Xena reboot. You’re welcome.

The original Bavarian beer-making yeast has been found.

“The disparity between how the law treats abortion patients and IVF patients reveals an ugly truth about abortion restrictions: that they are often less about protecting life than about controlling women’s bodies.”

RIP, Robert “Bob” Farrell, founder of the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor chain.

This is a tough way to lose a game.

RIP, Julian Bond, former NAACP Chair and civil rights leader.

Just a picture of Jen Welter and Sarah Thomas shaking hands. If you don’t recognize those names or get why that’s worth highlighting, then you should be sure to click that link.

“The reason I wrote this article is I got interested in the fact [Frankie] Crosetti is basically forgotten for someone who has 17 World Series rings and 23 appearances.”

How to talk like Donald Trump, in one easy lesson.

The Leo Frank lynching, 100 years later.

No spec work. Pay people for their time and effort.

“But it’s important not to lose sight of a more urgent reality: As bad as white-collar workers may have it at Amazon and elsewhere, their blue-collar brethren have it much, much worse, and have much less power to negotiate better conditions.”

How do you solve a problem like Antonin Scalia?

RIP, Yvonne Craig, best known as Batgirl on the Batman TV series. Like Mark Evanier, I will confess to having a crush on her. Be sure to read his post all the way to the end.

I’m happy to not be on this list.

What the war on Planned Parenthood is really all about.

Happy retirement to the Washington Generals, longtime straight men for the Harlem Globetrotters.

So Josh Duggar had Ashley Madison accounts. Well, you know, boys are just curious about that sort of thing.

Having said that, and putting aside the considerable amount of schadenfreude that comes with reading a story like that, the data privacy implications of the Ashley Madison hack are no laughing matter. And whatever else may be said about the people who have these accounts, their exposure is likely to cause a lot of pain to a lot of innocent people. So, yeah.

On the other other hand, what Amanda says.

“It’s one of the dirty secrets of the pharmacy industry that uninsured people frequently pay more for drugs than those with insurance”.

“Isn’t this what the federal government is for? If there’s interstate commerce that wreaks havoc on state and local governments as a rule, shouldn’t Congress step in to legislate the business back to sanity?”

If all life begins at conception, what do you make of this?

Two words: Deez Nuts. You’re welcome.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Will Sandra Bland’s death help lead to bail reform?

That would be a fitting and just outcome if it does.

Sandra Bland

Harris County and the state should reform an unfair bond system that punishes the poor more harshly, according to civil rights leaders, legislative officials and criminal experts who gathered Wednesday in front of the county’s criminal justice center. Reform, they argued, could prevent another tragedy like that involving Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July after failing to make bail.

“The death of Sandra Bland was a travesty of justice,” said Johnny Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “Sandra Bland would probably be alive today if Texas would’ve had a system that is fair.”

[…]

Advocates familiar with the bail process and statutes like the Fair Defense Act said it never should have come to that.

“There’s still an investigation being done,” Mata said of Bland’s death, which an autopsy shows was a suicide by hanging. “We respect that. However, we feel that an injustice has been committed.”

His coalition reflects more than 25 organizations across the area. He was joined Wednesday by experts like law professor Sandra Guerra Thomspon, director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute, who said the need for bail reform is a national concern but is especially needed in Houston.

By following pre-determined bail schedules, magistrates ignore their responsibility to take individual factors into consideration to ensure that the bond does not merely become a punishment for being poor, she and others argued. Instead it’s meant to reflect an individual’s flight risk and potential public safety concerns. Had a more nuanced risk assessment instrument been used in Bland’s case, she argued, “the question would not be, ‘Does she have $500?’ but, ‘Is she a risk to come to court?'”

[…]

In Texas, defendants are supposed to have the added protection of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001. The act, authored by [Sen. Rodney] Ellis, addresses issues like indigent defense and the timely appointment of counsel. But it also contains language about when a defendant should be granted representation. According to some, that right extends to the bond hearing itself, though this is rarely ever the case. Hargrave said in her more than 20 years of working in Waller County, an individual never had a defense lawyer present during the bond hearing.

Advocates also question what they see as the low rate of personal bonds granted to individuals. If an individual is granted a personal bond, he or she is released on the promise to appear in court. Only 7 percent of bonds issued in Harris County are personal bonds, according to Randall Kallinen, a lawyer and the former head of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With so few personal bonds issued, said Kallinen, “the person who has the money gets out.” In other words, “the Harris County jail is housing poor people,” he said.

I’ve written about this topic a number of times, usually in the context of jail overcrowding, but Sandra Bland’s death is a tragic reminder of another aspect of people not being able to post bail: A significant number of people die in jail every year. Grits puts a number to it: “183 have died in Sheriffs’ custody since January 2014, including 80 so far in 2015, a statistic which includes Sandra Bland and appears on pace to exceed last year’s number.” There are many different reasons why these deaths happen, and unfortunately the data we have doesn’t go into much detail about them, but the point is that some number of those people shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and wouldn’t have been there if they could have posted bail. This is not acceptable.

On a related note, the Texas Senate has convened a committee to study jail safety standards, which was another issue in Sandra Bland’s death. This is commendable, and I hope it produces some action items for the next Legislature, but 1) any such legislation is two years away from being enacted; 2) there’s no guarantee anything ever gets passed, and; 3) fixing how bail is set is something that can be done right now. Kudos to the Senate for addressing this, but let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. More from Grits here.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Metro still dealing with CAF problems

The more things change

HoustonMetro

Metro and the maker of its newest light rail cars have had many costly and time-consuming conflicts. The latest is forcing the transit agency to spend $1 million so its mechanics can lift the vehicles.

The $153 million contract with CAF U.S.A., the American wing of a Spanish firm, has been problematic for the Metropolitan Transit Authority during its expansion of Houston’s light rail network. The company ran into problems complying with requirements for American-made products in 2010. Then in late 2013, Metro and CAF engaged in a dispute over timely delivery of the 39 light rail cars included in the contract, the last of which still has not been delivered to Houston.

Now transit officials and the rail-car builder disagree on who is responsible for a design deviation that prevents Metro’s lifts – which raise the train for mechanical work, much like a lift in an auto mechanic’s garage – from raising CAF’s cars.

“To be blunt, the question is, is it a breach of contract,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

CAF officials did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

To do routine maintenance on the vehicles and get the work completed, Metro will pay to retrofit its lifts so they can hoist the CAF cars. Lambert said Metro will seek to recover some or all of the $1 million from CAF.

[…]

Metro officials have said for more than a year they are confident in the quality of the rail cars. But the procurement process has been chaotic, they say.

Lambert said Metro will hold CAF responsible where practical, while acknowledging the contract has been troublesome.

“There are a lot of lessons learned in this process that will be valuable moving forward,” Lambert said. “We know, and I think there is an acknowledgement from CAF now, that you can’t build a rail car in 24 months. But that’s what they said they could do.”

As you may recall, the original issue with CAF had to do with them not complying with federal law on building the rail cars entirely in the US. That issue was settled in 2010, with CAF building new facilities here in the US to handle construction. That ultimately led to delays in delivery, which was one reason why the new rail lines didn’t open till May, months after the original due date. Let’s just say that I hope we have indeed learned from this process, and that I hope the matter in question can be settled quickly.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Another group against the high-speed rail line

From up north.

A high-speed rail stop sounded like just the type of shot in the arm Ellis County needed. Development would flock to the station and, with a quick link to both Dallas and Houston, immediately make the county a much more attractive place for a high-powered company to do business. “We went, ‘Hey, this is great! High-speed rail!’” [instigator Marty] Hiles recalls thinking as he walked into a public meeting last year in Waxahachie with officials from Texas Central, TxDOT, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Then, they saw the plans and realized that there would be no local stop; for the train, Ellis County would be flyover country. “We walked away stunned,” Hiles says. “Just completely stunned. It was obvious there was nothing, no benefit at all.”

From that point forward Hiles and his group, which they dubbed Texas Concerned Citizens, shifted their energies from promoting economic development to killing high-speed rail — objectives that in their mind are one and the same. Texas Central, which has settled on a single preferred “utility corridor” route that shadows high-voltage power lines, maintains publicly that the line’s design will include as many underpasses as needed to accommodate the free flow of goods, wildlife and farm equipment, minimizing any negative impact, but Hiles and many others in Ellis County are skeptical. To turn a profit, the company will need to minimize capital costs; since elevating the tracks to allow traffic to pass underneath is more expensive than the default design of an impassable 14-foot berm closed in by a security fence, the residents fear that Texas Central will build as few elevated sections tracks as it can get away with. The most immediate impact will be on farmers, who, Hiles says, contribute $160 million to the Ellis County economy.

[…]

Hiles was on the brink of despair when, talking to Texas Central opponents near Houston, he learned of an obscure provision of state law enabling municipal and county governments to band together in “sub-regional planning commissions” that have the legal standing of state agencies. Essentially, Hiles learned, the law gave commissions the power to force Texas Central and TxDOT to sit down at the negotiating table to talk as equals. Several of the commissions had been formed to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive conglomeration of toll roads, rails and utility lines proposed just over a decade ago by then-Governor Rick Perry, and claimed at least partial credit for the project’s demise.

Hiles pitched the idea to the city councils of Palmer (population 2,000), Ferris (2,436), and Ennis (18,513), all of which are in or near the rail’s path. Each readily passed a resolution agreeing to join the Community Development Sub-Regional Planning Commission. “We’re just trying to be recognized,” says Palmer Mayor Kenneth Bateman, the owner of Bug Out Pest Control. “Doing what we’ve done is supposed to give us a voice as to what’s going around in our town.” Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas says the goal “is to force full disclosure. When you do that [form a sub-regional planning commission], then they are bound to actually have to show you what the plans
and details actually are.”

The commission has had one meeting so far. “We’re just beginning to assert our authority,” Hiles says. “The big fear a lot of the people have is … they’re either going to ignore us — if they do we’re going to go to the DA, say look we’re a state agency and they’re not working with us. We’ll force it if we have to. Or they might turn around and really start harassing us and sic the dogs on us, and that’s why I’m trying to find a good attorney who will cover us pro bono. Because if they come after us, I’m not ready to quit. We’ve all put our life and fortunes, like the Founding Fathers, really, on the line here because we’re trying to protect what we have.”

Basically, they’re doing what the folks in Montgomery County and Magnolia have done. As the story notes, there are questions about what actual authority these groups have – as is often the case with the Legislature, the intent of the law in question is unclear, and no one has ever done anything like this before. Be that as it may, it is a way for opponents to get together and bring in other communities, especially ones that may not have given the matter much thought before. Numbers matter, whatever the form of the organization. Texas Central Railway needs to take this seriously, or they could find that the strength of the opposition in the Lege in 2017 is bigger than they can handle.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Forensic Science Commission to examine bite mark evidence

Good.

The board charged with ensuring that reliable scientific evidence is used in Texas courtrooms agreed on Friday to investigate cases in which bite mark analysis was used to secure a conviction.

“We’re talking about the whole field, the validity of the field of bite marks,” said Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the chief presiding officer at the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and the former Dallas County medical examiner. “The problem justifies an investigation.”

The board voted to review bite mark cases to determine whether faulty evidence resulted in wrongful convictions after a presentation from Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the New York-based Innocence Project.

Last year, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conducted a study of forensic odontologists and concluded that the analysis could not even accurately determine which marks were bite marks. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that concluded there was insufficient scientific basis to conclusively match bite marks. Additionally, the Jo Handelsman, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has said that bite mark evidence should be eradicated from courtrooms.

Bite mark evidence, Fabricant said, has contributed to 24 wrongful convictions nationally, including two in Texas.

“Overwhelmingly, it was the chief evidence in those cases,” he said. “Sometimes, it turned out they weren’t bite marks at all.”

[…]

The Innocence Project is urging the commission to institute a moratorium on the use of forensic odontology in criminal cases.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a commission member and the chief medical examiner in Tarrant County, said his agency abandoned the practice more than two decades ago. He recalled one instance in which a dentist identified a bite mark that turned out to be an injury from a crow bar.

“We have no respect, absolutely no regard for bite marks,” Peerwani said.

Grits has been on this for years. I’m a lifelong fan of crime fiction, and I know I’ve read more than a few examples of literary detectives using this technique. I’m surprised there are more cases that will need to be reviewed. Anyway, isn’t it amazing how much good work a body like the Forensic Science Commission can get done when people like John Bradley aren’t around to muck things up?

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Saturday video break: Three cheers for the bus drivers

In honor of Metro’s new bus system, I’m taking a break from the cover song theme to run two bus-related videos. First, to represent the old system, here’s a very young Weird Al Yankovic and his classic, “Another One Rides The Bus”:

I don’t know about you, but I can’t look at Tom Snyder without seeing Dan Ayckroyd’s Saturday Night Live parody of him. Anyway, representing the new bus system, here’e Pete Townshend and “Magic Bus”:

Yes, that’s from “Deep End Live” again. Yes, I love that concert that much. Here’s to the bus riders as well as the bus drivers. Happy riding, y’all.

Posted in: Music.

So can we call the Metro bus system reimagining a success yet?

If no news is good news, then Metro is swimming in good news, because I haven’t seen much coverage of its new bus system rollout since the opening days. Perhaps all that concern (expressed by one person) about disaster and mass firings was a tad bit overblown. I don’t want to jinx anything, but if there’s a disaster out there in the bus lanes, it’s an awfully under-reported disaster.

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

Just northeast of downtown, in Houston Fifth Ward, it’s difficult to find a fan of the new network.

There are few shaded bus stops here. At the corner of Jensen and Lyons, what appears to be a temporary bus stop sign is attached to a pole on a yellow stand. A rider took cover in the shade of a nearby tree — a shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“They need to do something out here,” said Sherry Green, waiting on the #11 Lyons bus to take her to work in the med center.

The lack of shelters is a problem, according to Joetta Stevenson, of the Fifth Ward Civic Association and the Super-Neighborhood Council. But there is more, she says, that needs to be addressed.

The area depends heavily on public transit and has for generations. “Buses aren’t an amenity, they’re a necessity,” she said. And some of those bus routes by which people would set their watches have changed. “We knew where the buses would take us and now it’s total chaos and confusion. People don’t know and they don’t understand,” Stevenson said.

Outside the community center, seniors whose day revolves around the activities inside, complain that they’ve waited longer for buses for two days. One man said he boarded the bus he always took, but suddenly it took him to somewhere he’d never been before.

The makeover is a change for METRO, and it appears, for a lot of people in Fifth Ward. A METRO app that explains what buses will take you where and when is available, but few seniors at the community center have a smartphone or the interest in using an app.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said the agency met with Fifth Ward community groups earlier this year. He said new bus shelters are in the works for the area — nearly 40 by the end of next year. He sees the shelters as a way to encourage more ridership in Fifth Ward.

In response to the complaints and confusion expressed about the new routes, Lambert said METRO is addressing the issues constantly, refining and correcting to make it work for those who use it.

So two issues – the lack of shelters, and some people not liking the new system and/or not knowing about it beforehand. The lack of shelters isn’t actually related to system reimagining. It’s a longstanding issue that Metro plans to address (as noted above) thanks to the additional sales tax revenue it receives thanks to the 2012 general mobility provision referendum. Perhaps that could be accelerated a bit, but those shelters weren’t there before system reimagining and wouldn’t be there today if the old map were still in place. I guess if you’re doing a story about people being unhappy with Metro you go with what they tell you, but this is a tangent and not actually germane to the issue.

As for people complaining about waiting longer for buses, it’s hard to know what to make of that without knowing any details. How long are we talking, and how long were they used to waiting? Which bus line are we talking about? Maybe there was a problem that day, maybe it was a matter of good or bad luck with timing, maybe it was a perception issue more than anything else, or maybe there used to be more than one line that ran along the street in question and now there’s just one so your odds of getting lucky on the timing have diminished. Perhaps if the reporter doing this story had checked on any of that she could have attempted to answer some of those questions objectively, or at least provided the information I’m talking about so someone else could look it up. Without it, all I can do is speculate.

I don’t want to minimize the confusion issue. If you’re not on the Internet, I expect the change would be especially confusing, since you wouldn’t have been easily able to try and figure it out beforehand. I don’t know how much engagement Metro had in the Fifth Ward – one meeting? more than one? – but it would be a good idea to schedule a few more, to make sure everyone now understand how the new system works. We always knew this was going to be hard. The fact that things seem to be going well overall doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t get anyone off the hook for fixing the problems that remain. This is fixable, and I do believe that the people in the Fifth Ward and elsewhere will find that the system overall is better and more useful to them. But we do have to get over the initial bumps first.

That’s it for negative stories that I’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, since the Fifth Ward is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and since there have been questions about how Metro’s service will change in areas like that that are transit-dependent but not heavily populated, I checked a couple of the African-American news sites to see if they had anything my Google searching might not have picked up. Both the Defender and the Sun Times had Day One stories about the unveiling of the new network, but nothing after that that I could see. Make of that what you will. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen anything about the often-controversial flex zones, either. Again, maybe there’s stuff happening that isn’t being reported, but I can’t know what I can’t find.

Other stories: Kyle Shelton rode the bus on Day One with his one-year-old, and came away impressed.

We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.

I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.

We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.

Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.

As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.

We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.

In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.

The 56 runs along Montrose/Studemont/Studewood, which makes it the closest bus route to my house. I have to say, I’ve seen a bunch of these buses go by as I’ve been going about my business. Reading this account made me realize that my best bet for getting to the Art Car Parade next year is likely going to be hopping one of these buses. The possibilities here are definitely intriguing.

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

I am a daily rider and I happened to benefit from the irrational inefficiency of the old system. Two different and relatively frequent buses passed by my house on the way to Downtown. In the new system, only one relatively frequent bus serves my street. Wasted resources like the doubled-up bus lines by my house were distributed to a grid that brings high-frequency lines to our multiple job centers and densely populated areas. I am willing to give up a little service to my street if the whole system works better for me.

The morning of my first ride I experienced some confusion. The bus blew by me as I tried to find a stop on a long, previously unserved stretch by my kids’ school. (Note to METRO: Please put a stop for the 44 at Houston Avenue and Bayland.) It was a minor inconvenience. I waited in a shady spot, the next bus arrived in about 15 minutes, and I transferred to the train at the Downtown Transit Center.

At a table of friendly if harried METRO representatives, I picked up a copy of the new METRO system maps. Designed by Asakura Robinson, METRO, and Traffic Engineers Inc., the new maps are a huge improvement. One bus rider claimed that the old maps were deliberately designed to confound you. Living carless in Houston can be so alienating that you start to believe that METRO’s failures are a nefarious plot. I never looked at the old maps. Taking the bus was a form of mysticism for me. You relied on your intuition. The new maps are so clear they are a revelation. Houston almost makes sense.

The old bus lines were like coils that had been pulled out and stomped on. The ends spiraled around neighborhoods and the middles jogged back and forth across the street grids. Having every bus converge Downtown doesn’t make sense when our city is a multi-nodal conurbation, as Rice School of Architecture professor Albert Pope puts it. Why should I have to travel Downtown from the Heights to get to Uptown?

The new maps are beautiful to behold because the designers had a far more rational and orthogonal set of lines to work with. The Frequent Network map is the piece de resistance. Job centers, parks, freeways, and bayous are shown with the right line weights and opacities at a legible scale. You see our key assets with transit links in the foreground — a view I much prefer to the decontextualized spiderweb of freeways normally used to represent Houston. (The clarity of the map also reveals the service gaps on the east side.)

The Park & Ride, Express, and Key Local Routes map is also gorgeous. Finally, you can see that we already have a commuter system to build on. This new map would have been helpful when I rode the 292 from Missouri City to Rice University for a year, and when I figured out how to get to Galveston by bus.

The 44 is an alternate option for me to get home from work – the 30 would drop me closest to home, but the 44 would do in a pinch. Reading Raj’s story made me look again at the very useful interactive service map and realize that if I wait at Capitol and Smith for a bus going home, I’d actually have three options – the 30, the 44, and the 85 down Washington, connecting to the 56. Given that the 30 is the least frequent of these, that makes my odds of a reasonably short bus trip home on the days when I don’t have the car after work (I carpool with Tiffany, and she sometimes needs to make other trips before going home) are quite a bit better than I thought, and better now than they were before reimagining. Not too shabby there. Oh, and the rest of the article is a really nice story about a rider Mankad met on the way home. Do be sure to read it.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll keep an eye on this in case it falls apart tomorrow. Have you tried the new bus system yet? If so, what do you think?

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Regulating methane emissions

Get all your gas and fart jokes ready, because they’re just going to be inevitable.

The Obama administration’s plan to slash methane emissions will raise costs for the oil and gas industry, forcing energy companies to invest in new pumps, compressors and equipment to prevent leaks of the potent greenhouse gas.

Although the draft regulations advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday chiefly target new oil and gas wells, processing equipment and storage facilities, the four-pronged proposal lays the groundwork for the government to eventually go after methane leaking from existing infrastructure.

Oil and gas companies already reeling from low commodity prices warn the planned rules will throttle domestic energy development and aren’t needed in light of the industry’s voluntary work to plug leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas.

“The oil and gas industry is leading the charge in reducing methane,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard. “The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans.”

The proposed regulations, set to be final next year, will add to President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and give the administration a concrete action to talk up at international climate negotiations in Paris this December. They also mark another step in the president’s gradual move away from natural gas, a fuel he previously championed as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But the EPA’s draft rules alone won’t fulfill a White House pledge to pare oil and gas industry methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The proposed regulations along with a 2012 rule targeting new natural gas wells are expected to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by just 20 to 30 percent.

Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, stressed that the proposal is only one step toward the 2025 benchmark. “As we move forward, additional opportunities will be identified to get to that goal,” she said.

[…]

Industry officials argue they already have a financial incentive to capture leaking natural gas and bring it to market, though the additional costs of some of those changes, such as updated compressors, valves and controllers, may exceed the potential recovery, making them a harder sell amid today’s low oil prices.

Although methane represents only about 9 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the substance is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

The industry proudly points to an 11 percent decline in methane emissions from natural gas systems since 2005, but some observers expect numbers to start climbing as a result of the oil drilling boom. Recent research suggests many leaks go undetected, so actual emissions could be much higher.

A study in Environmental Science and Technology on Tuesday suggests gathering equipment and processing facilities are leaking natural gas at rates eight times higher than EPA estimates.

Methane emissions also threaten to undo some of the climate change benefits of generating more electricity from natural gas and new EPA rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

I’m sure the energy industry is doing what it can to prevent leaks and capture the emissions that come from the leaks that do happen on active wells, but that’s not the main problem.

And there’s another methane-leaking elephant in the room: existing and abandoned oil wells. Most of the regulations target new and modified wells, but the U.S. has somewhere on the order of 3 million abandoned wells, many of which are probably leaking methane. Many existing active wells are leaking, too. A 2014 Environmental Defense Fund study noted that by 2018, upwards of 90 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector could come from wells built before 2012.

Who’s going to be responsible for those? And what does it mean for Texas?

Just as Texas leads the country in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also a particularly large source for this potent warming gas. That’s in part because two major methane-emitting activities — agriculture and oil and gas drilling — are huge here. The state pumps about a third of the country’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas.

Oil and gas industry representatives have pointed to EPA data showing total greenhouse gas emissions in the country have dropped amid a drilling surge to suggest that fracking yields climate benefits — as cleaner burning natural gas replaces coal-fired power.

But measuring nation-wide methane emissions isn’t easy. Several recent peer-reviewed studies suggest that the federal government is vastly underestimating methane emissions, particularly in heavily drilled parts of the country.

In July, a series of studies centered on North Texas, for instance, found that the gas-rich Barnett Shale was leaking 50 percent more of the gas than previously thought. Human error and faulty equipment accounted for most of the emissions, the studies found, with most coming from a small percentage of sites.

Opponents of the rules say emissions still appear to be falling over time, claiming that Obama is unfairly targeting an industry that’s only responsible for a portion of the methane pollution. The agriculture sector — through cow farts and burps, for instance — emits lots of methane too. The EPA has adopted a voluntary program aimed to address that problem.

I mentioned the fart jokes, right? Cows are better organized than you might think. I’m thinking those “voluntary” regs may need to become more enforceable.

One other thing:

According to the EPA, 29 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector. Next is the agriculture sector at 26 percent: livestock emits methane through normal digestive processes. Landfills come in third place with 18 percent of the pie.

Another reason why I want to see landfills get closed, not opened. If that means treating recycling as a utility and subsidizing it as needed, I’m okay with that. Beyond all this, it’s just a matter of getting the rules finalized, then going through the inevitable litigation, because that’s what we do. Consider that another reason why the power of appointing federal judges is a big deal in the Presidential race.

Posted in: National news.

Voting by mail made easier

The Trib is reviewing some of the bills that were passed this spring and the changes they will bring, one of which will be to make the voting by mail process easier.

In Texas, disabled or elderly residents can currently receive mail-in ballots for all elections in a calendar year under a seemingly innocuous condition: The elections must be held in areas where the county clerk is the early voting clerk.

That requirement, however, has proved to have an unintended consequence: Some people eligible for annual mail-in ballots have not been receiving all of them because some elections are not held with the help of the county. For example, school boards sometimes hold elections on their own.

A bill set to go into effect Sept. 1 looks to change that. Among other things, House Bill 1927 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Angleton, aims to close that loophole and ensure that annual mail-in ballots are sent to every person who applied for them.

“For them not to receive them is just unjust,” Bonnen said. “You can’t choose not to send the mail ballots.”

The bill might be the most consequential elections legislation signed by Gov. Greg Abbott from the standpoint of the average voter, said Glen Maxey, the legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party. Several other elections measures were tacked on to HB 1927 on its way to Abbott’s desk, including a measure that lets Texans electronically apply to vote by mail.

“With all those things together,” Maxey said, “it will make mail balloting a lot easier.”

[…]

Bonnen called HB 1927 a no-brainer, and it drew no apparent opposition when it was heard by the House Elections Committee. The panel advanced the bill to the full House on a unanimous vote.

Among the measures that were later added to HB 1927 was one that sets up a process by which counties can maintain the most up-to-date information on vote-by-mail applications. The provision addresses problems that arise when voters’ identifying information changes over the course of a year, like when a person’s name changes after a marriage.

In that case, the spouse’s annual mail-in ballot would go “belly up, automatically,” said Bill Sargent, chief deputy clerk for elections in Galveston County. “We changed that and said, ‘Wait a minute. This is the same person. Why are we doing this?'”

Bonnen does not expect many hiccups when the law takes effect. After all, he added, “it’s such a commonsense piece of legislation.”

This is all to the good, and I recall Maxey celebrating the bill’s passage on Facebook. I’m all in favor of removing barriers to voting, as you know. I just wish it were possible to imagine a similar outcome for legislation relating to voter registration or any form of in-person voting.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

“Sanctuary cities” legislation will be back

Better be ready for it.

With debate over the nation’s immigration policies once again approaching full boil, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday pledged that the Senate next session would pass legislation to address so-called sanctuary cities.

Patrick lamented that the Legislature this year didn’t pass a measure to bar local rules that prohibit police from asking the immigration status of people they stop. A vote short this year from bringing up the bill on the Senate floor, he vowed that 2017 would be different.

“I’m totally confident that we now have the votes,” the Republican said. “I’m totally confident that one of the first measures we will pass in 2017, when we come back, will be to ban sanctuary cities in Texas.”

[…]

Though Democrats find the proposals especially noxious, more moderate Republicans also pushed back against those efforts. The “sanctuary cities” bill didn’t receive a hearing in the House and was bottled up in the Senate by Sen. Kevin Eltife and others.

“It doesn’t serve any purpose,” Eltife, a Tyler Republican, told The Dallas Morning News in April. “And it goes against the grain, when we are trying to include Hispanics in the Republican Party.”

But Eltife isn’t running for re-election in 2016, and some moderate Republicans in the House have likewise bowed out. With those spots now up for grabs, Patrick said the debate would likely be different in two years.

See here and here for some background. Patrick is the main force behind this legislation – House Speaker Joe Straus is generally not a fan, and Greg Abbott is likes to avoid the question – so you can be sure it will be a priority, though perhaps not a successful one. Still, this is something that could affect Houston – another example of the abandonment of “local control” by the Republicans under Abbott – so it would be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, and what if anything they plan to do about it. I have a suspicion this question may come up in future interviews.

Posted in: That's our Lege.

Friday random ten: Revisiting the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list, part 9

Here’s their list.

1. Sunday, Bloody Sunday – U2 (#272)
2. Tighten Up – Archie Bell and The Drells (#270)
3. Sail Away – Randy Newman (#268)
4. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley (#264, featured cover of Leonard Cohen)
5. I Can See For Miles – The Who (#262)
6. All The Young Dudes – Billy Bragg/Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (orig. Mott the Hoople, #256)
7. Mack The Knife – Bobby Darin (#255)
8. Paranoid – Black Sabbath (#253)
9. Gimme Some Lovin’ – The MOB (orig. The Spencer Davis Group, #247)
10. Love Shack – The B-52’s (#246)

Song I should have but don’t, part 1: “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, George Jones (#275). I should have more George Jones, full stop.
Song I should have but don’t, part 2: “Wild Thing”, The Troggs (#261). The MOB has a great version of this. We should play it more often.
Song the girls would probably like if I played it for them: “Heart of Glass”, Blondie #259). More Blondie. And why not?

Again, to be clear, it’s the Buckley version of “Hallelujah” that’s on the list here. It won’t surprise me if there are other versions of it later on. I’m still a little stunned that “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, which I consider one of the greatest songs of all time, didn’t crack the top half of this list. Whatever, Rolling Stone.

Posted in: Music.

Paxton reindicted

On the same charges, with slightly different wording.

Best mugshot ever

After re-filing indictments against Attorney General Ken Paxton in his securities fraud case, two special prosecutors are pushing back against criticism from Paxton’s attorney, who says the recent action shows that they “botched” the proceedings.

“It is not unusual in any felony case, particularly fraud cases, for prosecutors to ask the grand jury to re-indict so as to provide sufficient notice to the accused as to the nature of the criminal conduct with which he is charged,” Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice, the special prosecutors said in a prepared statement Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday afternoon, the prosecutors re-filed two of the three charges Paxton faces — two counts of first-degree felony securities fraud. The third charge — accusing Paxton of acting as an investment adviser or representative without registering – remained untouched.

[…]

In the charge naming Cook, for instance, prosecutors originally stated Paxton “had not, in fact, personally invested in Servergy.” The new charge states Paxton “had not, and was not investing his own funds” in the company.

Joe Kendall, Paxton’s attorney, criticized the re-indictment, saying it illustrated a process fraught with “troubling issues.”

“They had months to investigate and then rushed to indict,” Kendall said in a statement. “Now, the special prosecutors are back to clean up the botched indictments. It should make every fair-minded person question the process in this case.”

Not so, the prosecutors replied.

“Contrary to the assertion of Mr. Paxton’s criminal defense lawyer that the indictments charging his client with two counts of first-degree felony securities fraud were ‘botched,’ we obtained re-indictments to defuse the boilerplate arguments predictably advanced by the defense that the original indictments lacked specificity or were otherwise ambiguous,” Schaffer and Wice said in their statement.

Philip Hilder, a Houston-based criminal lawyer, said that while re-indictments don’t happen all the time in such cases, they are not rare.

“In this particular case, it’s clear that the prosecutors were trying to get out front and clean up the indictment before the defense had the opportunity to attack the pleadings,” he said after reviewing one of the re-filed charges.

You can see a copy of the indictments – there are two, one for each of the complainants in the first-degree cases, which are the ones from the expanded investigation – in the Chron story. I don’t know how often this kind of “cleanup” happens, but I can say that it happened in the Tom DeLay case. The fact that he was ultimately let off the hook by the Court of Criminal Appeals didn’t have anything to do with that. I’d be interested in hearing what any attorneys have to say about this, but beyond that it seems like a fairly mundane update to this story.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

State ordered to pay fees in redistricting litigation

They don’t seem to be interested in doing that, however.

BagOfMoney

In a scolding tone, a federal appeals court panel in Washington, D.C., ordered the state of Texas on Tuesday to pay more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees in a case challenging district boundaries drawn by the Republican-led Legislature.

First under the direction of then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and now under Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state has been fighting a court order for more than a year to pay the lawyers who battled the state over the issuance of redistricting maps for the Texas House, Texas Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

A spokeswoman for Paxton, Cynthia Meyer, didn’t specify the state’s next steps. In an email, she said only: “This decision is disappointing for the state of Texas.”

A group of Hispanic Texans suing the state known as the “Gonzales intervenors” expects to take nearly $600,000 of the $1 million-plus in ordered fees from the state. A group that was led by former state Sen. Wendy Davis and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, both Fort Worth Democrats, should be awarded $466,680, and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches is owned $32,374, according to the court. The groups argued that boundaries were drawn to dilute the voting power of Hispanics and African-Americans.

Attorney Chad Dunn, a lawyer for the Davis group, said that he and other lawyers have repeatedly asked the attorney general’s office to pay the fees — only to be stonewalled, even in the face of a court order, issued in June 2014.

“If you or I or anybody else had done that, we would lose,” Dunn said. “What the D.C. Circuit has made clear is that Texas has to follow the same rules as any other litigant.”

Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit admonished the state for its refusal to file the proper documents, and the court seemed to chide the state’s lawyers for filing an incomplete advisory.

By not following the rules, Texas has limited its options, the court said.

“(T)he district court held that Texas had conceded virtually all of the issues relevant to the motions for attorneys’ fees by deliberately choosing not to address them,” the court said. “Rejecting Texas’ cursory ‘Advisory’ argument, the district court granted the motions and awarded fees.”

[…]

The appeals court opinion comes a year after U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer’s order that criticized lawyers in Abbott’s office for submitting a legal brief that devoted more effort to complaining than answering the legal issues in the fight over lawyer fees.

“This matter presents a case study in how not to respond to a motion for attorney fees and costs,” Collyer, appointed by former President George W. Bush, said in the June 2014 order.

A spokeswoman for Abbott said at the time that Texas shouldn’t be made to pay other parties’ legal fees in a case the state considers that it won.

I guess that’s one way to get out of an order you don’t like. Just declare yourself the actual winner of the case, and thus not subject to any orders about attorneys’ fees. SCOTUSBlog has a succinct explanation of why Texas’ position was erroneous, at the end of a much longer discussion of overall case:

In June 2014, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer in Washington ruled that the three groups of challengers were entitled to recover their attorney fees expenses from Texas. The filing by the state’s lawyers, the judge wrote, “fails to recognize that the limited holding of Shelby County did not resolve the issues here.”

It was not the court’s duty, the judge added, to ask Texas to come up with some reasons to oppose the attorney fee requested. “Texas has had every chance to oppose the fees and costs that the applicants seek,” she added, but “it instead opted to file a three-page advisory that ignored every argument of applicants except the applicability of Shelby County.”

Under local court rules, the judge found, Texas had forfeited its right to oppose the fee award because of its failure to make an argument against it. Finding the voters and officeholders to have prevailed, she awarded one group $597,715.60 in fee recovery, another group $466,680.36, and the third $32,374.05 — for a total just under $1.1 million. Those amounts, the judge ruled, were reasonable.

At Texas’s request, Judge Collyer put her order on hold so that the state could appeal.

That appeal ended on Tuesday, with the D.C. Circuit upholding the fee awards, concluding that the Supreme Court’s June 2013 order did not settle the Texas redistricting case and did not resolve who would be the “prevailing party” in that case.

The Justices’ order, the panel said, was like many others in similar cases. All that the Court meant by that action, the decision added, was that there had been intervening developments that might suggest a need for the lower court to reconsider. This was not a ruling on the redistricting dispute, according to the panel, and it added: “It certainly did not declare Texas the victor.”

So there you go. As far as getting the state to quit making stuff up and pay its bills, I have an idea for how to get Ken Paxton’s attention, if it pleases the court: Just threaten to hold him in contempt of court. Recent history suggests that he will move quickly to comply with whatever you order, whatever it takes to stay out of the pokey. Just a suggestion, no pressure or anything.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Siegler gets sued

Oy vey.

Kelly Siegler

Prominent former Houston prosecutor Kelly Siegler built a 20-year career out of securing convictions in tough murder cases, especially those that for years had been unsolved.

It was that reputation for tenacity and pluck that landed the local legend a starring role on “Cold Justice,” a nationally televised reality show, after she left the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in 2008.

But this week, she found herself again fighting for her reputation after an Ohio man who was acquitted earlier this year of a 1981 slaying sued Siegler, her TV show and law enforcement for defamation.

Steven Noffsinger filed suit last week because of an August 2014 broadcast in which he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Alma, more than 30 years earlier.

Noffsinger was found not guilty in May after spending nine months in jail without bail after being indicted in the Ohio slaying.

“The defendants’ collective investigations, which occurred in 2014, were an attempt to resurrect a “cold case,” and resulted in an unreasonably reckless disregard for and malicious prosecution of plaintiff in violation of the United States and Ohio Constitutions and state law,” the lawsuit states.

[…]

Across the country, at least two other people have said allegations by the show have devastated their lives.

Earlier this year in Des Moines, Iowa, Theresa Supine was found not guilty in the 1983 beating deaths of her husband and his teenage girlfriend. She was charged last year, after being targeted by the show.

Supine told the Des Moines Register in February that she was considering suing “Cold Justice.”

Last year in Tennessee, a boat repairman filed a lawsuit alleging defamation after the show televised an episode implicating him in the 2010 stabbing deaths of a woman and her 8-year-old son.

Joshua Singletary claims police and the television painted him in a false light and violated his rights, according to published accounts. Although he was charged after the crime, those charges were dropped. The case remains open.

I haven’t watched the show, and I know nothing of these cases, so I have no comment on the merits of the claims against Siegler and others associated with Cold Justice. It is a reminder that an arrest is not a resolution to a case, no matter how much fanfare there is. Be all that as it may, it sure has been a tumultuous couple of months for Kelly Siegler, hasn’t it?

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes former President Carter all the best for a full and fast recovery as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Just how old are our city voters?

vote-button

In my previous installment, we talked about how many people vote across city elections. In this post, we’re going to look at another aspect of our city races that is often remarked on but seldom specified: The ages of the people who vote.

As before, all the data comes from the voter files I got from the Harris County Clerk’s office, and it is all about city of Houston voters within Harris County, who comprise nearly all but not quite all of the electorate. I could have just done a straight average age for each election, but that leaves out a lot of other interesting information. Here’s how I prefer to present it:

2013 voters Range Number Pct ====================== 18-30 9,786 5.6% 31-40 15,209 8.7% 41-50 23,508 13.5% 51-60 40,235 23.1% 61+ 85,393 49.0% 2011 voters Range Number Pct ====================== 18-30 5,939 5.0% 31-40 9,488 8.1% 41-50 17,126 14.5% 51-60 28,601 24.3% 61+ 56,664 48.1% 2009 voters Range Number Pct ====================== 18-30 10,021 5.7% 31-40 16,798 9.6% 41-50 29,664 16.9% 51-60 43,814 25.0% 61+ 74,730 42.7% 2007 voters Range Number Pct ====================== 18-30 5,791 5.0% 31-40 10,599 9.2% 41-50 21,090 18.4% 51-60 28,633 24.9% 61+ 48,728 42.4%

If you’re wondering why I stopped at 2007, it’s because the years presented included a “birthdate” field that was just a year, which made it easy to sort by that and add up the totals in each group. The 2005 and 2003 files had a full date in that field, and since I didn’t think to check the data type when I imported the CSV files into Access to do my crunching, it came in as text and thus sorted left to right, which was completely useless.

I may go back and re-import the data to fix this, but for now this is what I have, and I doubt those other two years would tell me anything that these four don’t, which is that we do indeed have an old electorate in odd-numbered years. This should come as a surprise to exactly no one, but here you can see just how heavily it leans towards the older crowd. When two-thirds or more of your voters are over the age of 50, you’re probably going to have elections that are light on issues that younger voters care about. Consider this an application of the old saw that ninety percent of success is just showing up. It’s also an illustration of the challenges that HERO defenders will face.

You may ask, how do these elections compare to even-numbered years? I can’t answer that question yet for Presidential years (2008 and 2012), as I have not gotten those files imported into a database yet. I do have information from the two non-Presidential even-numbered years in my stash. Here’s what that looks like:

Of 685,704 total 2014 voters

53,067 (7.74%) were 18-29
83,268 (12.14%) were 30-39
112,722 (16.44%) were 40-49
160,508 (23.41%) were 50-59
276,139 (40.28%) were 60+

Of 799,287 total 2010 voters

72,841 (9.11%) were 18-29
110,386 (13.81%) were 30-39
155,643 (19.48%) were 40-49
200,114 (25.04%) were 50-59
260,302 (32.57%) were 60+

Yeah, I know, the boundaries are different. I did these calculations several months ago, then lost the files after a hard drive crash; thankfully, I’d at least started drafting some posts based on what I’d done, so at least I had that. I’m not in position to re-do this work yet, so you’ll have to cope with the inexactitude. It remains the case that these years are also dominated by older voters, though slightly less so. It’s highly likely that trend continues for the Presidential years, but we’ll have to wait and see to what extent that is true.

What about those new voters we talked about, some of which must surely come from people who reach voting age in the interim, or maybe who move back after graduating college? I have that data for the 2013 first-time voters:

2013 new voters ====================== 18-30 7,218 13.2% 31-40 8,153 14.9% 41-50 8,849 16.2% 51-60 12,067 22.1% 61+ 18,319 33.5%

How about 2014? Of 25,747 newly registered Harris County voters in 2014 who voted in the 2014 election:

9,521 (36.98%) were 18-29
5,001 (19.42%) were 30-39
3,617 (14.05%) were 40-49
3,610 (14.02%) were 50-59
3,998 (15.53%) were 60+

A bit younger in 2013, quite a bit younger in 2014. You may recall there was a registration drive that year, spearheaded by Battleground Texas. Whatever else you may say about BGTX, they helped get some younger folks to the polls. A similar effort this year would likely be as successful, and would definitely be advisable.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Supreme Court requires HERO ballot language change

Whatever.

HoustonUnites

The Texas Supreme Court has again overruled Mayor Annise Parker’s administration in connection with the legal fight over her signature nondiscrimination ordinance, ruling Wednesday that the mayor and City Council erred in choosing the language that will appear on the November ballot when the ordinance faces possible repeal.

The justices, writing in “yet another mandamus proceeding concerning the City of Houston’s equal rights ordinance,” said the city charter is clear in requiring that voters be asked to vote for or against the ordinance. Parker had instead argued it was proper to vote for or against repealing the measure, and the council approved language with that approach Aug. 5.

“Though the ordinance is controversial, the law governing the City Council’s duties is clear. Our decision rests not on our views on the ordinance — a political issue the citizens of Houston must decide — but on the clear dictates of the City Charter,” the justices wrote. “The City Council must comply with its own laws regarding the handling of a referendum petition and any resulting election.”

[…]

The ruling rejected an argument from the ordinance’s foes that the ballot should not contain the words “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance,” which they said was politically charged.

Yeah, because nothing about this is politically charged. I don’t really get the fuss over this – voting to “keep” or “repeal” seems like two sides of the same coin to me, and if the petition is to repeal, then it’s logical that the vote should be to repeal – but if that’s the way it is then that’s the way it is. In the end, I doubt it makes that much difference, unless the number of easily confused people in this town is higher than I think it is.

By the way, on the matter of ballot language, I like the way the Press put it:

Frankly, we found Taylor’s language more confusing than the ballot wording, but the thing that really stuck out was Taylor’s other complaint — rejected by the court — that the language shouldn’t include the words “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.”

“It is simply a gratuitous, albeit intentional, insertion designed to give proponents an edge at the polls,” Taylor wrote, adding that the ordinance’s supporters wouldn’t want “Child Predator Protection Act” appearing on the ballot.

The difference, of course, is that only one of those is accurate nomenclature.

Indeed. Never forget how much lying the leaders of the repeal movement have done. Mayor Parker’s statement is here, and the Trib, PDiddie, and Texas Leftist have more.

On a related matter, there’s still the Dave Wilson Potty Package Check Petitions, which one court ruled needed to be counted; the city has appealed that ruling to the First Court of Appeals. That was still being litigated as of yesterday, and I happen to have a copy of the city’s response to Wilson’s motion to have their appeal dismissed. To sum it up, the city is arguing that Wilson has cited no authority for his dismissal argument, and the trial court erred by granting Wilson temporary emergency relief without requiring him to prove a right to that extraordinary relief. As it happens, later in the day yesterday the appeals court denied Wilson’s motion to dismiss the city’s appeal, and gave the city ten days to “file a written response to this notice, providing a detailed explanation, citing relevant portions of the record, statutes, rules, and case law to show that this Court has jurisdiction over the appeal”. So we’ll still be arguing this at the end of the month, and that’s going to make it a very close call as to whether Wilson’s issue could get on the ballot, if the petitions were certified in the first place. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Securities Board appeals Paxton’s pal’s sanction

“A pattern of deceit” indeed.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s role in promoting Frederick “Fritz” Mowery’s investment firm helps prove a pattern of deceiving clients and covering up financial troubles, the Texas State Securities Board said Friday.

Last month, two judges assigned to help the board decide whether to take away Mowery’s ability to advise Texans on investment opportunities said while Mowery did deceive clients and securities board staff, his state registration should not be revoked.

In a 62-page response to the judges’ recommendation filed Friday, board staff disagreed, saying Mowery repeatedly “acted with intent to deceive clients and the public” by handing over false documents to state investigators and misleading his clients by lying about a past bankruptcy, among other things.

Paxton’s role in Mowery’s firm helped prove this pattern of deceit, the filing added.

[…]

This pattern caused the board to question whether any of Mowery’s alleged oversights were truly unintentional, the filing adds. Mowery had told staff, in his attempts to retain his registration, that he did not realize he had failed to disclose an earlier bankruptcy to potential clients until he was being investigated by the agency.

“These facts fit a pattern common to Respondents and their disclosure practices. As soon as there is ‘heat’ around an issue, suddenly the necessary disclosure is made,” the board’s filing states.

“Given this pattern, the (judges) should not assume that the misrepresentation about the bankruptcy was an innocent oversight. The timing and Mowery’s pattern of conduct would suggest otherwise.”

See here, here, and here for the background. As I said before, I think Mowery’s punishment needs to include being put out of business, so I agree with the Securities Board. Everyone who voted for Ken Paxton needs to read those quoted bits. You want a Republican Attorney General, fine, that’s your choice. Do you really want someone who is deliberately and habitually this dishonest in his business dealings, especially with clients who are friends and colleagues? Do you really want to go to the mats for someone who is being propped up by wealthy interests who care more about their own access to power than anything else? You tell me. Mowery can respond to this response, and then the judges may alter their recommendations or not as they see fit. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Perry appeals his other indictment

More for the CCA to deal with.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs are never wrong

Lawyers for former Gov. Rick Perry are urging the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to finish off the remaining charge in his indictment, ratcheting up their push to end the case against the presidential candidate.

The request comes a few weeks after a state appeals court dismissed one of the two counts in the case, delivering Perry’s team its first major victory in the yearlong legal saga. The remaining charge accuses Perry of abusing his power when he threatened to veto state funding for a unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office .

In a filing Tuesday, Perry’s lawyers argued that the state’s highest criminal court should toss out the rest of the indictment as a way of preventing the “judicial system from being complicit in undermining the very structure of Texas government.” Perry’s team sharply criticized how the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals arrived at its July decision letting the charge stand, accusing it of “drawing a wholly incorrect lesson” from previous cases and using an “erroneous framework” for assessing the charge.

Perry had one of his indictments tossed by the Third Court of Appeals, though that decision has been appealed to the CCA as well, by the Office of the State Prosecuting Attorney on the grounds that it invalidated a state law, and that’s not something a lower court should do. You can see a copy of Perry’s latest appeal in the Chron story. Both Judge Richardson – who of course now sits on the CCA and would presumably recuse himself from this hearing – and the Third Court of Appeals have rejected Perry’s claims not on their merits but on the grounds that it’s too early in the process for them to be properly evaluated. Speaking as a non-lawyer with no expertise at all in these matters, I kind of think the CCA will see it that way as well. But who knows? As they say in another context, this is why they play the game on the field. Trail Blazers has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Interview with Doug Peterson

Doug Peterson

Doug Peterson

We now finish up with At Large #3, where CM Michael Kubosh is in his first term. As I said on Monday, I unfortunately do not have an interview with CM Kubosh. I reached out to him and we talked about it, but were not able to come to an accommodation. Here’s the interview I did with him in 2013 if you want to review that. What I do have for today is a conversation with Doug Peterson. Peterson is recently retired from a career at NASA, where he did external relations, public affairs and human resources. He has been involved numerous grassroots political campaigns including serving as Clear Lake campaign coordinator for Bill White, and currently serves as co-chair of the Exploration Green Conservancy and the Sierra Club of Bay Area. Here’s what we talked about:

(Note: This interview took place after the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

The cost of defying the law on same sex marriage

Nearly $44K in attorneys’ fees, and it could have been worse.

It has been a month since Joe Stapleton and Jim Cato finally got the marriage license Hood County Clerk Katie Lang denied them because of her religious beliefs. It only took a federal lawsuit to get it.

Today that suit was settled, and according to the attorneys representing Stapleton and Cato, Lang’s refusal to issue the license ended up costing Hood County $43,872.10 in attorney’s fees. They will now move to dismiss the suit.

“It is a shame that Hood County Clerk Katie Lang refused to follow the rule of law, causing our clients to go through the difficulties of hiring lawyers and filing a federal lawsuit to obtain the marriage license to which they are constitutionally entitled,” says attorney Pat O’Connell, one of Stapleton and Cato’s attorneys. “And it is sad that the taxpayers of Hood County have to pay the price for their elected official’s misconduct.”

According to Austin attorney Jan Soifer, who also represented the couple, the Hood County Commissioners agreed to settle the suit “to save [Lang] from dealing with the additional expense and significant financial exposure her actions caused the taxpayers of her county.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The lawsuit was filed July 7, so this was a quick resolution. I imagine the Hood county Commissioners Court finally got some better legal advice than what Ken Paxton was dishing out post-Obergfell, and saw the writing on the wall. Lang’s pointless yet defiant anti-same-sex-marriage manifesto is still up on her County Clerk webpage, so I think it’s fair to say the commissioners saved her from herself as well. If there are still any other holdout counties at this point, let this be a lesson for them as well. See the reactions on Facebook from Glen Maxey and attorney Jan Soifer for more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

As if we needed a reminder that Sid Miller is an idiot

We got one anyway.

DoubleFacepalm

Don’t expect Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller to apologize over a social media post that appeared to call for the atomic bombing of “the Muslim world” – despite an outcry from critics.

Miller, who is currently on a trade mission to China, did not personally share a controversial photo that appeared on his campaign Facebook account and has since been removed, Todd Smith, the Republican’s campaign spokesman, said Monday. The commissioner has no plans to figure out which of his staffers shared the posting, or to apologize, Smith said.

“We’re not going to apologize for the posts that show up on our Facebook page,” said Smith, estimating that 18 people have access to the campaign account. “I don’t know who did it, but I’m not going to start a witch hunt to find out who did.”

The photo, originally shared by the Facebook user The Patriots IV Drip 2, depicted a mushroom cloud framed by two statements: “Japan has been at peace with the US since August 9, 1945,” and “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.”

The posting also included the text: “#noislamknowpeace” and “#COMETAKE.”

Late Sunday, Miller’s campaign account shared the post without adding a comment, according to the Dallas Morning News, and it was removed some time Monday morning.

You can click over and see the picture in question, if you haven’t already. There’s not much one can do with something like this except make snarky comments and attempt to score cheap political points, so let’s get on with it.

– Obviously, Miller owns this action. It’s his campaign account, and he’s not even making a token gesture of regret or distancing himself from it. (There were some weasel words from one of his people in the Chron story, but nothing from Miller himself.) I just wonder if anyone related to his campaign is smart enough to realize what a huge security risk it is to grant author permissions to 18 people (or so; they don’t even know exactly who has this level of access). All it takes is for one of those people to get hacked, and that campaign Facebook page can get pwned. One has to wonder about the security protocols they may be following with the official state accounts and files if this is how they treat their campaign assets. Maybe they should have a chat with Susan Combs about that.

– I’m pretty sure everyone in Miller’s office and campaign considers themselves good, devout Christians. I’m also pretty sure that Jesus Christ never suggested to his disciples that genocide was a good idea, or a thing to do if one wanted to follow him.

– Similarly, I’m pretty sure that everyone who works for the man who authored the sonogram law while he was in the House considers themselves strongly “pro-life”. I’m also pretty sure that some of the people they’re apparently comfortable with the idea of killing en masse are children, and that some of them are pregnant women. How that squares with their “pro-life” beliefs, I’ll leave for them to explain.

You get the idea. I could say something serious here, but honestly, what’s the point? We get the Sid Millers we deserve. The Observer, the Current, the Press, Juanita, and Paradise in Hell have more.

Posted in: General snarkiness, Show Business for Ugly People.

Hempstead landfill clarification

I recently blogged about an update to the Hempstead landfill story, in which Green Group Holdings asked to amend its original filings regarding groundwater levels. I received an email on Monday from a Green Group representative, who sent me the following additional information:

  • On August 12, 2015, the Administrative Law Judges presiding over the hearing on the landfill permit application for the Pintail Landfill in Waller County granted a continuance of the hearing process to allow Pintail to evaluate new information regarding groundwater levels at the proposed site following recent extreme rainfall amounts.
  • TCEQ rules contemplate the incorporation of new groundwater data into the engineering design for a landfill.
  • Because of our commitment to environmental stewardship and engineering excellence, we believe that further evaluation of this new information is the responsible course of action and we requested a delay in the hearing process to allow for it.
  • This is consistent with Pintail’s approach to meet or exceed applicable requirements. For instance, the surface water detention ponds at the Pintail Landfill will have significantly more capacity than required. The surface water management system at a municipal solid waste landfill is required by rule to be designed and constructed to manage the rainfall from one 25-year storm event. However, the Pintail facility’s ponds are designed to manage stormwater from two back-to-back 100-year rainfall events.
  • For the Pintail site, groundwater levels in the 15 piezometers were measured over an 18-month period, from July 2011 until December 2012, including two 3-month periods during which rainfall in the area of the Pintail site was more than 150% of normal (see attachment for additional information).
  • The higher groundwater levels recently measured at the site followed a 3-month period in which rainfall amounts were well over 200% of normal.

Emphasis in the original. The attachment in question can be seen here. In the original Chron story that I blogged about, the folks fighting the landfill asked for a summary judgment denying the permit and dismissing the case after this happened; I haven’t seen any new stories relating to this, so I don’t know what the status of that is. In any event, I wanted to be as accurate as I can about this, so here you go. Thanks to Green Group for the feedback.

Posted in: Elsewhere in Houston.

Who are the city voters?

vote-button

Everybody knows that city of Houston elections are fairly low-turnout affairs. The general perception – and it’s one that I’ve echoed as well – is that the elections are dominated by the same voters, year after year.

What I haven’t seen are the numbers to back up those assertions. With all that’s on the line in this year’s election, I thought this might be a good time to try and figure some of this stuff out. So I got the election files from the Harris County Clerk for all of the odd-numbered years going back to 2003, and played around with them to see what I could learn.

Now, we know that the bulk of Houston voters are in Harris County, but not all of them. There are a couple of thousand voters in Fort Bend County, and a couple of dozen voters in Montgomery County. I didn’t try to get the data for these voters in these elections. They represent maybe two percent of the total each year, and I just didn’t feel like the effort to include that data was worthwhile. So when you see me tossing around total turnout numbers in this post, bear in mind I’m talking about Harris County turnout for the city of Houston.

The first question I wanted to answer was “Who are the truly hardcore voters in Houston, the ones who come out every election without fail?” My sense going into this was that there might be fewer of these people than one might think. The answer is that 36,036 City of Houston voters have participated in every November election since 2003. That’s 20.7% of the 174,132 Harris County voters who cast a ballot in Houston in 2013.

I don’t know what kind of number I was expecting, but I wasn’t terribly surprised by this. Houston is a dynamic city. People move in and move out, sometimes to or from the suburbs in Harris County and elsewhere, sometimes to and from other cities or states, or countries. We have a significant population of children, and some of them turn 18 every year. We also have an electorate that skews old – more on that in the next post from this series – and every year some of them age out, which is the poli-sci way of saying “die”. A lot of this can and will happen over a ten-year span. The total number of voters in a given year may reliably be in a narrow band, but the names do indeed change over time.

What about the short term? The gold standard for voters to contact for candidate outreach is those who have voted in at least two of the last three elections. How many potential voters does that rule out, given what we now know about the amount of turnover in the electorate? Consider the 2013 election, which had a near identical voter total as the open 2009 election. 54,708 of 174,132 voters in 2013 had not voted in either of the 2011 or 2009 elections. That’s 31.4% of the total. The two-out-of-threes are a clear majority, but that’s still an awful lot of votes to leave on the table if you don’t try to find them.

This isn’t new. In 2009, 63,164 voters had not participated in 2003 – this is 36.1% of the 175,031 total voters. 58,973 2009 voters – 33.7% – had not voted in either 2005 or 2007. I feel pretty confident saying that when we look back on the 2015 election, we will find that something like 35% of the electorate was “new”. Given the past pattern of turnout being higher in years with high-profile referenda on the ballot, that’s likely to be an understatement.

Who are these “new” voters? As I’ve said before, some of them are new to Houston, and some of them are newly registered. Some of them have been here all along, and just hadn’t had a reason to come out to the ballot box before. How many of each there are, I couldn’t say. I can say that a candidate or campaign that isn’t trying to find and engage these voters is missing a significant opportunity. Especially in a year like this, that’s not a good idea.

Posted in: Election 2015.

The contours of the HERO fight

We’ll see how this goes.

HoustonUnites

When City Council sent Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance to the November ballot two weeks ago, the vote raised the curtain on dueling campaigns that had been bracing in the wings for a political showdown more than a year in the making.

Council’s 12-5 vote to affirm the ordinance and place it on the ballot, part of a Texas Supreme Court order, followed months of heated back-and-forth in City Hall and various Harris County courtrooms. By the next week, campaign managers had been selected, ads were drafted and pollsters were working to take the pulse of voters.

Supporters quickly appealed to Houston-native and superstar Beyoncé on Twitter for a plug. Opponents, meanwhile, touted presidential candidate Rand Paul’s remarks during the national GOP debates chiding Mayor Annise Parker, though not by name, for a political fumble during the court case surrounding the law. Both camps warned that the eyes of the nation are on Houston.

Political scientists, however, said that is a tad dramatic; unless the law is repealed, the fight over Houston’s non-discrimination law will amount to a largely local affair bolstered by some national money.

Opponents will push a public safety campaign driven by the perceived threat that male sexual predators dressed in drag will use the law as cover to enter women’s restrooms. Supporters, meanwhile, will seek to debunk that and warn that repealing the law would irreparably harm the city’s image.

Both groups said they will need to spend at least $2 million to pepper voters with targeted direct mail and a few choice ads.

“HERO will be competing head to head with the mayoral election for oxygen and energy,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “There’s only so much space in an election like this, and a lot of that space is going to be occupied by HERO because it’s a charged issue. It’s going to make it even more difficult for down-ballot races to emerge and obtain the attention of voters.”

[…]

At dueling launch events last week, both sides offered a glimpse of the campaigns to come.

On Wednesday, equal rights ordinance supporters unveiled the “Houston Unites” campaign.

Leslie Jackson, the minister of education at Cathedral of Hope church in Midtown, said opponents “confuse religious freedom with the freedom to discriminate.”

“Religious faith does not undermine the value of equality for all under the law,” Jackson said. “Religious faith demands it. As a Christian minister, I must oppose misguided efforts to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.”

The task for supporters, Campaign Manager Richard Carlbom said, is twofold: explaining the ramifications if the ordinance is repealed and countering opponents’ contention that male sexual predators will use the ordinance to enter women’s restrooms.

“Houston and Houstonians don’t believe in discrimination, and so, HERO simply says everybody should be free from discrimination and that’s why folks should support it,” Carlbom said.

The challenge for supporters is to fend off the public safety allegations without losing their own message, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. The business angle – that events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four could go elsewhere in the event of repeal – likely will factor into supporters’ argument, he said.

The onus, he said, largely falls on opponents of the ordinance to turn the tide as LGBT issues continue to pick up public support. As the ordinance was embroiled in litigation, a slew of states and then the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.

“In part, because it’s hard to get people to undo something, opponents have a harder job,” Rottinghaus said. “Once the inertia is developed in a certain direction, it’s hard to get people to do something different.”

Jared Woodfill, former Harris County GOP chairman and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the ordinance, said opponents would target female voters and men concerned about the safety of their wives and daughters. The pitch to voters, Woodfill said, is simple: “No men in women’s restrooms.”

Yeah, that’s exactly how I thought the opposition would go. The good news, I suppose, is that I really don’t think the leaders of the opposition are capable of keeping their frothing homophobia under wraps, and I think that will hurt them. I agree with Campos that the more they let Steven Hotze talk, the better it will be for HERO supporters. But it’s increasingly clear to me that the bathroom argument has taken hold, and has been internalized by a lot of people. I don’t think facts are going to help counter that. To the extent that persuasion is part of the pro-HERO campaign, I think it has to be about making people feel that supporting HERO is the right thing – the Houston thing – to do. I’m hopeful, but there’s an awful lot that can go wrong, and a lot at stake. BOR has more.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Meyers voter ID lawsuit to proceed

An update on that other voter ID lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Larry Meyers claims that the state’s voter ID law violates the Texas Constitution, and the court ruled that the case will proceed after rejecting defendants’ arguments that the court lacked jurisdiction.

Meyers—who filed the lawsuit as a private citizen, not as a judge on the state’s top criminal court—and a Dallas-area election worker, Myrtis Evans, sued three defendants over the voter ID law, claiming that the law violated the Texas Constitution because it was a prior restraint on their right to political expression. Among other things, they alleged that the law violated their rights to due process and equal protection, said a third amended petition in Meyers v. Texas, filed in Dallas County’s 134th District Court.

The plaintiffs sued the state of Texas, Secretary of State Carlos Cascos and Dallas County elections administrator Toni Pippins-Poole. All of the defendants have denied all of the allegations.

The state and the secretary of state argued that the court did not have jurisdiction and should dismiss the lawsuit. They allege that Meyers and Evans did not have standing to bring their claims, plus they “sued the wrong defendants,” according to the plea to the jurisdiction. They also claimed they had sovereign immunity.

134th District Judge Dale Tillery denied the arguments late last month.

See here for the background. There is of course a federal lawsuit against the voter ID law, and the ruling by the Fifth Circuit that Texas’ law ruled that it violated the Voting Rights Act came out later in the same day that this story appeared. Judge Meyers says he’ll drop his lawsuit if the federal district court ruling is upheld by them and by SCOTUS. I haven’t seen any indication since the appellate ruling that his mind has been changed, so I presume he will continue to pursue this. I’m happy to see all avenues being taken against the voter ID law, and I’m glad the judge in this case agreed with that. One way or the other, we’re still a ways off from a resolution.

Posted in: Legal matters.

System Reimagining, Day One

So far, so good.

HoustonMetro

Bruno Davi waited Monday morning for a Metro bus in his usual spot on Heights Boulevard, but his trip wasn’t the same.

It’s a situation thousands of Metropolitan Transit Authority riders faced as the agency’s new bus network, which officially launched Sunday, got its first workday test. Though months of planning and community outreach went into the change, riders were still left with first-time jitters and the task of changing longstanding habits.

“It’s like the first day of school,” said Davi, 40, who coincidentally was toting a large backpack.

Metro predicted some confusion would arise as riders adjust to changes that focus on developing core, frequent routes that make a grid pattern around the region and decentralize service away from the downtown area.

Any change is hard on some riders, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, and transit officials are hearing a variety of reactions to the new routes.

“We’re getting some folks who don’t like what we’re doing and they are eloquent in expressing their views,” Lambert said. “We’re getting folks who love what we’re doing, and they are also eloquent in expressing their views.”

At times, with riders looking for answers, Metro was unable to handle demand at its call center. Officials increased the staff in the center to 70, from about 45, to handle the additional demand. At peak times, the center was averaging about 330 calls per hour, more than double its normal volume.

Call volume in some cases exceeded the number of incoming phone lines, which means some calls are being dropped. As lines become available, incoming calls can get through, Lambert said.

Each call is taking longer, he said, as Metro staff re-educate the caller on travel options.

[…]

Lambert said it could be up to two weeks before officials get a first glimpse at reliable ridership information and accurate figures on whether buses are arriving as frequently as Metro promised. He said early information indicates most routes are moving as predicted.

“I think each day we are going to get better feedback,” he said.

There were a few anecdotes from affected riders, and a couple more in this accompanying story about energetic young Metro employee Barrett Ochoa and his efforts to assist people on Day One, but if that’s as bad as it gets, this is going to be a piece of cake. I don’t mean to minimize this – there will be problems, and Metro and its staff are expending a huge amount of time and effort into making this work – but given that some people – OK, one persistent Metro crank – were predicting disaster and riders getting fired for missing work due to new route confusion, I think it’s important to maintain some perspective. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We will get through this. Take a deep breath, check the various tools that are available to figure out what bus you need to take, and give Metro a call if you still can’t make sense of it. And if you feel confident and want to test yourself, go take the Houston Tomorrow Department of Transportation New Bus Network Challenge. Whatever you do, happy riding.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Interview with John C.B. LaRue

John C. B. LaRue

John C. B. LaRue

We move on to At Large #3, where CM Michael Kubosh is in his first term. I have two interviews to bring you for this race, and unfortunately neither of them is with CM Kubosh. I reached out to him and we talked about it, but were not able to come to an accommodation. Here’s the interview I did with him in 2013 if you want to review that. Be that as it may, the first interview this week is with John C. B. LaRue. A native of Philly, John moved to Texas at the age of ten and served as an intern for the Speaker of the Texas House while attending St. Edwards University. He attended law school while working as an Admissions Counselor at the University of St. Thomas, and spent some time in Washington DC after getting his degree as Policy & Program Coordinator of Preservation Action, a national grassroots non-profit that seeks to make historic preservation a national priority. He now works as a family lawyer in Houston, and has the distinction of being one half of the first same-sex couple to get a marriage license in Harris County. Here’s the interview:

(Note: This interview took place before the Supreme Court ruling that required a repeal or referendum on HERO.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Posted in: Election 2015.

On succeeding, and defending, Ken Paxton

Ross Ramsay:

Best mugshot ever

While Ken Paxton fights to avoid convictions and jail time on indictments alleging securities violations — and to keep his job as Texas attorney general — a muted and unofficial conversation about who will succeed him is already underway.

[…]

That considerable legal predicament opens the conversation about whether Paxton can survive politically. Any felony conviction, whether it involves prison or not, would cost him his law license and probably whatever remains of his term. And that could set up an appointment of his successor by Gov. Greg Abbott — his predecessor as attorney general.

That leads to this: There is a political fluster underway that most people know nothing about.

Names of possible Paxton successors are floating around in Republican circles: Supreme Court Justices Don Willett and Eva Guzman; former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson; current and former first assistants to the AG Chip Roy and Daniel Hodge; [Dan] Branch and [Barry] Smitherman, the two also-rans in last year’s Republican primary. It goes on, picking up Education Commissioner Michael Williams and state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas.

The people in the preceding paragraph have a few things in common. They are Republicans. They are lawyers. They are not openly campaigning for Paxton’s job. Some support Paxton and hope he emerges without a mark. And they make up a pretty good list of viable candidates for state office, whether it turns out to be this one or something in the future. They’re from different parts of the GOP, and the infighting, should an opening occur, could be fierce.

I hope Paxton digs his heels in deep and hangs on to run for re-election even if he’s been convicted. What does he care what a bunch of insiders and establishment figures think about his “effectiveness” or “ability to govern?” They’re not the ones who elected him in the first place, and they’re not the ones who are steadfastly supporting him against all comers and all evidence. Scott Braddock explains.

Employees of Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans, a self-proclaimed conservative group, have tried to make the case that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is somehow to blame for the legal problems Paxton now faces.

As Quorum Report publisher Harvey Kronberg has pointed out, this alleged swindling of investors amounts to the same kind of shenanigans that helped give rise to the Tea Party in the first place back in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent Wall Street bailouts.

What’s gotten less attention is the company at the heart of the Paxton indictment, Servergy, received government economic incentives that are strongly opposed by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and others who claim to be as conservative as they come.

Sen. Ted Cruz – one of Paxton’s biggest supporters and the man who more than anyone put his political capital behind him in the GOP primary runoff against Rep. Dan Branch – regularly rails against government interference in the marketplace.

In his crusade against the Export-Import Bank, a top priority of many Texas employers, Cruz has called the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar and has repeatedly used the word “cartel” to describe lobbyists who represent job creators in his home state and elsewhere.

At the time Paxton was rounding up investors for Servergy, allegedly without disclosing his financial interest in the firm, the company was getting government incentives to move to his hometown. Among the details of Paxton’s situation is the fact that Servergy received rental assistance from the City of McKinney so that it could relocate to North Texas from California.

[…]

Many of those same folks in the business community are understandably unaware of the way in which scorecards created and promoted by Empower Texans are reverse-engineered with the goal of aiding GOP politicians who have been adversarial toward Speaker Straus. Sen. Burton and AG Paxton have been beneficiaries of those tactics.

Paxton was also the recipient of at least $1.4 million in Empower Texans political money in the form of a $1 million loan and $400,000 cash as he ran for the Republican nomination.

As far as we know, Paxton is the only one of their allies who possibly gained from government economic incentives that went to a company from which he stood to profit financially.

If consistency or conservatism were the priorities of Dunn, his spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan, and Sen. Burton they would likely be among the loudest critics of Servergy’s rental assistance.

But the name of the game for this particular cartel is control, not consistency.

Indeed, and that’s why I think any talk of who might succeed Ken Paxton is premature. Paxton knows where his bread is buttered. Until that support dries up, or until the voters actually do boot him out, I don’t believe he’s going anywhere.

Posted in: Scandalized!.