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Lone Star College

Commissioners Court to get deposed

This ought to be interesting.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and all four county commissioners are scheduled to be deposed Monday in a federal lawsuit filed by former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors who said they experienced retaliation after exposing problems with a mobile DUI testing program.

Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong say the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and county commissioners colluded in having them fired after they revealed problems in HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vehicles, known as “BAT vans.”

At the time of the terminations, Culbertson and Wong were working at a Lone Star College laboratory that supervised under-the-influence testing for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. They say they lost their jobs when commissioners voted to cancel the Lone Star contract.

While working as analysts for HPD, Culbertson and Wong exposed problems with the BAT vans that complicated DUI prosecutions.

In retaliation, their 2012 lawsuit says, former Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer lobbied commissioners to cancel the county’s long-standing contract with their employer, Lone Star. The county subsequently signed a more costly deal for lab work with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In September, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes authorized the depositions of commissioners El Franco Lee, Jack Morman, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle as well as Emmett and his criminal justice adviser Doug Adkinson. The judge also limited each inquiry to one hour.

[…]

HPD began using the BAT vans in 2008. Into early 2011, Culbertson reported temperature and electrical irregularities with instruments that could influence the integrity of tests, the lawsuit said.

In May 2011, Culbertson testified in a DUI trial that she could not verify a device had been working properly during a test. In July 2011 testimony, she said she could not trust the accuracy of a van analysis. That same month, Palmer, the assistant district attorney, wrote a memo to a supervisor in which she concluded that Culbertson “could not be trusted to testify in a breath test” and that she was “gravely concerned” about Culbertson’s ability to “testify fairly” in the future.

Culbertson and Wong resigned from HPD in 2011 to become technical supervisors at Lone Star.

In the fall of 2011, the college’s contract of nearly three decades with the county – which had been renewed annually – was terminated in favor of a more expensive DPS deal. Culbertson and Wong were fired by Lone Star in October 2011, shortly after the commissioners transferred the testing business.

Hughes dismissed the lawsuit in August 2013, but that decision was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. All claims against Lykos have been dismissed or settled, and all claims against Palmer have been tossed.

See here and here for some background. As I’ve said before, I haven’t followed this story closely enough to have a firm about about it, but as having all five members of the Court deposed in a lawsuit is an unprecedented situation, I figured it was worth noting. The Press has more.

Art Murillo

Congratulations to Art Murillo, the first person of color elected to the Lone Star College Board of Trustees. Need I mention that it took a lawsuit for this to happen?

Art Murillo

Murillo, who is Latino, at one time might have seemed a long shot to win a seat on the Lone Star College board of trustees. But he was running in a newly drawn majority-Latino district, the result of a lawsuit that challenged the LSC’s “at-large” system of representation. On Tuesday, Murillo was elected the only Latino member of the nine-member board.

[…]

Lone Star College officials created the new district after a lawsuit alleged that the old election system – where all voters in the community college district could vote for each candidate – disenfranchised minorities because whites across the district would reject minority candidates.

The district currently has about 83,000 students enrolled in college credit courses.

Starting this year, that system is gone, and the college system isn’t alone in tackling the voting rights issue.

“As to the suburban areas, because of the white flight that this country experienced for half a century, those districts have been exceedingly Anglo for so long that at-large districts didn’t really commit a great deal of harm on minority citizens,” said Chad Dunn, who represented the group that sued Lone Star last year and specializes in litigation involving such systems.

“What is uniquely going on now, and about the last decade as the city center has redeveloped, the suburbs are becoming much more mixed-race,” Dunn said.

Latinos make up about 32 percent of people living in the Lone Star College district, which spans north Harris and Montgomery counties, according to the most recent census figures. African-Americans make up 15 percent.

Advocates argue that the new single-member districts that have a majority of minority voters will ensure they have a voice in college affairs.

“There’s not a lot of Hispanic leadership at all,” Murillo told another resident as they discussed Hispanic participation in local elections.

Two points to note here. One is that no matter what the Supreme Court may think there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that minority communities have something resembling a proportionate amount of representation in government. Single member districts, for city councils and school boards and the like, are often the best, or at least the fastest, way to make this happen. It’s not a panacea, and some problems could be alleviated by higher rates of voter participation, but you can run into a chicken-and-egg problem there. It’s hard to convince someone to run for an office they don’t see a way to win. The plaintiffs in the LSC single-member litigation couldn’t do a proper comparison of how white and non-white candidates did in these elections in the past because there weren’t any non-white candidates running.

The other point is that those of us that would like to see more diverse representation in elected offices need to pay more attention to local races like this one. Your future legislators and Congressfolk and whatnot often get their start in places like the Lone Star College Board of Trustees; Harris County Clerk Chris Daniel is one example. The potential to change outcomes by increasing voter participation is great as well. Frankly, if Battleground Texas wants to regain some ground, and some credibility, between now and 2016 I’d strongly advise them to look around at the various municipal and school board elections that will happen in 2015, identify some targets and some candidates, and work to get them elected. Doing so would help keep the kind of voters they want to target engaged, it would help put some future candidates for other offices in place to start doing good and building a record, and it give them a chance to apply whatever lessons they learned from this election while maybe claiming a victory or three to build on for 2016. Honestly, the conservative movement figured this out thirty or forty year ago. Isn’t it time we catch up a bit?

First impressions of the 2014 results

My initial thoughts, for what they are worth.

– Let me begin by saying that for all the criticism I had of the UT/Texas Trib’s polling and the skepticism of Internet-sample methodology, they were fairly accurate in the end. In particular, the last YouGov result just about nailed it. I still think what they do is more alchemy than anything else, and their subsample results often look ridiculous, but however they did it, they got it right and they deserve credit for it.

– I’m sure we’re about to be deluged with critical stories about Battleground Texas and public doubts about their future viability – the Trib and the Observer are already on it – but I have to ask, given the way this election went nationally, why they are more deserving of scorn than anyone else. In particular, how did they do any worse than the DCCC, DSCC, and DGA? The DSCC’s fabled “Bannock Street Project”, which was supposed to save the Senate by increasing Democratic turnout in battleground states, was a spectacular dud. Democratic candidates for Governor lost in such deep red states as Illinois and Maryland. Hell, the chair of the DGA, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who pooped on Wendy Davis’ campaign a few months ago, failed to get a majority of the votes in his own election. BGTX doesn’t have much to brag about today, and I have no doubt they could have done plenty of things better. But I know a lot of people – friends of mine – who worked their tails off for BGTX and the Davis campaign, and I will not demean the work they did. If you want to criticize them, go right ahead, but please be specific about your complaints. I’m not going to pay attention to any generalized rants.

– Davis didn’t come close to matching Bill White’s vote total, and no statewide Dem reached 40% of the vote. That’s the harsh truth, and there’s no sugarcoating it. The funny thing is, though, for all the talk about turnout being down, it wasn’t actually Democratic turnout that was down. Here’s a comparison of the vote totals for the Democrats running for the top four offices over the last four non-Presidential cycles:

2002 2006 2010 2014 ======================================================= Governor 1,819,798 1,310,337 2,106,395 1,832,254 Lt Gov 2,082,281 1,617,490 1,719,202 1,810,720 Atty Gen 1,841,359 1,599,069 1,655,859 1,769,943 Comptroller 1,476,976 1,585,362 N/A 1,739,308

Davis didn’t peel crossover votes away from Abbott the way White did from Rick Perry, but beyond that I don’t see a step back. If anything, it’s an inch or two forward, though of course that still leaves a thousand miles to go. Where turnout did decline was on the Republican side. Greg Abbott received about 360,000 fewer votes than he did in 2010. Given the whipping that Republicans were laying on Dems across the country, one might wonder how it is they didn’t do any better than they did here.

One thing I’m seeing, and I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow, is that some people seem to think that because Davis got about 265K fewer votes than Bill White that means that overall Democratic turnout was down by that amount. In a word, this is baloney. White drew the votes of some 300K people that otherwise voted Republican. Their presence in his tally was nice for him, and would have been critical in a different year, but they had nothing to do with Democratic turnout. I am at a loss for why people are making that claim, and why they are overlooking or ignoring the gains in the races just below the Governor’s race, where a coordinated turnout effort would have an effect. Like I said, more about this tomorrow.

– Harris County wasn’t any prettier than the state was, and here in Harris there were declines in the vote totals of both parties. I’ve been looking at the statewide results more closely to see where the gains and losses were, and my initial impression is that the other big counties did move forward in ways Harris did not. The mail program was a success, but it seems clear that it mostly shifted behavior. If there was a net gain, in terms of votes we wouldn’t have had at all without the mail program, it means that in person turnout efforts were that much less successful. If we’re going to be introspective, that’s the place to start.

– All that said, if I’m newly-elected Harris County DA Devon Anderson, I’d take a few minutes to be concerned about the fact that I have to be on the ballot again in 2016. Consider this: By my calculation, the average Republican judicial candidate who had a Democratic opponent received 359,759 votes. The average Dem judicial candidate got 297,311. Anderson received 354,098 while Kim Ogg got 311,094. To put it another way, Ogg got crossover votes, which stands both her and Anderson in contrast to Pat Lykos in 2008 and Mike Anderson in 2012. Frankly, if she’s up for it, I’d tell Kim Ogg to keep running and start fundraising now for 2016. Assuming the patterns from the last two Presidential years hold here, she’d have a real shot at it.

– Along the same lines, of the five legislative seats the Dems lost (three in the House, one each in Congress and the Senate), HDs 117 and 144 should flip back in 2016, and if I were Pete Gallego I’d keep running for CD23 as well. (If he doesn’t want to run any more, allow me to be the first to hop on the Mary Gonz├ílez bandwagon.) If Susan Criss can’t win HD23, which had been trending red for some time, I doubt anyone can. As for SD10, it’s not up again till 2018, but for the record, Libby Willis basically hit the Bill White number, which suggests she drew a non-trivial number of crossovers. Someone ought to take another crack at that one next time around but bear in mind this was always going to be a tough hold. I strongly suspect that if Wendy Davis had decided to run for re-election instead that we’d still be mourning her defeat.

– One prize Dems did claim was knocking off longtime Bexar County DA Susan Reed. Republicans claimed a victory over DA Craig Watkins in Dallas, where he was his own worst enemy. I refer you to Grits for more on that.

– Other results of interest: You already know about the Denton fracking ban. The Katy and Lone Star College bond initiatives passed. Austin Council Member Council Member Mike Martinez and attorney Steve Adler are in a runoff for Mayor; other Council race results, the first single member district elections in Austin, are here. And finally, Old Town Tomball repealed its ban on alcohol sales. Pour one out, y’all.

– Finally, a word on the matter of the efficacy of campaign ads, in particular negative ads. Yesterday morning after we dropped off the kids at school, Tiffany mentioned to me that Olivia’s understanding of the Governor’s race was that if Abbott won, there would be more standardized tests, which did not please her. “He wants to test four-year-olds!” she said. “That’s just wack!” I will simply note that at no time this year did I ever discuss the Abbott and Davis pre-k plans with her, and leave it at that.

The community college crunch

Increasing enrollment and decreasing funding is a bad combination.

Community colleges, like most other state agencies and institutions of higher education, faced a 5 percent cut in state funding for 2010 and 2011. That was about $3.2 million each year for Lone Star and about $3.5 million a year for HCC. The future may bring a bigger hit, as Gov. Rick Perry has asked colleges and agencies to prepare for an additional 10 percent cut in 2012 and 2013.

Across the state, community college enrollment was up 13 percent last fall. Next fall, enrollment is predicted to be up even more.

“It’s unprecedented, in that you see growth in all the (community college) districts, and in this kind of a budget environment,” [Steven Johnson, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges] said. “Most colleges are seeing this as the beginning of a long process, trying to manage that enrollment growth with shrinking resources.”

I presume part of the reason for the increase in community college enrollment is the increasingly unaffordable cost of a four-year university, especially in this economic environment. It may also be the start of a new trend, with more students preferring this route either as a pathway to a cheaper four-year degree, or as a perfectly acceptable alternative to one. Whatever the reason, it seems clear we’re as bent on screwing it up for those who need it as we are for those who aren’t college age yet. The budget situation for this biennium is just an excuse. You’ll note that we never did anything to make public universities more affordable after the deficit-inspired tuition deregulation of 2003. I fear that whatever we do now to make community colleges less accessible will never be undone, either. Hell of a way to pave the way for the future generations, that’s all I know.