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Good riddance to a bad judge

Meet federal district judge Walter Smith. Now say a long overdue goodbye to him.

Walter Smith

Walter Smith

One of Texas’ strictest federal judges — serving a year’s ban from hearing cases after being slapped hard by a panel of appeals court judges last year — has retired amid a renewed investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco was publicly reprimanded for sexual misconduct last fall over a 1998 incident in which he reportedly groped and kissed a court clerk. He submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama last week, effective Sept. 14, and will draw an annuity equal to his current salary, $203,100 per year, for the rest of his life.

It was unclear if the resignation will end the investigation, which was restarted this year after an appeal by Dallas lawyer Ty Clevenger, who filed the original complaint against Smith and who wants the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach him.

A committee of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decided in July to continue investigating to see if Smith made advances toward other women. A spokesman for the 5th Circuit could not immediately say Tuesday whether the court’s Judicial Council will make its full investigation report public or whether the investigation will now end.

“Good riddance,” Clevenger said of Smith on Tuesday. “Thank goodness he won’t be able to hurt anybody else.”

Clevenger said he still wants Smith to be impeached “for two reasons: One, I think it’s appropriate. And, I don’t think he needs to be paid $200,000 after what he’s done.”

The Judicial Council issued the reprimand last fall, suspending Smith from hearing any new cases for a year, but did not recommend impeachment. The panel found he had made “inappropriate and unwanted physical and non-physical sexual advances” toward a court clerk in his chambers in 1998, which it deemed “in contravention of existing standards of behavior for federal judges.”

The council’s order also said Smith “does not understand the gravity” of the inappropriate behavior and “allowed false factual assertions to be made in response to the complaint, which together with the lateness of his admissions contributed greatly to the duration and cost of the investigation.”

Sounds like a heck of a guy, doesn’t he? Texas Lawyer tells us more.

The Fifth Circuit’s punishment confirmed judicial misconduct allegations originally filed by Ty Clevenger, a former Dallas lawyer who was previously sanctioned $25,000 by the judge for filing a “frivolous” racketeering case in his court. Clevenger was later reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas in 2014 because of Smith’s sanction but used the bar disciplinary proceedings to subpoena the witness who alleged Smith sexually harassed her in 1998 as part of his defense.

In her deposition, the woman stated that in 1998, Smith approached her in the courthouse smelling of liquor and told her to “come see me sometime.” Smith later called her and instructed her to come to his chambers, which she did, according to her deposition.

“He basically came over to me and put his arms around me and kissed me and I just froze. I couldn’t move,” the woman testified. “And he said, ‘Let me make love to you.’ And I—and I—I just freaked out.”

Clevenger appealed Smith’s punishment to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States in January, urging the body to suspend Smith from the bench immediately and recommend his impeachment. Clevenger also alleged that the sexual harassment incident was not isolated and submitted to the Fifth Circuit the names of other witnesses to Smith’s alleged abuse of women in the courthouse.

In July, the committee decided to send Smith’s reprimand back to the Fifth Circuit to examine whether there was a “pattern and practice” to Smith’s behavior, noting that Clevenger had provided the names of other witnesses.

You can see a copy of the woman’s deposition here, via the Current. And oh, yes, it gets worse.

According to statements the woman made during a 2014 deposition, it all started when Smith said hello to her one morning in 1998 as he was entering the courthouse — something that seemed only a little strange at first because she’d hardly ever seen the judge before, let alone talked to him. Also: his breath smelled like liquor.

After telling her good morning and asking how she was doing, Smith asked the woman to swing by and see him in his office sometime. It got even weirder when the judge called the woman immediately after she sat down at her desk upon returning from lunch later that day. “Where have you been? … I told you to come see me,” she recalled him saying. Smith told the woman to walk down the hall and tell his secretary she needed to see the judge. The woman thought that maybe Smith wanted to talk about a promotion – he was, after all, looking for a new courtroom clerk.

Instead, according to her deposition, “He basically came over to me and put his arms around me and kissed me, and I just froze. I couldn’t move. And he said, ‘Let me make love to you.’” She told him that was a stupid idea. In return, “he pulled me to him again, and he kissed me again and stuck his tongue down my throat, and he pressed himself against me. I could tell he had an erection, and he said, you know, ‘A couch right here.’”

The woman says she thought about Smith’s reputation for having a temper. Considering he also seemed and smelled drunk, the woman says she struggled with what to do. Meanwhile, Smith started to grope her. According to the deposition: “I just remember he just put his arms around me, around my back, then lower. And then he started to try [to] touch my breasts, and I kind of pushed away.” The woman ran through excuse after excuse until she finally broke away, walked out of Smith’s office and sat down at her desk. She still asks herself why she wasn’t more direct. As she said in her deposition, “I was just trying to keep him from blowing up at me.”

The woman’s story would be alarming enough if it ended there. It doesn’t. The woman says Smith called her at her desk later in the day, asking her to take a couple of days off work. He wanted to take a trip with her. He told her he’d make sure she would get paid time off. Before coming into work the next day, the woman called her supervisor to tell him about Smith’s actions. She begged her supervisor not to leave her alone with the judge. She was scared because Smith apparently wouldn’t take no for an answer.

When the woman got to the office later that day, Smith had left a dozen yellow roses on her desk. Smith was calling as soon as she sat down (she figured he’d watched her walk into the building). “Where have you been?” he asked her, according to her deposition testimony. “I’ve been waiting for you here all day.” She told Smith he shouldn’t have sent her the roses. She says he told her, “I just had to.” Later that day, he managed to get her alone in her office by sending her supervisor on an errand.

It was a Friday, and later that afternoon, Smith again called the woman at her desk. He asked what she was doing that weekend. She said she was spending it with her grandparents. Before he left the office for the day, Smith left a note on the woman’s desk saying, “I hope you have a pleasant weekend.” She went into the office that weekend, grabbed her belongings, and left the flowers on the empty desk. A coworker would later tell her that Smith just let the flowers sit there and die.

Within hours of the woman telling her supervisors she was quitting, she says higher ups in the clerk’s office offered her six weeks leave with pay in the hopes that she’d reconsider at the end of it. She said in her deposition that while she was on leave she got a strange call from Smith’s law clerk. He claimed Smith had been in the hospital, and that he was so distraught, he couldn’t come into work.

The complaint eventually reached Harry Lee Hudspeth, who was then chief judge of the Western District of Texas, which is anchored in San Antonio (Hudspeth is now listed as a Senior U.S. District Judge in Austin). The woman claims that Hudspeth ultimately called her. He was dismissive throughout the call, she claimed. He didn’t ask a single question about the actual assault or Smith’s behavior toward her in the workplace. “It was ugly,” she said of the call. “It was disrespectful. It was demeaning.”

The woman actually did try to go back to her job but quickly realized she couldn’t remain on the same floor as the judge who called her into his office, attacked her in his chambers, and then continued to harass her. “I had a fear of walking out into the hall and running – running into him,” she testified.

Feeling outraged yet? Even without Ty Clevenger’s assertion that there are more witnesses out there, I’d bet a week’s salary that this woman wasn’t the only one Judge Smith harassed. No one believed her when she first reported it, he got away with it for 18 years, and he clearly still doesn’t get it. The odds that he’s a serial offender are off the charts. And hey, unless Congress takes action, he gets to enjoy a $200K-a-year retirement on your dime. Is this a great country or what?

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

Waco finally adopts non-discrimination policy for LGBT city employees

Very glad to see it.

Without fanfare or controversy, the city of Waco has quietly agreed to bar discrimination against city employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said Monday he has made an administrative decision to add sexual orientation and sexual identity to the city’s internal personnel policy on nondiscrimination.

The policy already bars discrimination based on the federally recognized categories of race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, marital status and disability.

“All I’m doing is updating our internal policy . . . just to clarify that we don’t discriminate based on sexual preference and identity,” Fisseler said.

A handful of local pro-LGBT activists, led by Paul Derrick and Carmen Saenz, had been seeking the change since 2013.

The city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee last summer recommended the policy revision. Then-City Manager Larry Groth turned it down, saying in a February letter that the city has never had a grievance or complaint about LGBT discrimination.

“I believe the policies clearly convey the message to our employees that discrimination and/or harassment is not allowed to any class even without a list,” he wrote to the advisory committee.

But Fisseler, who succeeded Groth in March, said his correspondence with Derrick in the last month gave him reason to reconsider.

“I agreed with Larry at the time, but I’ve been offered some additional information I don’t think he had,” Fisseler said.

[…]

Fisseler was city manager in Fort Worth in 2009 when the city council there passed a much more sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance that gave LGBT residents protections not only in municipal employment but private-sector employment, housing and public accommodations.

Saenz, who worked with Derrick on the Waco policy, said she ultimately would like to see a broad nondiscrimination ordinance in Waco, but she thought it necessary to take smaller steps.

Saenz, a psychology professional who identifies as lesbian, said she hasn’t experienced discrimination in Waco, but in the last year she has heard from city employees who feel pressure at work to keep their same-sex relationships a secret.

“The bigger picture is that we wanted to show that the city of Waco treats everyone equally,” she said. “It reflects to the state and the country that we don’t discriminate. It’s good for business, and it’s good for kids growing up gay, lesbian or trans that this is a place where you can live your life authentically and go to work.”

See here and here for the background. I confess, I lost track of this after the Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee voted to recommend the change – I just assumed it had been adopted. My bad there. Be that as it may, this is a nice step forward after the victory in Houston, and I too hope that once the locals realize that the earth is still spinning on its axis a push can be made to adopt a similar comprehensive ERO for Waco as well.

Two truths about testing

Lisa Falkenberg boils it down.

While there’s no doubt standardized tests are an important part of student assessment, somewhere along the way, they became too important. We’ve tethered them to everything from student promotion to teacher pay to school reputation. And it’s not just the test days that take away from meaningful learning but the months-long test prep.

Opting out is one way of saying enough’s enough. Principals and teachers aren’t as free to send that message to lawmakers. They’re bound to follow the law. The power rests with parents. But parents are only empowered if they know their rights and band together.

Falkenberg’s column is about two sets of parents, in Waco and in Houston, who try to get their kids out of their STAAR tests. I can’t add anything to that first paragraph above; it’s exactly how I feel. There’s also the stress to the students, which we have had to deal with this year. All tests are stressful, of course, but it’s the pervasiveness and the emphasis on the STAAR that takes it up a notch.

It’s the second paragraph that I want to focus on, because it really is the case that we the parents have the power to affect this. But it’s not just us parents that have this power, and it’s not because we’re parents. The power we have is at the ballot box. If you don’t like the testing regime we have now, don’t support candidates or incumbents that do. In Texas, that means knowing how your legislators stand, and vote, on testing matters. Falkenberg writes about Kyle and Jennifer Massey, parents from Waco who fought a battle with Waco ISD to allow their son to not take the STAAR this year. Kyle Massey runs a blog and has written several entries about his testing beliefs and their fight to opt out their son. Well, the city of Waco is represented in Austin by Sen. Brian Birdwell and Reps. Kyle Kacal and Doc Anderson. I searched Massey’s blog but didn’t find any of those names mentioned on it. I don’t know what these legislators’ records are on standardized testing matters, but they’re the ones the Masseys should have their beef with. Waco ISD is just doing what the Legislature has directed them to do. If you want them to take a different direction, it’s the folks in Austin you need to convince, or defeat.

I bring this up in part because it’s important to keep in mind which office and which officeholders are responsible for what, and partly because doing so can be hard work. I was chatting the other day with a friend who wasn’t previously much engaged with politics and elections. She asked me if there was a website that kept track of which candidates supported or opposed which issues. I said no, that kind of information tends to be widely dispersed. You can check with various interest groups to see who they endorse and for those who keep scorecards like the TLCV how they rate the performance of various incumbents, and you can check out the League of Women Voters candidate guides when they come out. But there may not be a sufficiently organized interest group for the issue you care about, LWV candidate guides don’t come out till just before elections and not every candidate submits responses, and non-incumbents aren’t included on scorecards. You have to track that information down for yourself, via their website or Facebook page or by asking them yourself. It can be a lot of work.

But it’s work that needs to be done if you want a government that’s responsive to you and your preferences. One reason why there’s often a disconnect between what people actually want and what gets prioritized is because there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they know about the candidates they’re voting for and against. You ultimately have to do the work to know you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Partisan affiliation is a reliable indicator for some things, but not for everything. Standardized testing and curriculum requirements fall into the latter group. Be mad at your school board trustee for this stuff if you want, but they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The dealers are on the ballot this fall. Do you know where your State Rep and State Senator stand on this issue?

Cookiecott 2014

Hissyfit 2014 might be a more accurate description.

A coalition of anti-abortion groups is trying to crumble Girl Scout cookie sales because of a Twitter post of an online news article that recognized several accomplished women, including gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis, who rose to national attention with a filibuster against anti-abortion legislation in the state Senate.

The coalition of groups, spearheaded by Pro Life Waco, has organized a boycott of Girl Scout cookies because its members say the organization has publicly supported the Fort Worth Democrat, and other “feminists” who defend abortion rights.

But the Twitter post since has been deleted and the national Girl Scout organization issued an apology last week, saying “our sharing of the article was not meant to signal an endorsement of any of the women featured.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have special interest groups who are using the Girl Scouts to promote their agenda. Particularly since today begins the National Girl Scout Cookie Weekend kickoff,” said Stephanie Finleon, Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas chief development and communications officer.

A spokeswoman for the Davis campaign declined to comment on the boycott but said Davis was a Girl Scout Brownie when she was a child and served as a Brownie troop leader for her daughter’s troop in Fort Worth.

John Pisciotta with Pro Life Waco, the boycott’s organizer, said of the effort: “It’s substantially an education campaign for parents.”

The group is airing radio ads on five stations in Central Texas to push “CookieCott 2014.”

I’d say it’s more of a grab for attention by someone who is easily offended. He’s done this before, the last time the Girl Scouts did something he didn’t approve of. It’s a free country, and if these folks think this is a good use of their time, then who am I to argue? I figure it’ll be about as effective as the Boy Scout boycott, with the additional chance that some deep thinker like Erick Erickson will make one of his usual incredibly offensive remarks and remind us all why Wendy Davis became such an inspirational figure to so many people in the first place. In the meantime, I just know that when a Girl Scout comes knocking on my door, as one generally does around this time of the year, I’ll place my usual order and not give the matter another thought. The LA Times has more.

Waco equality update

From the Dallas Voice:

Waco’s LGBT city employees may soon be protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

With four of six members present, the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend to the city manager that the protections be added to the city’s EEO policy.

LGBT activist Carmen Saenz, who addressed the committee, said the proposal will go to the city manger pending the city attorney’s approval in the coming weeks.

There was confusion back in January when Waco resident Susan Duty said she and a few others were trying to add LGBT protections to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance instead of its EEO policy. Waco doesn’t have a citywide nondiscrimination ordinance.

The initial plan was to go before the committee and have them vote on a recommendation to have the Waco City Council look into an ordinance, which would protect LGBT workers citywide. But that meeting was delayed until April and then July. By then, Duty said she’d found out the committee only deals with city employees, so the ordinance would have to be presented directly to the City Council.

Saenz said despite the mix-up, “this was our original plan.”

See here for the background. Duty may still push for the city ordinance, but this is a nice step forward regardless. Here’s the Waco Trib story:

The policy would allow LGBT employees to take any discrimination complaints that can’t be resolved by their superiors to a specially convened panel that would include a member of the equal employment committee, City Attorney Jennifer Richie said.

The city already officially bars employment discrimination and harassment based on race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, marital status and disability. But no state or federal laws prohibit employers from discriminating against transgender or gay employees.

Carmen Saenz, a Waco psychology worker who presented the proposal to the committee, said the aims of the policy are modest.

“We had no intention of asking for benefits or anything like that,” she said. “All it means is that your sexual orientation is not a factor in hiring you or firing you.”

City Manager Larry Groth could not be reached for comment for this story, but he said in an interview earlier this year that the city does not consider sexual orientation or gender identity in its employment decisions.

Saenz said she knows of no cases of employment discrimination against LBGT workers in Waco city government. Nor has she ever faced 
discrimination living openly as a lesbian for 11 years in Waco.

But she said a written policy would ease the fears of city workers who now feel they have to stay closeted.

“I can guarantee that there are people who work for the city who live in fear of their bosses finding out they are gay,” she said.

[…]

Erma Ballenger, a Baylor University social work lecturer who heads the Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee, supports the policy. She said the city doesn’t need to have hard evidence of discrimination to justify a nondiscrimination policy.

“We’re acknowledging there is no factual data, but there’s no way of collecting that data,” she said.

Committee member Sherry Perkins, who works in corporate human resources, said it just made sense to widen the nondiscrimination policy to assure that everyone is treated equally.

“I think it’s certainly in line with what we’ve been asked to do,” she said.

Seems pretty straightforward to me, and I guarantee it will make a lot of people think a lot more favorably of Waco. Saenz, who as noted before was a high school classmate of mine, had this to say in addition, which she put on that Voice post and sent to me via Facebook:

Every single member of the City of Waco Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee (EEOAC) was thoughtful, respectful, and insightful in their questions and discussion. The City of Waco EEOAC made a powerful statement, at least to me, by their vote. As Waco grows progressively larger and continues to offer new employment opportunities, it is right and fair to extend existing protections to cover all citizens.

I am so grateful to Dr. Paul Derrick, who eloquently and passionately spoke before the EEOAC, all who worked so hard to help make this meeting possible, and for all of the wonderful messages, emails and phone calls since the meeting on Thursday. Thank you for helping to make Waco, Texas a safer, kinder, and welcoming place for me and all other LGBT residents.

A small group of active citizens can make a difference and effect change.

This initiative is a direct result of the Waco Equality Project conducted at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco by Daniel Williams of EqualityTexas.

Daniel Williams and Chuck Smith of Equality Texas, along with Rafael McDonnell of Resource Center Dallas have provided guidance, support and resources.

The Social Action Committee and Welcoming Congregation Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco have hosted multiple forums, educating and advocating for LGBT equality.

Without the work, support, and resources of these amazing people and organizations this work would not have occurred. I am grateful for their past and continued support and energy.

May more cities in Texas follow Waco’s lead. Well done, y’all.

“An accident waiting to happen”

I don’t even know what to say.

There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.

This is not unusual.

Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern and none required to coordinate with others on what they have found.

The small distributors — there are as many of 1,150 in Texas alone — are part of a regulatory system that focuses on large installations and industries, though many of the small plants contain enough agricultural chemicals to fuel a major explosion.

The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. According to a document filed in 2012 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the maximum amount of this “extremely hazardous substance” the plant could store in one container was 90 tons, and the most it could have on site was 270 tons. It is unknown how much was onsite at any given time, or at the time of the explosion.

It was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic.

“This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions,” Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press.

“So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities.”

No federal agency determines how close a facility handling potentially dangerous substances can be to population centers, and in many states, including Texas, many of these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities. And in Texas, the state’s minimal approach to zoning puts plants just yards away from schools, houses and other populated areas, as was the case in West.

That plant received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area.

In the city of Houston, sexually oriented businesses are forbidden to be within 1,500 feet of a school. Say what you want about strip clubs, they are generally not prone to exploding. From a safety perspective, it’s no contest.

It’s pretty simple. We can simply accept that this sort of thing will happen from time to time, and chalk up the death and destruction as one of the costs of our society, or we can decide that’s not acceptable, and be willing to pay some amount of money to mitigate those risks. I’m pretty sure I know which one we’re going to choose – we already have chosen it, we’re just going to reaffirm that choice – I just wanted to be clear about that fact that it is a choice. It doesn’t have to be like this, we want it to be like this.

Saturday video break: For Boston

This is how you sing the national anthem:

And switching sports, but with the same sentiment:

Three cheers for Boston’s hospitals as well as their first responders. You are all amazing. For anyone who wants to help, here’s what you can do.

I wish I had a song for Waco as well, but I can’t think of one. If you can, by all means please suggest it. In the meantime, here are some ways you can help with that disaster.

How you can help West, TX

Horrible.

A massive explosion ripped through a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, Wednesday night, sending scores of injured to area hospitals, sparking fires and triggering evacuations.

WHAT’S NEW

— “It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

— Some 10 to 15 buildings have been “totally demolished” and “probably 50 homes (were) heavily damaged,” said George Smith, community emergency medical services director.

— The fertilizer plant was near an apartment complex and a nursing home, authorities said.

— Some people might be trapped in collapsed buildings, Smith said.

— “I expect there’s going to be many fatalities and many more injured people,” he added.

If you live in the area, you can go to the Capitol Area Blood Bank of Central Texas to give blood. You can also make a contribution to the American Red Cross Heart of Texas or the American Red Cross of Central Texas. Visit either of their Facebook pages – Heart of Texas, Central Texas – for up to date information and more ways to help. Here’s a West, TX people search and news page. There’s lots you can do, so please do something to help.

Pushing for equality in Waco

Glad to hear it.

A group of Waco residents is seeking a city ordinance to bar public and private employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Advocates of the measure plan to propose it Thursday to the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee and hope to get Waco City Council to consider it in coming months.

The as-yet-unnamed group wants the city to follow the lead of cities including Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, which have passed citywide policies against sexual orientation discrimination.

Spokeswoman Susan Duty said she was disturbed to learn recently that state and federal laws do not bar discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates, unless they are federal employees.

“It’s perfectly legal for an employer in the state of Texas to fire someone just because they are gay,” said Duty, who described herself as a “straight ally” to gays and lesbians. “Other cities have created ordinances to protect workers, and we wanted a way for responsible LGBT citizens to feel safe in their employment, no matter what it is.”

[…]

Equality Texas executive director Chuck Smith said cities such as Houston, San Antonio and El Paso have policies against sexual orientation discrimination within city government.

But Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin go further, with “human rights commissions” that hear complaints against workplace and housing discrimination, including discrimination against LGBT residents. The commissions are allowed to impose fines of up to $500 for discrimination.

Smith said he thinks such fines are infrequent, but the committees also can resolve employment discrimination claims without resorting to fines.

Smith said most corporations already forbid discrimination against LGBT workers by their own internal policies.

“None of these cities saw a huge wave of activity,” he said.

He said ordinances can be written to exempt religious institutions such as schools and universities.

Here’s a copy of the letter that was sent to Waco’s Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Committee. What’s extra cool about this is that one of the signers, Carmen Saenz, was a high school classmate of mine. She’s the one who tipped me off about this. The EEOAC’s agenda is here. My understanding is that this item isn’t on there now but will be discussed at a subsequent meeting. Here’s more from the Dallas Voice:

Duty, a straight ally, attended an Equality Texas event a few months ago, learning that the state doesn’t offer protections against anti-LGBT job discrimination. Legislation has been filed for the current legislative session to add the statewide protections.

“When I found out that it was legal to discriminate against LGBT people in employment, I was like, that’s ridiculous,” Duty said. “We can’t change it in the state, but we can change it in our city. We can change it in our community.”

Duty then began her research on how to add the employment protections to the city of Waco’s nondiscrimination policy.

[…]

Duty said she’s prepared for opposition and has already prepared to take the issue to City Council, where she expects to have a harder fight. She’s talked to council members who have agreed to sponsor the changes and bring the issue before the council, which would likely happen in February.

Good on you, Susan Duty. We could use many more people like you. Be sure to read that linked article in the excerpt, it’s a great overview of what equality advocates hope to achieve and aim to oppose this session.

One more thing from that Waco Trib story:

Paul Derrick, a supporter of the LGBT advocacy group, said an anti-discrimination policy at least would send the message to gays and lesbians that they are welcome members of the community and workforce.

“It seems to me this is just another civil rights issue,” said Derrick, who was involved in civil rights ordinances and legal battles in Waco in the 1960s and ’70s.

“I think outside Waco, it would have a positive image. It would show that Waco is not stuck in yesteryear, but is moving along with the currents of the larger society.”

I think that’s exactly right. Remember how much positive press the city of Houston got around the world for the election of Mayor Parker? It wasn’t that big a deal to us, but there were an awful lot of people whose reaction was basically “Wait, HOUSTON did that??” They had an image of Houston that wasn’t consistent with who we are, and the news of that election made them rethink it. I doubt Waco will get coverage of that magnitude when they get this done, but it will be noticed and it will be good for them. I wish the people pursuing this the very best of luck with their effort.

Elections today

Just a reminder that for some of you, there are elections today, including a special election to replace State Sen. Kip Averitt in Waco, school board elections in Austin and Dallas, and of course elections for Mayor and City Council in Galveston and Farmers Branch, among others. Polls will be open till 7 PM – check your County Clerk webpage for voting locations. As you can imagine, these tend to be very low-turnout affairs, so your vote counts a lot. If you’ve got an election in your neighborhood, please go vote. Thanks very much.

The film’s not right

I’m just amused by this.

Movie producer Emilio Ferrari vowed last week to move ahead with his $30 million screen depiction of the deadly 1993 clash between federal agents and Branch Davidian cultists, even though the Texas Film Commission says the project could taint Texas’ image and is unworthy of taxpayer support.

The movie, Waco, would be the first feature-film treatment of the 51-day federal siege of David Koresh’s Central Texas compound that led to the death of four federal agents and more than 80 cult members.

Ferrari, whose production credits include Baby on Board, starring Heather Graham, called the incident the “nation’s biggest tragedy, after 9/11.”

“And this was by Americans against Americans,” he said. “It’s been completely swept under the rug. I think people have a right to know what happened. I’m not a political guy at all. I’m making a story from every point of view.”

The Texas Film Commission’s director, Bob Hudgins, said the movie would not be eligible for a state rebate of up to 15 percent on in-state production costs because the movie doesn’t “accurately portray Texans.” In language creating the stipend, lawmakers specified that Film Commission grants should be denied movies that distort facts to make Texas look bad.

Hudgins said he consulted media and law enforcement sources and determined that the movie’s script compresses and simplifies the historic event. Actions that were taken by several individuals during the standoff are attributed to a single character in the movie, he said.

The extent of a movie’s factual distortion isn’t a factor in determining its eligibility for funding, Hudgins said. “Either it is (accurate), or it isn’t,” he said.

OK, I’m dying to know the specifics of this. Almost every movie of this kind combines characters, just so it can fit into a movie-length narrative, so I’m curious what the commission deemed too much. The best reminder of the Waco tragedy I’ve seen in recent months was this Texas Monthly story from last April, the fifteenth anniversary of the conflagration. It’s unfortunately only available to subscribers now, but if you happen to come across a print edition it’s well worth your time to read it. Among other things, it demonstrates that many of the key facts about this event are still in dispute. Which makes me wonder all the more just what the commission objected to. Anyone know any more about it?

Matt Baker indicted

If you read the Texas Monthly cover story from last March about Waco pastor Matt Baker, who has been accused of killing his wife Kari, whose death had originally been ruled a suicide, you will be interested to hear that a grand jury has now indicted him for that crime. It’s a fascinating story, one from which I came away unsure about what really happened. It’s also a really hard story to read, since the incident that triggered Kari Baker’s presumed suicide was the death from cancer of their young daughter Kassidy. Kassidy was one year old at the time of her death, the same age Audrey was when that issue arrived in my mailbox, and it still hits me just writing these words. Anyway, it’s a worthwhile read, just be prepared for the emotions that will come with it.