29 April 2010

What, livable walkable utopian fantasies aren't good enough for ya?

CORY CROW suggests that Houston "needs to get its pro-business, pro-jobs mojo back."

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/29/10 09:38 PM |

28 April 2010

More transit agency money woes

THE TRANSIT ORGANIZATION in Dallas is sometimes touted by the local rail-everywhere crowd as a model for Houston, but as the Dallas Morning News reports today, financial woes have put the brakes on DART's grand plans:

Dallas Area Rapid Transit must cut jobs and scrap nearly all rail expansion plans for the next 20 years, agency executives told board members Tuesday, citing discouraging revenue forecasts.

Final decisions are months away, but Chief Financial Officer David Leininger warned the board that DART probably will have to cut nearly a third of the spending it had planned between now and 2030.


Leininger said the board will need to trim $30 million to $50 million in annual operating expenses. The higher number will be required if DART wants to preserve the Orange Line leg to the airport, he said.

Costs almost always exceed projections for rail projects, usually by large amounts, so even the projects they say they can still afford may not be affordable.

Relevance to Houston?

As KHOU's investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt continues to press METRO to be more accurate and transparent in the financial estimates it provides to the FTA and others, our area's newspaper of record seems more interested in playing TV news critic than aggressively examining METRO's finances and its ability to fund its own ambitious rail plans and maintain the rest of the transit system. Here's hoping Mayor Parker's new appointees to the METRO board are at least a little more curious.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/28/10 12:58 PM |

27 April 2010

Chron adopts KHOU media-crit beat, ignores own shortcomings

LAST WEEK, KHOU-11'S MARK GREENBLATT reported some disturbing news about a METRO application for federal funding for its rail lines. METRO, according to Greenblatt, submitted overly optimistic economic projections to the transit organization, when more recent, less optimistic predictions were available. As noted in our blog post, Greenblatt's report featured UH economics professor Barton Smith, who questioned METRO's use of more optimistic economic figures. Professor Smith, of course, is rightly regarded as the area's economist of record, who has supplied authoritative statistics and projections about area economic growth over the years to media and government organizations (including METRO).

METRO's bloated PR shop responded predictably, by lashing out at Greenblatt, with one of the Chronicle's least skeptical/curious reporters piling on in a blog post.

Greenblatt, however, followed up with a communication from the FTA that seemed to substantiate his report's original contention that METRO has used overly optimistic numbers in its applications for federal transit funding:

The FTA does not develop sales tax projections. Rather, it reviews and analyzes the projections submitted by project sponsors. The FTA first signaled its concern with Houston’s aggressive tax revenue assumptions and insisted on revisions back in May of 2009. FTA is now analyzing even more updated revenue projections submitted by Houston. In the interest of protecting the taxpayer, the FTA will not approve full funding grant agreements for the North and Southeast Corridor light rail projects until we are confident that Houston Metro can afford to build and operate these two new lines while maintaining its existing system.

Paul Griffo
Federal Transit Administration
Washington, DC

Today, Lisa Falkenberg revised and extended Mike Snyder's previous efforts on the new KHOU media-criticism beat with a column that strongly suggested that Professor Smith now thinks Greenblatt's original report is inaccurate and quoted him out of context. If true, that would be a damning revelation that would certainly merit an update of our original post, not to mention a scolding.

To try and sort all this out, we put in our own call to Professor Smith, who told me that he thought both journalists had probably given the impression that he was more involved in the METRO federal funding process than is the case. He told me that he does provide his economics projections to METRO, but that he has no input how the organization uses those numbers after the fact, and is certainly not involved in the federal procurement process. He did tell me that obviously he gave Greenblatt his quote on camera, and stands by it so far as it goes. He further added that it now appears that METRO used projections that were more optimistic than his June 2009 projections, but less optimistic than his June 2008 projections.

We went on to have an interesting conversation about Greenblatt's original report, and the fact that it was really two-pronged: a factual news inquiry about METRO and the federal procurement process, along with highly critical comments from businessman Paul Magaziner and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe. With regard to the latter, Professor Smith told me that while they were certainly welcome to their opinions, he did not think his economic data necessarily supported their assertions about METRO's intent. He further added that he thought the report might have been stronger if he had been involved in some back and forth with the critics on the interpretation of his economics projections, although he understood that Greenblatt might have been operating under length constraints.

Professor Smith stressed that he thought both Greenblatt and Falkenberg had treated him fairly, and that he had told both of them he wished they would work together to get the facts out, and to promote a more intelligent conversation about transit.

Frankly, we agree with Professor Smith.

Whether or not one agrees with the critics Greenblatt quoted in his original reporting, there seems to be no disputing that METRO submitted overly optimistic economic projections to the FTA, something that the FTA has confirmed to Greenblatt. The public, local government, AND the federal government deserve the most accurate numbers METRO can put together, in the most transparent manner possible. Perhaps Greenblatt erred in giving critics too much airtime to speculate about METRO's intent, but it is somewhat shocking to see both Mike Snyder and Lisa Falkenberg engaging in media criticism over KHOU's editorial choices when, instead, the Chronicle might be cultivating their own sources within the FTA and METRO and emulating the award-winning Greenblatt's efforts to be a watchdog of the public treasury and a promoter of transparent government.

BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/27/10 09:40 PM |

What manpower shortage?

ANDREA LUCIA AT KHOU-11 reports that the Houston Police Department is reducing the number of academy classes from seven per year to just two.

More than likely it won't be anytime soon that the citizens of Houston will see a sufficiently staffed police department or an end to many hour-response times to certain calls for service.

Posted by Jason @ 04/27/10 12:29 PM |

Listening in on Lykos and staff

MURRAY NEWMAN recreates *ahem* a conversation between Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and assistants Jim Leitner and Scott Durfee.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/27/10 07:34 AM |

26 April 2010

America's worst big city daily suffers double digit loss in circulation

NEW AUDIT BUREAU OF CIRCULATIONS numbers are out, and as usual the picture isn't pretty for the Houston Chronicle. America's Worst Big City Daily posted a staggering 13.77% decline in daily circulation, and a 9.76% decline in Sunday circulation.

The business section of America's Worst Big City Daily has posted the usual PR-spin-masquerading-as-news-story from publisher Jack Sweeney, who (roughly translated) says more people than ever are click-click-clicking the user party pics on chron.com! At least he doesn't force a real journalist to attach his/her name to these stories any more; on the down side, the thin-skinned folks who run the place seem to have disabled comments.

BLOGVERSATION: Houston's Clear Thinkers.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/26/10 02:56 PM |

HPD Crime Lab still backlogged

KHOU-11's JEREMY DESEL reports that the case backlog at HPD's beleaguered crime lab "is still out of control."

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/26/10 08:35 AM |

A new Chron Eye (04/26/2010)

AN EXECUTION is looming, so that means it's time for a new Chron Eye for the Death Row Killer Guy.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/26/10 08:29 AM |

23 April 2010

Guest commentary: The great water rate heist of 2010

THE MASSIVE WATER RATE INCREASES approved by Mayor Annise Parker and her Council have been touted by the administration as spreading the real costs of the water/sewer system to all users of the system -- single-family, multi-family, and commercial users. Local media have certainly run with that meme.

As guest editorialist Brutus explains in detail, it's simply not true: Single-family and commercial users are bearing the brunt of the increase, while owners of multi-family residences will continue to enjoy a significant advantage.

No wonder Mayor Parker and her Council rammed this thing through so quickly, without much in the way of public discussion and scrutiny!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/23/10 09:29 AM |

22 April 2010

Hair Balls mocks METRO's inept PR army

HAIR BALLS mocks the most recent efforts at spin coming from METRO's bloated PR department.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/22/10 08:43 PM |

METRO still in damage-control mode

THE EXAMINER'S MICHAEL REED reports that Frank Wilson is still METRO's chief (for now) after the big board meeting today.

The board also released the report commissioned by Wilson booster David Wolff. Unsurprisingly, the report found no financial wrongdoing on Wilson's part, albeit with an important qualification:

However, we offer no opinions as to the business necessity of the expenditures related to business trips, meals or hotels submitted by Mr. Wilson or Ms. Wright.

That's hardly surprising, since we all but predicted that an investigation commissioned by Wilson booster David Wolff would be limited in just such a manner. That's too bad. That Spain trip and the contract for new rail cars that may not mesh well with the existing Siemens-designed system might make for an interesting inquiry. Or not. You never know until you start poking around.

Reed notes that METRO's new board chairman -- not Wilson -- will be traveling to Washington to address some of the questions raised by KHOU-11's Mark Greenblatt. Greenblatt's first report drew fire from METRO (with an assist from America's worst big-city daily), yet apparently was serious and accurate enough that the FTA is unhappy, the radioactive Wilson is being sidelined, and METRO's new board chairman is off to try to fix the mess.


Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/22/10 07:50 PM |

Six years later: Chron comments on Wilson's NJ transit issues

THE CHRON'S JUNIOR METRO/STATE DIARIST LISA FALKENBERG surely surprised some readers (and perhaps some colleagues!) today with what was, so far as we can tell, the newspaper's first reference to the ethical cloud that current METRO chief Frank Wilson left behind in New Jersey as detailed nearly six years ago by that state's capable Commission of Investigation in E-ZPass: The Making of a Procurement Disaster.

Falkenberg went on to note that at the time of Wilson's hiring (before the damning report was released), her own newspaper was not very interested in accounts of Wilson's transgressions, dismissing them with a glowing quote from David Wolff about Wilson's greatness (interestingly, the same quote that appears in this 17 March 2010 blog post).

She did not add (but we will) that her own colleague, currently on the transit beat quoted Wolff in defense of Wilson just a few days ago, in a story of questionable balance. Old habits die hard at the newspaper, perhaps.

We're not quite sure if it's time to promote Falkenberg to Young Adult Columnist just yet -- today's column was just a rehash of very old material available on this and other blogs, after all, without even the addition of some quotes from the New Jersey Commission of Investigation or Frank Wilson himself (something that professional journalists are often expected to do and have time to do, unlike most hobby bloggers). Certainly, though, the sharpening, critical/skeptical perspective serves as confirmation that the establishment has soured on Wilson, and he's probably not going to be around much longer. That's welcome news, even if the Chron may shortly be in cheerleader mode* once more for whoever is hired to replace Wilson.

BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac.

* In all fairness, the newspaper does cheerleading profile pieces very well.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/22/10 11:53 AM |

KHOU: Feds scold METRO

AFTER MARK GREENBLATT'S REPORT FOR KHOU-11 last week on possible METRO funding shenanigans, the rogue transit organization's bloated PR shop rushed to deem the report "distorted and just plain wrong" (with America's worst big-city daily jumping on for good measure).

Last night, Greenblatt followed up on his original reporting:

The Federal Transit Administration said it "won’t approve" federal funding right now on two light rail extensions proposed by Metro; until it can become confident the transit authority can afford to finish the jobs while still maintaining current service.

"In the interest of protecting the taxpayer, the FTA will not approve full funding grant agreements for the north and southeast corridor light rail projects until we are confident that Houston Metro can afford to build and operate these two new lines while maintaining its existing system," said Paul Griffo of the FTA.

Apparently, Greenblatt's reporting wasn't so "distorted and just plain wrong" as METRO's bloated PR shop would have people believe.

In other news dealing with the rogue transit organization, METRO's board will go into executive session this week to discuss Frank "Procurement Disaster" Wilson. Rumors swirled last week that Wilson was on his way out.

BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/22/10 07:48 AM |

21 April 2010

Paying the piper: Mayor faces tough decisions on water rates, HPD/HFD overtime

TWO CHRONICLE STORIES illustrate the problems that can result from deferring tough decisions on the city's budget.

Bradley Olson reports on rumblings that City Council may increase water rates by nearly 30% for the average homeowner, well above the 12% increase that was pitched previously by Mayor Annise Parker; the competing proposal goes easier on apartment and commercial users than Parker's. The goal of the increases is to address the multi-million-dollar deficits that have been run by the Combined Utility System for several years now -- in other words, to address what appear to be ongoing deficits in a businesslike manner. Unfortunately, Houston's water rates could become among the highest in the country for major cities.

Terri Langford reports that HPD and HFD overtime cost the city some $67 million last year:

A Houston Chronicle analysis shows that most of the money — $50 million — went to the Houston Police Department, long bedeviled by staffing shortages while trying to cover the nation's fourth largest city. At the Houston Fire Department, the cost was $17 million, largely for the same reasons.

This blog has been around since 2004, and it seems we've been addressing HPD's manpower issues over that entire period. When crime spiked, it was easy enough to spend more on policing via overtime, without sufficiently addressing the ongoing manpower shortage. Unfortunately, that sort of decisionmaking hits harder in recessionary times, when businesslike budgeting might well force cuts in the HPD overtime pay, and therefore cuts in needed police services.

UPDATE: Just like that, Council passed the massive water-rate increase. Aren't you glad you had so much time to let your feelings about the matter be known to your mayor and councilember? Oh, you didn't! Never mind.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/21/10 11:17 AM |

METRO's MLK streetcar plans draw criticism

KHOU-11'S RUCK RUSSELL reports that some activists are not happy with METRO and the City of Houston over a memorial on MLK boulevard.

METRO insists that they are working on plans for the memorial and the glorified streetcar to coexist.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/21/10 10:50 AM |

20 April 2010

Kirkendall: Houston METRO in a few years?

CLEAR THINKER TOM KIRKENDALL links to a report on the perilous, unsustainable financial condition of San Francisco's transit agency, and sounds this cautionary note:

Meanwhile, Houston Metro is currently proposing to sell $866 in general obligation bonds, yet it does not have non-tax revenue that is even close to covering debt service on that level of debt. Metro has not even floated what credit enhancement it proposes to provide in order to sell those bonds.

METRO has further proposed to take on more debt than was approved by voters in 2003 in what was thought (apparently erroneously) to be a check on the agency as well as a blueprint for moving forward. Here's hoping for saner behavior from Mayor Parker's new appointees.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/20/10 07:56 AM |

19 April 2010

About that "blog" part of the thing...

CORY CROW finds Texas Watchdog's latest video blog chat somewhat lacking in discussion of... actual blogs.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/19/10 09:48 PM |

Gattis on rethinking the transit plan

TORY GATTIS hopes that Mark Greenblatt's reporting on METRO's funny funding numbers might lead the agency to rethink its light rail plans:

My proposal would be to scale back the core LRT network to connecting just the major job centers and destinations. That network would free up money by temporarily switching the North, East, Southeast, and (probably) Uptown lines to fast, frequent signature bus service. They have relatively low ridership projections and are through neighborhoods with uncongested streets (except Uptown, of course, but it can ill-afford rail disruption on Post Oak) where buses work just fine for the demand. We can no longer afford speculative rail lines through uncongested low-density neighborhoods without major destinations, while hoping for long-term densification.

Gattis would have been a smart pick for METRO's board. It's too bad Mayor Parker didn't take that opportunity.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/19/10 09:32 PM |

"A blind squirrel rolling up on a nut?"

SLAMPO offers praise for the latest effort by the Chronicle's junior metro/state diarist, who nearly earned herself a promotion to "Young Adult" columnist.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/19/10 09:16 PM |

Hearst Austin does watchdog journalism; Chronicle waters it down

HAIR BALLS noticed an interesting piece of investigative journalism from Gary Scharrer of the Hearst Austin bureau (the combined capitol news desk of the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle). The story questions the generous ongoing housing/commuting benefits being doled out to UT-Health Science Center Larry Kaiser.

San Antonio residents got to read the full story, including critical comments from Texas Watchdog's Trent Seibert. Chronicle readers, on the other hand, got to read a shorter, dumbed-down story with Seibert's criticism omitted.

In the old days of print journalism, the story might well have been cut to fit a physical space in the newspaper, but (as Hair Balls notes) that doesn't really explain why the dumbed-down version appeared on Chron.com. The best we can guess is that Seibert and Texas Watchdog have either been blacklisted blogHOUSTON-style by Chron management (in which case, welcome to the club!) or the Chron really prefers to stick with cheerleading* over that icky critical/skeptical watchdog reporting stuff.

* In all fairness, they do cheerleading perhaps better than any newspaper in America, so that's something we suppose.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/19/10 08:16 AM |

17 April 2010

Just another day at America's Worst Big City Daily

THE CHRONICLE ran into a bit of a problem putting together the print edition today:

David Wolff, Frank Wilson, who can tell the difference

Apparently, nobody caught the fact that the photo is of David Wolff, not Frank Wilson. Whoops!

Substantively, the story isn't much better. The only mildly critical voice (former Councilmember Peter Brown) is extremely weak, and the story concludes with praise of Wilson from two cheerleaders, one of whom is David Wolff (who hired Wilson and whose legacy can be said to be inextricably tied to Wilson). That's how America's Worst Big City Daily tends to roll on these types of stories.

Elsewhere, the newspaper decided to act as a PR arm for METRO in response to Mark Greenblatt's reporting on potential financial deception at the rogue transit organization. Greenblatt, of course, has won a number of awards for his watchdog reporting, most recently on the Texas National Guard, but before that on the city's inaccurate reporting of homicide rates (after the organizations in question initially downplayed his reporting). We're inclined to pay attention when Greenblatt reports skeptically on irregularities in government. America's Worst Big City Daily, which is often more interested in cheerleading than watchdog reporting and can't even seem to keep David Wolff and Frank Wilson straight? Not so much.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/17/10 10:29 PM |

16 April 2010

KRIV: Wilson to leave METRO

KRIV-26'S ISIAH CAREY reports that METRO CEO Frank Wilson "could likely be released from his contractual obligations on Friday."

It's good to see Mayor Parker's fumigation efforts beginning to produce results. We can't help but wonder if Wilson has already negotiated himself a nice new position with a current contractor, though, as has happened before....

UPDATE: On Friday, Wilson denied he's going anywhere. He must not have a new job with a METRO contractor lined up just yet. Mayor Parker may have to break out stronger pesticide.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/16/10 09:06 AM |

Another METRO bait-and-switch?

KHOU-11'S MARK GREENBLATT reports that METRO, when faced with declining sales tax estimates that might have jeopardized its application for federal funding to build more glorified streetcars down busy streets, simply provided the feds with older, less accurate but rosier, sales tax projections. The economist who generates those statistics tells Greenblatt METRO should have used the more accurate numbers:

“The feds ought've been given the updated numbers,” said University of Houston economist Dr. Barton Smith, who has been predicting sales tax revenue numbers for Metro for about 15 years.

Smith says his 2008 pre-crash report that Metro used in its application for federal grant money does not come close to representing the financial reality on the ground in Houston today.


For instance, for 2010 alone he predicts a $95 million drop in sales tax revenue from the forecast Metro passed on to the federal government.


In fact, for the next 15 years combined, Smith downgraded his tax revenue projection by $2.4 billion, but KHOU discovered Metro never shared that information with the federal government.

That, we presume, is just another example of the rogue transit organization being run "in a completely transparent manner."

BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac, Houston Strategies, Perry vs World.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/16/10 07:35 AM |

15 April 2010

Mayor Parker names new aviation director

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER yesterday announced her choice to head the Houston Airport System: Mario C. Diaz, who comes to Houston from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, where he served as deputy general manager. Before that, Diaz worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, overseeing a number of redevelopment and financing projects at Newark Liberty International Airport, the other major hub for Houston-based Continental Airlines.

The position opened when former Mayor Bill White reportedly forced out longtime director Richard Vacar after various shadowy offshore business interests created by Vacar drew scrutiny from local media.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/15/10 02:13 PM |

The County Seat: Houston has a whorehouse in it!

THE COUNTY SEAT comments on "the political red light district that has built up within the organization of the Harris County Republican Party."

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/15/10 07:34 AM |

14 April 2010

Slampo on the White/Perry dropout dustup

SLAMPO addresses Bill White's Big Dropout Problem.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/14/10 10:06 PM |

13 April 2010

West U smell test fail

OUR FRIENDS IN WEST U apparently have decided to try The Houston Way on for size.

Sort of. The Houston Way tends to be a little more subtle, and only to smell years later.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/13/10 09:59 PM |

Why are we still having this discussion?

THE CHRONICLE'S CHRIS MORAN revisits the topic of the moneypit once called the Eight Wonder of the World, reporting that the soccer stadium deal to be taken up by Commissioners Court today includes a redevelopment zone for the Astrodome (details of which are murky).

Moran reports that various county estimates place the remaining debt on the decrepit 'Dome at anywhere from $19 million to $32 million. Insurance, maintenance, utilities, and security for the unused facility run about $2 million per year.

It's well past time to raze this costly building. Have a big contest to determine who gets to push the button (like the Texas Stadium folks did). Sell off pieces of the thing to all those folks who want something physical to supplement their priceless memories. But at least get the maintenance costs for an unused/unusable facility off the books, finally.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/13/10 07:47 AM |

Buses save the transit backbone (again)

CHRON.COM posts that Texas Children's Hospital is building a bridge that will require closing a part of Fannin this weekend.

Apparently, this will shut down the entire Main Street streetcar line that METRO has, at times, called its transit backbone. Fortunately, buses are available to get people around.

Meanwhile, METRO is moving full speed ahead to lay more glorified streetcar lines down busy streets.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/13/10 07:31 AM |

12 April 2010

Fun with words

WE'VE GROWN USED TO POLITICIANS (and their consultants) abusing the language, but two current news items are still good enough for a laugh.

We have the recent announcement (from the Begala/McGrath consulting firm) that Mattress Mack's new PAC is up and running, and touting the wonders of red-light cameras, or rather, intersection safety cameras. Who can object, if it's for "safety" or "the children," right?

We also have today's announcement from Dan Patrick that he is forming a new group, the Independent Conservative Republicans of Texas, which will surely stand out from those dastardly dependent, not-conservative other Republicans of Texas (anyone who happens to get in KDAN's crosshairs on any given day, we imagine).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/12/10 12:56 PM |

10 April 2010

Transit: Good enough for you, but not METRO's execs

TEXAS WATCHDOG'S STEVE MILLER has posted a story detailing the ridiculous car allowances provided to various senior METRO officials.

The widespread, exorbitant car allowances at a transit organization are bad enough, but they are even more offensive during an economic downturn that has seen many other state/local government agencies forced into budget cutbacks.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/10/10 02:01 PM |

08 April 2010

METRO's negative news count shoots up

KPRC-2 is reporting that METRO's offices were raided by officials from the Harris County District Attorney's investigators today, apparently to collect information related to Shreddergate.

In other negative news, a METRO bus and SUV collided yesterday, although reports have not determined who was to blame. Another collision between a METRO bus and vehicle took place this afternoon, again with no determination of who was at fault.

The rogue organization's media monitoring service is going to be busy!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/08/10 04:41 PM |

Chronically out of touch

THE CHRON EDITORIAL BOARD took on the issue of predatory lending in a recent editorial.

As Matt Bramanti pointed out to us, their main example of the evil Big Banking interests in action is.... lattes, bought via overdraft.

Obviously, something MUST BE DONE!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/08/10 04:27 PM |

07 April 2010

KPRC-2 investigates pothole repair

KPRC-2 investigated City of Houston pothole repair and discovered.... more potholes are repaired in west Houston than any other part of the city.

They also discovered that more potholes are reported to 311 in west Houston than any other part of the city.

Lesson: Report potholes and other problems to 311 for resolution. They can also be emailed at [email protected]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/07/10 05:55 PM |

Texas Watchdog updates on Shreddergate, Texas voter fraud

TEXAS WATCHDOG has been busy today.

Steve Miller has broken an important story on voter fraud in south Texas. Obviously, that's a bit outside our usual coverage area, but we thought it would be helpful to call it to the attention of our faithful readers at 801 Texas Avenue, in case the Chronicle editorial board would like to revise their previous characterization of Voter ID legislation as an unneeded, partisan effort by Republicans "fearful for their future political viability." Surely, journalists at the Chronicle and across the state can no longer rely on the assertion by a Rice sociology professor that "There is no credible evidence" that voter fraud is a problem in Texas. If a small journalism nonprofit with limited resources can run a truck through that assertion, we look forward to seeing what some of the bigger, better-funded news operations in the state can do.

Jennifer Peebles follows that story with an interesting look at some METRO internal correspondence related to Shreddergate and obtained through public information request. Some of it can only be described as bizarre.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/07/10 05:42 PM |

Parker Administration's fiscal priorities take shape

VARIOUS MEDIA OUTLETS report that the Parker Administration is planning large increases in water/sewer rates to offset ongoing deficits in the city's Combined Utility System. The Chronicle ran this telling exchange:

Councilman Oliver Pennington asked why the city did not raise rates sooner, when deficits were apparent.

“I just wonder what you guys were thinking,” he said.

Marcotte noted that when the system was restructured in 2004, prompting what at the time was the largest rate increase in the city's history, another major rate increase was contemplated for 2010....

“We can't just keep kicking the proverbial can down the road,” Councilmember Ed Gonzalez said.

Politically, it's always wise to get these sorts of painful fiscal moves out of the way early and leave the next round to the next mayor. Perhaps the Parker Administration will treat the issue in a more *ahem* businesslike fashion than Mayor Bill White before her, but we do seem to have these sorts of discussions every six years.

The Chronicle story also contained this helpful comparison:

For single-family residential consumers, the increase would make Houston's water and sewer rates higher than those in San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth and slightly lower than those of Los Angeles and Austin, according to city documents.

In other budget news, the Chronicle reports that Mayor Parker says the City of Houston might be willing to "give back" General Mobility funds to METRO, but only after METRO re-establishes "credibility" with the public. Given the rogue organization's ongoing disregard for the public in the form of violating the 2003 referendum (by planning to take on more debt than was approved, changing the location of lines, ignoring the requirement to expand bus service by 50%, etc.), that could take a while. And there is that pesky detail -- from our understanding -- that the public will have to approve forgoing those General Mobility funds.

Indeed, with water/sewer rates increasing, city contributions to retiree benefit packages decreasing, and a big hole in the budget, we'd like to see Mayor Parker working more aggressively to collect the $160+ million in general mobility funds owed by METRO to the City (the Mayor's preference for quarterly General Mobility payments from METRO instead of vague future promises is a small step in the right direction), and less aggressively to spend $10 million on the soccer stadium boondoggle. We are of the quaint notion that smart fiscal priorities and keeping promises made to the public go a long ways towards establishing/maintaining credibility.

BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac (and more).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/07/10 09:09 AM |

06 April 2010

KHOU wins Peabody Award

BELATED CONGRATS GO OUT TO THE KHOU-11 DEFENDERS for winning a Peabody award for their work on the Texas National Guard.

As Mike McGuff wrote nearly a week ago, this is a really big deal! Well done.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/06/10 07:37 AM |

05 April 2010

Catching up

THE BLOGHOUSTON CREW unplugged and fully enjoyed this beautiful weekend....

Thankfully, two bloggers whose posts regularly exceed the quality of the output from the Chron's paid metro/state columnists put out some good stuff. In particular....

1) Unca Darrell skewers the ignorance of Chronicle editorialists when it comes to economics and international politics. Now, that may seem a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but Unca Darrell's post is really informative.

2) Slampo comments on Mayor Annise Parker's recent announcement that under-65 City retirees will be asked to contribute considerably more towards their health-insurance costs. On the chance we are among the silent legions of conservative bloggers Slampo identifies, the quick thought on this decision is that we aren't huge fans of balancing the budget on the backs of retired muni workers only (agreeing once again with Councilmember Bradford!), but we also aren't huge fans of balancing the budget via furloughs for, say, active police and fire personnel (as some cities are experiencing because of budget woes). Being mayor during tough economic times is certainly much less fun than overspending during boom times (thanks, Bill White for Texas).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/05/10 09:39 AM |

01 April 2010

CM Bradford on savvy budgeting

IN A RECENT OP-ED, COUNCILMEMBER CLARENCE BRADFORD offered some smart suggestions for City of Houston budget planning and prioritization.

The blog has given Bradford some grief over the years, so it's only fair to call attention to sensible proposals.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/01/10 09:19 PM |

Harrisburg: Another train/traffic adventure only METRO could love

KTRK-13 ran a news blurb last week indicating that METRO rail work on the East End had begun.

The blurb did not report that METRO and the City will be closing 28 of 40 intersecting lanes.

The blurb did not report that engineers recommend such lane closures because at-grade rail in busy traffic corridors with numerous intersections creates unsafe conditions.

The blurb also did not report that one of the city's ostensibly technocratic/analytical departments -- politicized in various ways under former Mayor Bill White -- has indicated that some neighborhood traffic conditions caused by the above will just have to be mitigated after construction of the light rail system (a contrast with the near-hysterical clampdown on the Ashby High Rise developers because various constituents insisted the former mayor do something).

All of those tidbits have to be teased out of various traffic/design analysis documents passed along by Paul Magaziner and posted here.

Not to worry, though -- because David Wolff says so!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/01/10 07:46 PM |

Lose a great reviewer? No prob!

LAST WEEK'S NEWS that food writer extraordinaire Robb Walsh was leaving the Houston Press prompted this prediction:

We presume the tired corporate alt-weekly will take this "opportunity" to build on the Village Voice strategy of proliferating nonprofessional (but relatively cheap!) content, along with other stunts to boost pageviews artificially.

That was certainly easy (h/t Cory Crow).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/01/10 04:50 PM |

The perils of single points of failure

CHRON.COM'S WHIMSICAL LINK BLOG box has been quiet for about a week now.

That must mean that the only guy (apparently) in the Hearst empire who can update the thing is on vacation or otherwise occupied this week.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/01/10 04:34 PM |

Council should discuss/revise city's sanctuary policy

ONE REASON we don't take some MSM journos seriously when they engage in "fact-checking" and "analysis" is that too often the end product just appears to be editorializing posing as something more objective. Quaintly (it seems), we prefer straight reporting of news/facts, so that we can decide what we think for ourselves.

Perry vs World analyzes one such instance of editorializing-as-fact-checking that involves Houston: The debate over Houston's "sanctuary city" status, and Politifact's opinion that it's not.

We like Cory Crow's term PolitiFarce for this sort of editorializing-posing-as-fact-checking that we sometimes see from these folks.

On a related note, Mayor Annise Parker recently asserted that Houston is not a sanctuary city.

We hope that means that, unlike former Mayor Bill White, she will allow City Council seriously to discuss revisions to General Order 500-5, the edict from HPD chief Sam Nuchia in 1992 that established Houston's sanctuary policy. We believe that elected officials should be vetting and deciding such policies, and that a discussion of that order's positives/negatives is certainly warranted after nearly two decades.

UPDATE: Perry vs World posts even more on Houston's sanctuary status.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 04/01/10 09:33 AM |


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