31 January 2011

Olds: Chron discovers House GOP leaders targeting FTA New Starts rail funding

A full week ago, we noted in this blog post that FTA New Starts funding has been targeted by House Republican leaders for potential deficit reduction. We further noted that such cuts could seriously jeopardize NEW METRO's light-rail expansion plans, both in terms of the organization's ongoing liquidity issues and in terms of the 2003 referendum requirements (specifically, section 14).

Lo and behold, the area newspaper of record has finally discovered today that FTA New Starts funding has been targeted by House Republican leaders for potential deficit reduction (which could seriously jeopardize NEW METRO's light rail expansion plans)! There are still no updates on METRO's liquidity ratio, nor are there any comments from U.S. Rep. John Culberson.

But we do learn from the Chronicle that NEW METRO is already dealing with the potential problem in an OLD METRO fashion (get out the money catapult!):

The Metro board has just hired the C2 Group, a lobbying firm adept at pitching mass transit to members of Congress.

And there's also a priceless quote from Sen. John Cornyn:

"I certainly know the popularity of Metro in Houston and the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure,“ says Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee. "But at the same time, we have to say there's no money left. Everybody is going to have to suffer a little pain to get the country back on a sound financial footing."

Ah yes, the popularity of METRO. Good one. The Chronicle may have been a week late, but at least they tossed a little humor our way.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/31/11 09:28 PM |

30 January 2011

Still no credibility: Chron ed board blames pension mess on Austin, term limits

The last time the Chronicle editorial board weighed in on the municipal pension mess, we pointed out why it has no credibility on the issue and should be ignored.

The Chonicle editorial board has weighed in again on the issue, this time finding a way to blame leaders in Austin AND term limits!

Our previous advice still stands: There's no good reason to pay attention to the Chronicle editorial board on any serious issue, and certainly not the municipal pension mess.

But do be sure to read Bill King. It has been nice of the newspaper to offer him space to discuss the issue intelligently.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/30/11 01:20 PM |

28 January 2011

Bill King on muni pensions, part four

Bill King continues his series on Houston's municipal pension problems with his proposed long-term fix:

The only permanent fix is to scrap defined-benefit plans in favor of defined-contribution plans. With defined-contribution plans we will always know exactly what the plans cost because they have to be 100 percent funded each year. There are no unfunded liabilities with defined-contribution plans.


But while converting to defined-contribution plans means that we will have stopped digging, it does not get us out of the current hole. It troubles me to hear suggestions that we address the current unfunded liability by retroactively changing benefits which public employees have already earned. To me a deal is a deal. While we may not like the deal our elected officials made for us, we elected them and we should stand by their commitments.

That will mean that the taxpayers, for many years, will be making contributions to wind down the existing defined-benefit plans. It will require sacrifices in city services and higher taxes than would otherwise be necessary. But at least the number will be finite, unlike in our current predicament.

This is an eminently sensible -- and fair -- proposal. Still, we wonder along with King if political leaders will have the courage to make the changes sooner than later, or will continue punting (like Bill White for Texas) until the problem becomes a crisis?

PREVIOUSLY: Taxpayers facing huge bill for Houston pension debt, Bill King on muni pensions, part two, Bill King on muni pensions, part three.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/28/11 08:21 AM |

26 January 2011

Downtown District hires bodyguards for downtown visitors and residents

If this doesn't make you want to frolic downtown, Bob Eury doesn't know what will:

A new team of guides, trained in first aid, hospitality and other helping skills, is working the streets of downtown Houston.

Outfitted in dark blue, the new downtown public safety guides will be on duty seven days a week, starting at 9 a.m. each day.

The Houston Downtown Management District developed the program in response to focus group meetings with various downtown users, including residents, business owners and artists.

It's not hard to guess that downtown "users," residents, business owners, and artists are tired of being accosted by the homeless. And despite the assertion by KTRK-13 that downtown is booming, a recent KRIV-26 story illustrates the problems that $4 billion hasn't fixed:

Take a walk down a portion of Main Street and Prairie: you'll see restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar that has closed up shop. “For lease” signs, empty windows – basically, there's just nobody around.

In just the past three months, about eight, once popular, joints in this area have closed. [...]

“You still gotta worry about where you park your car, still going to have the homeless people around regardless of where you're at.”

We've seen countless stories of malfunctioning parking meters, wrongly ticketed drivers, parking lot operators gone wild, etc., and things haven't improved with Lilliana Rambo's Parking Authority. Add to that the homeless and the Danger Safety Train, and, well, Main Street and surrounds are just not that inviting.

It's unclear if eight Safety Guides can turn things around, but if you are brave enough to head downtown, and you seek out one of the Safety Guides, share your experience with us. We'd love to hear about it.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/26/11 06:06 PM |

KTRK-13's Tim Heller slams Chronicle weather "reporting"

KTRK-13 meteorologist Tim Heller cracks on some of the silly weather editorializing that has been published lately on the news pages of the Houston Chronicle:

Here we go again. The Houston Chronicle published another article today warning people about a big weather change coming next week, "plunging temperatures into the 20s." It's all hype.

The newspaper staff over there wrote a similar article a few weeks ago claiming we'd have "lows in the teens" and "sleet and snow." It didn't get that cold and I don't remember scraping any snow off my car. Do you?

An ABC13 viewer pointed out the article to me. "Where is this person at the Chronicle getting this information?" asked Patrick.

We don't know because the reporter didn't attribute any of his ideas, and that's all they are at this point. For all we know he consulted a crystal ball or used a dart board. The newspaper staff certainly hasn't been tracking the weather using real meteorological data or else they wouldn't have published the article. (Tim Heller, "Weather Hype in the Local Newspaper", KTRK-13 Weather Blog)

Heller goes on to explain that forecast models this winter have been extremely volatile. They haven't accounted well for the extreme northern cold that eventually affects us, and the models haven't always been consistent with each other. Heller's post is a good read.

It's also an illustration for the newspaper that if you're going to opine about the weather, it's probably a good idea to consult someone with training in meteorology who knows how to interpret the model results (or, as seems to be the case this winter, can speak knowledgeably about their volatility).

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/26/11 12:37 PM |

25 January 2011

Clymer Wright, RIP

Barry Klein passes along word that Clymer Wright, a longtime local conservative political activist, has passed away.

Wright is perhaps best known for his efforts to impose term limits on elected municipal officials.

KHOU-11's Doug Miller has written an excellent obituary for Wright, posted here. May he Rest in Peace.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/25/11 07:09 PM |

24 January 2011

Rhapsody in Red: NEW METRO touts safety, boosts PR staff, plans expansion

Amidst last week's launch of METRO's latest and greatest effort to insist, contrary to accumulated evidence, that at-grade rail down somewhat busy Houston streets really IS safe (or Rhapsody in Red, for the Houtopian types) came news that Jerome Gray, formerly of KPRC-2 and KHOU-11, would be taking a post as Vice President and Senior Press Officer at the transit agency. He will make a cool $170,000 per year (we're still unclear how many times he or any other employee will have to actually use transit per month).

It's good to know that NEW METRO is awash in cash and their liquidity ratio has climbed above its previous precarious low. Err, wait, those things aren't really true (or at least nobody has reported them if they are -- and we have our doubts, since the new U.S. House leadership has already targeted New Starts Transit funding in a quest to curb the Obama Administration's spending binge -- not that we've seen this reported locally or Rep. Culberson consulted for that matter). Well, at least it's good that METRO is behaving confidently, anyway. Right?

Gray will join a media/communications staff that was described by previous VP George Smalley as a "90-person department." Perhaps the NEW agency has pared back on this bloated department, as a business with such a precarious liquidity ratio probably would. Then again, there's no bloat like taxpayer-funded bloat -- especially when it comes to this agency (which continues to pick up legal bills for some members of the BAD, OLD METRO team) -- so who really knows?

Interestingly, METRO itself seems to be making plans to proceed with some aspects of light-rail expansion even if FTA funding is not received. That scenario is laid out in a presentation made at the December 2010 Finance/Audit committee meeting (pdf posted here). Incidentally, some would argue that scenario is inconsistent with the 2003 referendum, a contract with voters that laid out certain requirements for the light-rail expansion. Aside from the Rhapsody in Red Danger SAFETY Train and other NEW METRO PR gimmicks, this behavior seems a lot like OLD METRO's!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/24/11 08:36 AM |

23 January 2011

What a little local media sunshine accomplished

Back in 2007, both KPRC-2 and KHOU-11 alerted viewers to MayorWhiteChiefHurtt's interest in unmanned aerial drones. KPRC's Stephen Dean even found the top-secret location in Waller County where HPD and Department of Homeland Security officials were doing a little test-flying. HPD's hapless Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo was so rattled by Dean's filming of the testing that she stammered an explanation:

"I wasn't ready to publicize this," Executive Assistant Police Chief Martha Montalvo said. She and other department leaders hastily organized a news conference when they realized Local 2 Investigates had captured the entire event on camera.

"We still haven't even decided how we were going to go forward on this task, so it seemed premature to me to announce this to the media," Montalvo said. "But since, obviously, the media found out about it, then I don't see any reason why just not go forward with what we have so far."

Today we learn in a Washington Post story that KPRC's story effectively scuttled MayorWhiteChiefHurtt's drone dreams:

When KPRC-TV in Houston, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., discovered a secret drone air show for dozens of officers at a remote location 70 miles from Houston, police officials were forced to call a hasty news conference to explain their interest in the technology.

A senior officer in Houston then mentioned to reporters that drones might ultimately be used for recording traffic violations.

Federal officials said support for the program crashed.

Excellent work, KPRC and Stephen Dean! Chief Hurtt's been gone how long, and still we are discovering the depths of his leadership.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/23/11 02:50 PM |

20 January 2011

Bill King on muni pensions, part three

In today's Chronicle, Bill King continues his discussion of public pension woes. This time, King explains that the City of Houston's pension problems are much worse than a review of the various pensions' outdated financial reports would suggest. Here's the startling punch line:

[T]he total bond debt the city has accumulated in the course of its entire history for everything we have built, such as streets, water plants, airports, libraries, police and fire stations and parks, is only about $12 billion. In less than a generation, we will have run up half the debt on pension obligations it took our forefathers to incur in 175 years of building this city.

Be sure to read the whole thing. Also, this editorial from yesterday's Wall Street Journal is relevant. And be sure to check out King's previous op-eds via the links below.

PREVIOUSLY: Taxpayers facing huge bill for Houston pension debt, Bill King on muni pensions, part two.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/20/11 07:21 AM |

18 January 2011

It's an Orlando Sanchez sighting...

And he raises a very interesting question that probably isn't going to make the local tax-and-spend crowd very happy:

County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez has asked County Attorney Vince Ryan for an opinion on whether the county has to pay the city of Houston's new drainage fee.

Sanchez already has his own opinion.

"You're getting a government, the city of Houston, starting to dip into multiple jurisdictions' pots," Sanchez said. "At some point, you just have to say you have to be responsible for your own operations and not look to other taxing entities." (Chris Moran, Chron Houston Politics)

Wouldn't it have been nice to have answers to this question and many more BEFORE voters decided to enact the tax?

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/18/11 08:15 PM |

Department of Unfortunate Ironies

Pedestrian hit by car shoved into moving Metro train: If only METRO had unveiled the safety-wrapped Danger Train yesterday, this accident might not have happened.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/18/11 04:29 PM |

17 January 2011

News roundup (01/17/2011 absurd government edition)

In addition to METRO's latest initiative, we found a few other area government *ahem* initiatives that have earned a little attention:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/17/11 08:03 AM |

15 January 2011

"Safety is one of the seven operating principles of the NEW METRO."

It appears the Old METRO safety strategy of having former Chief Lambert run in front of the TV cameras and scream that Houston drivers are stupid wasn't working as METRO had hoped, so the New Officials at the New METRO thought, in the most thoughtful way they could think, and they came up with what surely is a winning safety strategy for the Danger Train:

The NEW METRO will unveil a rail car wrapped in a bumper-to-bumper decal promoting safety along rail lines.

Genius! Give Houston drivers a big distracting mobile billboard to read as they are driving downtown!

As Hair Balls quips, "Try and hold your breath until Tuesday -- if you can."


Danger sign by flickr user chego101, used via Creative Commons license.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/15/11 03:58 PM |

14 January 2011

Houston's Crime Lab is still a mess

Good news! According to KHOU-11, HPD's disastrous Crime Lab is finally, at long last, headed in the right direction:

HPD’s troubled crime labs could finally be on the right track. A new report presented in Houston City Hall Thursday shows that although things are getting better, there still is more progress needed.

Bad news! According to KPRC-2's Robert Arnold, HPD's disastrous Crime Lab is still facing many of the same problems:

Almost nine years after Houston's crime lab was rocked by revelations of bad science and rampant problems, Local 2 Investigates has uncovered backlogs, lengthy processing times and gaps in information still plague the department.

Okay! KUHF-88.7 contributes with this straddling-the-fence effort:

HPD's Crime Lab Making Improvements But Some Backlogs Still Growing

Growing backlogs demonstrate improvement. Got it.

Robert Arnold's story has much more depth, including some fine quotes from the (she's still there?) lab director Irma Rios. Here's a choice one:

Despite the lack of information, Rios said she still believes the more than 11,000 kits have at least been tested.

"I would anticipate, because they are at room temperature, that most of those have already been tested," said Rios.

Millions of dollars have been thrown at that lab, and the director "believes" 11,000 kits have been tested because why else would they be at room temperature?

Back in 2008 Rios assured KHOU-11's Jeremy Desel that the crime lab would be a good steward of the public's money, but in Arnold's story, Mayor Parker and Councilwoman Jolanda Jones are losing patience:

"I am certain I wouldn't be authorizing throwing more money into a system that doesn't work," said Jones. "It's like a money pit."

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/14/11 07:14 AM |

13 January 2011

Bill King on muni pensions, part two

In today's Chronicle, Bill King continues his discussion of public pension woes. This week, he offers this observation:

[A]lmost every government has some mechanism that is intended to limit politicians' power to incur public debt. Texas has historically been particularly strenuous in this regard. For most general obligation indebtedness (debt that is backed by property taxes) voter approval is required. However, over the last couple of decades politicians have pioneered a new way to borrow billions of dollars with almost no public scrutiny by chronically underfunding defined-benefit pension plans.

King continues with more detail, then proposes several reforms to address the problem. It's well worth a read.

PREVIOUSLY: Taxpayers facing huge bill for Houston pension debt.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/13/11 10:02 PM |

12 January 2011

New from Chron MomHouston: How to masturbate!

The Chron's Love and Relationship blogger at Mom Houston (and a Chron BRIGHT!) Mary Jo Rapini offered her deep thoughts on the problem of premature ejaculation a few days ago.

According to Rapini, "masturbation is very important" in overcoming the problem. And she goes into some detail (which we'll omit) as to the proper approach.

Just another day in the life of a Chron Bright/Mom Houston, we suppose!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/12/11 10:27 PM |

11 January 2011

HISD PR debacle fallout: Examiner News to beef up HISD coverage

The Examiner newspapers have added their voice to the criticism of the decision by HISD's inexperienced new PR staffer Jason Spencer to release an important audit to his old buddies at the Chronicle (and brief them on it) a half day before HISD briefed other local reporters at a press conference.

Indeed, the Examiner reports that the Chron got their *ahem* special report before it was actually seen by principals at the affected magnet schools, and apparently some or all members of the HISD Board.

To make matters worse, when the Examiner confirmed (via public information request and questioning) Spencer's selective release of the public's information to the newspaper that previously employed him, Spencer dug the hole even deeper:

Spencer demeaned both the Examiner and Houston Press as not having a high enough circulation for HISD to consider seriously, also making the point that the Chronicle has a full-time education reporter.

We suspect many more folks are getting their news from television, so even that flimsy rationale falls flat (where was their special briefing? Not that HISD should be in the business of playing media favorites at all). And Spencer's clumsy followup to his rookie mistake (it's a tough job for a pro, let alone a newbie) has produced the predictable backlash:

Starting this week, Examiner news editor Michael Reed is being assigned full time to cover HISD — not education in general, just HISD. Mike is an award-winning journalist with nearly three decades in the business. You probably recognize his byline from his reporting on Metro, which is widely credited for helping transform that troubled agency.

The assignment is especially fitting because Metro’s practices (since dismantled) included its virtual exclusion of all local media but the Chronicle to keep the public in the dark about what was going on at that agency. That strategy eventually contributed to the downfall of virtually every executive at Metro.

HISD might want to study those lessons. We intend to help tutor them.

Smooth move, HISD! As we hinted in the previous post, it's probably time for Terry Grier and/or the HISD Board to step in and give Mr. Spencer some guidance in handling the people's information in a more straightforward manner moving forward. Every inexperienced PR hand needs to learn the art of "walking back" a debacle at some point!

As the perfect footnote to all this, the Chronicle's Mike Snyder tweeted the following earlier, in response to some links to the Examiner news story:

@trentseibert whining about this is getting tiresome. U think press or examiner would have turned down same deal?

Did he just call the Press and Examiner whiners? Wow! It's not like we really needed further confirmation that the pro-establishment Chron (or pro-METRO Snyder) too often likes to be first in line to offer uncritical, PR coverage of local institutions, but there it is.

As news consumers (and taxpayers), we're very much looking forward to the unintended fallout from Jason Spencer's new "media strategery" -- more news coverage of HISD is good for the community.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/11/11 09:37 PM |

The New Mr. Positive

Watching Jason Spencer transition from Chron reporter/editor, to HISD spokesman could be fun. Recall his complaint about former HISD PR chief Terry Abbott:

I'd never been involved in covering a school district with a "press secretary" until I came to work in Houston. Most other school districts use "public information officers." There's a difference. Public information officers serve as a clearinghouse for information. Their job is to get pertinent information to the media in a timely fashion and set up interviews. Press secretaries try to orchestrate media coverage to make their school districts look as good as possible.

Yesterday the Houston Press' Hair Balls blog pointed out the new direction Spencer is taking HISD's PR department:

"It was part of our media strategy in the release of the report, and we decided that it would be in everyone's best interest for the report to go out for some reporter to have some time to analyze the report before it was released and to do a thorough examination of it, and we felt the Chronicle, because it has the largest reach, far and away the largest reach, in the city and because they have a reporter who's dedicated to covering education full time, that they would be the best ones to do it," he said.

This is regarding the report about HISD's magnet schools. Apparently, the Chron's Ericka Mellon got the report and had a story written before any other local media outlet. Heck, according to Hair Balls, Mellon was briefed on the report by Spencer hours before HISD principals were!

So, is that considered getting pertinent information to the media, or orchestrating media coverage for his new employer?

KEVIN WHITED ADDS: I have a fundamental problem with the way Jason Spencer -- who seems determined to bring that inept touch he demonstrated at the Chron over the years to HISD -- handled this important bit of public information. My problem is that this isn't Jason Spencer's information to hand out selectively like a little Happy Meal prize to a favorite pupil (namely, the one he thinks will write the most friendly story). It's not Terry Grier's information. It's our information -- purchased by the taxpayers and owned by the citizens.

Mr. Grier -- or perhaps the HISD Board if Grier isn't up to the task -- needs to issue some detailed guidelines for Mr. Spencer, whose inexperience in his new job really made his employer look bad (which he then compounded by defending the bad move). The last thing HISD needs is more debacles like this one involving important public information.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/11/11 06:02 PM |

10 January 2011

KRIV-26, Texas Watchdog follow Chron lead on Angry Lefty Blogger beat

Last week, two news organizations decided to follow the Chronicle's lead and deploy journalists on the Angry Lefty Blogger beat:

Some area Democrats have been irked for years over the GOP charitable effort, although their turd-in-the-punchbowl ranting doesn't typically make it into professional news coverage.

Substantively, HISD says there's no problem with the Harris County GOP's charitable efforts, and we tend to share that view. Like the journos, Rhymes with Right probably gave the blogger in question more attention than deserved (although the links to the blogger's various rants and advocacy of political violence over time might explain why many journos have tended to steer clear).

Indeed, we're a little confused as to why Harris County Dems wouldn't get on board with the charitable effort and ensure it's bipartisan. Start a friendly charitable competition with your counterparts in the other party. Ensure some feel-good coverage for all pols. Oh, and help the children by celebrating achievement! It doesn't always take a government program, after all.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/10/11 07:42 AM |

08 January 2011

Right-blogger gathering Saturday

Pardon the short notice, but a few of us have decided we're overdue for a right-blogger get together.

We'll be descending upon the Stag's Head Pub at 2pm today (Saturday) until ????

Come on by and have a beer and some free wifi -- No secret handshake or partisan credentials required!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/08/11 08:26 AM |

Local Dems embrace voter ID?

The Harris County Democratic Party will be hosting a mini-conference today entitled "Blueprint for a Blue Harris County."

The mini-conference will begin with a panel discussion by Bicyclist Bob Stein, Keir Murray, Charles Kuffner, and Gerry Birnberg, to be followed by breakout sessions.

The event is billed as a "Democrats-only" event. So to get in, we presume one either has to know the secret handshake, or present some sort of partisan voting credentials. If it's the latter, we're pleased to see our friends on the Left coming around on the Voter ID issue (in their own way)!

As for Bicyclist Bob Stein, the go-to source for lazy journalists who want an easy quote on almost any topic, perhaps it's about time for journos to start identifying his leanings a little more clearly in their news stories.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/08/11 08:24 AM |

07 January 2011

King op-ed series to take on municipal pension woes

Yesterday, Bill King launched what he promises will be a series of op-eds on the significant problems facing the City of Houston's pension plans (massively underfunded, and threatening to become even more of a burden not that far into the future). The first op-ed lays out the problem, and defines the two different types of pension plans (defined-benefit versus defined-contribution) that he will be discussing in forthcoming articles.

It's good to see the Chronicle editorial page hosting this series from King, since the editorial board itself has no credibility on the issue.

It would be even better if the editorial page editor could solicit a similar series from former mayor Bill White (who has lately been writing on education for a statewide audience -- the Bill White for Texas dream lives on, apparently!). Since his gubernatorial campaign -- and gullible state media -- called his work on municipal pensions while mayor "a role model," it only seems appropriate to solicit White's counsel.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/07/11 08:02 AM |

Chron: Galveston/Houston rail proposal "off track"

The Chronicle reports that the Houston-Galveston rail project that had some folks so excited is now "infinitely delayed." The slow economy's impact on local coffers is cited as one reason, but this graf is perhaps most telling:

"I think it's somewhat unfortunate, but it's also foreseeable," Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said. Support remains high, he said, as long as local money isn't required. "The support rested on the fact that this is federal money," Henry said (Harvey Rice, Plans for Houston-Galveston passenger rail line fall off track, Houston Chronicle)

The federal government is even more financially strapped these days than local and state governments, a fact that figured prominently in the most recent elections, so the federal gravy train may not be dishing any time soon. Indeed, the threat to the gravy train already has special interests like the American Public Transportation Association issuing calls to arms.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/07/11 07:41 AM |

05 January 2011

News and views roundup (01/05/11 edition)

Since it's been something of a slow news day, we'll take the opportunity to clear out a few links:

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/05/11 09:46 PM |

04 January 2011

Sylvia Garcia, Chron keep rhapsodizing

We almost missed the latest Ode to Sylvia Garcia that appeared in the area's newspaper of record a few days ago. Here's a sampling:

The cannonball was still a secret from the public, but for the duration of a car ride, Sylvia Garcia had temporary custody of it. The iron ball was surprisingly small — about the size of an orange - and she cupped it lovingly in her hands.

Garcia, a Harris County commissioner, is the kind of Texan who speaks reverently about the Battle of San Jacinto - the most important battle in our state's history, the battle in which Sam Houston's ragtag army shockingly trounced Santa Anna's larger Mexican force, not only winning Texas' independence from Mexico but also paving the way for California and New Mexico's entry into the United States. It was, as historian T.R. Fehrenbach has written, the battle in which "the West was won."

Given half a chance, Garcia will rhapsodize about the Twin Sisters, the two cannons that Houston's army used. So it thrilled her that right there in her hands, she held the only Twin Sisters cannonball that archaeologists have ever found (Lisa Gray, The shocking defeat: Battle of San Jacinto artifacts are special to Sylvia Garcia, Houston Chronicle).

Well, now that Garcia has some free time, perhaps she can engage in true public service and volunteer to give tours/lectures (perhaps even rhapsodize!) at the monument/museum site.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/04/11 08:33 PM |

Chron: "METRO getting houston light rail projects back on track"

Chris Moran slides into the Mike Snyder Endowed Chair For METRO PR Dissemination down at 801 Texas Avenue to share the following news:

After nearly halting light- rail projects last year because of mistakes in its planned purchase of rail cars, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is reviving its rail building program as it becomes more confident the federal government will deliver a $900 million grant.


Last month, the Federal Transit Administration sent the first $50 million of the grant money for use on the North and Southeast lines. Last week, the FTA issued pre-clearance letters Metro needed before it could proceed with more than $12 million worth of projects for which it is relying on federal reimbursements. Ultimately, the FTA will pay about half the cost of the North and Southeast lines.

"This is just further evidence that we're on track and the relationship with the FTA is progressing," said Metro board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, one of five board members appointed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker last year to try to rescue the jeopardized federal grant money (Chris Moran, METRO getting Houston light rail projects back on track, Houston Chronicle).

Rah rah!

I wonder how METRO's liquidity ratio is looking these days (which will be a good sign whether it can afford its massive light-rail spending plans). We'll probably have to wait for Michael Reed and the Examiner News to get that info.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/04/11 08:19 PM |

03 January 2011

Trinket government update: Houston Pavilions loses an anchor tenant (updated)

Swamplot reports that the Downtown Pavilions project has suffered another blow, with the announcement that Books A Million will be shuttering its 23,000 sq. ft. store this month.

Photo of Books A Million - Pavilions by flickr user Jorge Michel
A source told Swamplot that the bookseller's Katy location, roughly the same size, was doing five times the business of the Pavilions store (surely distressing to the Urban Houtopian types).

About a year and a half ago, the Pavilions developers were hoping to get occupancy up to 60%. We are guessing losing a big tenant like Books A Million just made that a lot harder.

Does anyone else remember how the Danger Train, and then the Pavilions, and then Discovery Green, (and now a soccer stadium!) all were going to make downtown a livable, walkable, thriving world-class destination? Or that Bill White delivered significant assistance to the developers of this particular (struggling*) world-class vision?

That's a big reason we prefer that markets, rather than pols operating the Houston Way, drive these sorts of decisions (which often work out better for connected elites than for taxpayers).

Photo of Books A Million by flickr user Jorge Michel, used via Creative Commons license.

* As an illustration, contrast the number of businesses in the Houston Pavilions and the Denver Pavilions.

UPDATE (01/05/2010): Neal Meyer informs in the comments that Books A Million will be staying after all. The livable, walkable, Houtopian downtown dream lives on!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/03/11 08:59 PM |

Chron: Garnet Coleman touts "temporary" tax increase

In a column two weeks ago, the Chron/Hearst Austin bureau weighed in on the important state news of an angry lefty blogger taking away Aaron Pena's tilde (there's a related correction this week) and liberal Democrat Garnet Coleman basically calling Texas Tea Partiers racist and extremist (with no balance).

This week, the Chron/Heart Austin bureau turns over column space again to liberal Democrat* Garnet Coleman, so he can tout a "temporary" tax increase (right!). At least Coleman is balanced this week by some Republicans who say his tax probably isn't happening.

But like David Jennings and Cory Crow, we question why anyone even thought this was column fodder. Surely there is some actual political news that might be covered in Austin, and covered somewhat more professionally.

* The Chron/Hearst Austin bureau prefers to identify him as a champion for "those who'd be hardest-hit by state-services cuts." They also identify the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities as a "center that focuses on low- and moderate-income Texans." It's almost like Clay Robison has returned!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/03/11 08:19 PM |

Chron: Population growth could alter METRO Board composition (update)

Chron.com posts an interesting story by Chris Moran that first appeared in Sunday print editions of the newspaper. Here's a brief excerpt:

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, struggling to build light rail lines through Houston's urban core, could face the prospect of predominantly suburban leadership as a result of new census figures later this year.

The city of Houston could lose its majority control of the Metro board if the 2010 Census shows that population in the part of Metro's service area outside the city limits has grown enough to trigger a provision in state law that calls for adding two seats to the Metro board (Chris Moran, Population growth could shift METRO control to suburbs, Houston Chronicle).

The inner-loop-urban-rail Houtopians must have nearly choked on their frittatas Sunday morning reading the ominous news that Houston's mayor might lose some influence over METRO (to the dreaded suburbs)!

In reality, such a shift in power may not emerge for quite some time (if ever). Even if the census numbers support the additional board members, the largest single bloc of members will still be appointed by the Mayor of Houston. On some issues, the story's so-called "suburban" bloc might well find common ground, but in general the Mayor's bloc will probably still move most policy as per the Mayor's vision.

Now, if a reconfigured METRO board actually saw its members elected...

UPDATE (01/16/2011): The Chron has issued a lengthy correction to the original story:

Correction: A story on page B1 of Sunday's Houston Chronicle incorrectly stated the manner of appointment of new board members if the Metropolitan Transit Authority board were to expand from nine to 11 members as a result of the federal census. The Texas Transportation Code calls for one new member to be appointed by Commissioners Court and an 11th member, who would be the chairman, to be appointed by a majority of the 10 other members.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/03/11 07:38 AM |

02 January 2011

2011 Shocker: Chron ed board STILL doesn't like death penalty

Two days into 2011, and just in case you've forgotten where they stand, the Chron editorial board reiterates Mrs. Jeff Cohen's its views on the death penalty:

The death penalty :It's time for capital punishment to become Texas history

At least one good thing has come of the massive cutbacks in the Chron newsroom, in the form of far fewer Chron Eye For The Death Row Killer Guy installments presented on the news pages. On the down side, there frequently is one guy trying to cover Harris County, the Port, and METRO (just as one ludicrous example of the newsroom being WAY overtaxed).

Too bad the newspaper will never consider a bold move like killing off that useless editorial board (which really had a tough 2010, with so many rewrites of work that appeared elsewhere much earlier and so many odd reversals like these) and using the freed resources to beef up the local news desks.

Photo of a guillotine in Miami by flickr user xynntii used via Creative Commons license.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 01/02/11 08:45 AM |

01 January 2011

"A signature New Years Eve event is a must for downtown"

We were excited to see the city is no longer "event-ed out" and able to put on a New Year's Eve party this year: Gloworama!

Yes, Gloworama. It's a dorky name, but who could resist this "Inaugural New Years Eve Celebration to Glow, Twinkle and Flame in Downtown Houston!"?

The family-friendly event -- with ice skating demonstrations, illuminated art car parade, and a light show on the side of the GRB -- was alcohol-free, but for only $75 or $150, a limited number of VIP tickets were available where revelers could "get their glow on," and enjoy an open bar with hors d’oeuvres.

So, do you think the city has finally come up with an event it can stick with for more than a year or two, that won't be subject to the energy-level of local pols? And, do you think the event was paid for by the sponsors and not the cash-strapped city?

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/01/11 04:21 PM |

Poo poo in Buffalo Bayou...again!

There's been another city sewage treatment plant failure:

The collection system at the 69th Street wastewater treatment plant failed at about 5 p.m., said Alvin Wright, a spokesman with the city's Public Works Department. More than 100,000 gallons of sewage was discharged near Lockwood over the next four hours.

Wonder how the Buffalo Bayou New Year's Eve Cruise went...

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 01/01/11 12:50 PM |


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