17 October 2009

HPD Withdraws From Immigration Screening

Susan Carroll of the Houston Chronicle reports:

The Houston Police Department will not participate in a controversial immigration screening program, federal officials said on Friday, ending a months-long saga over the city's plans.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said HPD voluntarily withdrew from the program that provides jailers with special training to root out illegal immigrants who have been arrested. According to the statement from ICE, HPD claims the program didn't meet their specific needs. Perhaps sensing a backlash, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White said they had no idea about the announcement and that ICE "never got back to us."

Two dead police officers, one severely wounded, countless officers and citizens who have been assaulted by illegal immigrants, and the bloody Mexican drug cartel wars being fought in our backyard and still Houston refuses to admit its sanctuary city status.

Could this have anything to do with Bill White's Senate campaign? Maybe he should just say "I'm Bill White and I approve this message!"

Posted by Jason @ 10/17/09 11:25 AM |


15 October 2009

KTRK: HPD Crime Lab looks for outside help to clear its case backlog

A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Bill White admitted he was concerned about a backlog at the HPD crime lab that has existed for years.

Tonight, KTRK-13's Andy Cerota reports that crime lab officials have been working hard to secure outside help to clear that embarrassing backlog:

On the heels of asking for $2 million to hire more DNA technicians to clear the backlog, the crime lab's director for the first time is reaching out to other law enforcement agencies, namely the FBI, for help.

"I'm optimistic. I'm looking at grants. I'm looking at private entities. I'm looking at the DA's office. So we're looking at different ways we can fund this project and get these rape kits completed," said Irma Rios, HPD Crime Lab Director.

[snip]

"If we had the appropriate funding and support we could get that done here at a much quicker pace. I think we now have the commitment to move forward a little bit faster," said Chief Hurtt.

That doesn't make it sound like it has been much of a priority for the City of Houston to clear the backlog.

Interestingly enough, Mayor White is not quoted in the KTRK story. Perhaps he was too occupied with his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat that still hasn't been vacated to be "concerned" with the pesky, enduring local crime lab problems.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/15/09 08:10 PM |


14 October 2009

Texas Watchdog: Senior county attorney official resigns amidst ethics queries

Texas Watchdog is teasing their latest story, which apparently involves the resignation of a senior official in Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office:

A top lieutenant of Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has resigned his post in the wake of questions from Texas Watchdog about a conflict of interest.

This top-level county attorney -- a political appointee-- had been hired by Ryan at the beginning of the year.

He announced his resignation late today as Texas Watchdog was on the verge of publishing a story detailing how the attorney -- while on the county payroll -- had continued to represent clients against the county.

His clients won a six-figure judgment from the county. And he made a nice slice of the cash.

We're very much looking forward to the full story, which Texas Watchdog says is coming soon.

So far, we haven't seen any mention of the resignation on other local news sites, including Chron.com. Then again, they may still be looking for that county reporter, which would seem to be important to covering the beat effectively.

Way back in November 2008, the Chronicle wrote the following about newly elected county attorney Ryan:

Ryan, a lawyer, said he is the right person to be coming into government now. The County Attorney's Office, he said, can play the role of watchdog and try to insist that county officials and employees take the ethical high road.

"What county government needs is a group of watchdogs, not lapdogs," Ryan said. "The County Attorney's Office is an absolute key to the checks and balances on county government."

It sounds like the county watchdog may have had a little trouble watching his own office after less than a year in power!

Indeed, the county attorney hasn't exactly been the biggest supporter of the modest ethics reform proposals from Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has been a strong advocate of ethics reform and transparency in Harris County government.

UPDATE (10-15-2009): The full story is now posted here.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/14/09 08:44 PM |


13 October 2009

Bloomberg: Souring stadium bond deal could squeeze area taxpayers

Bloomberg dropped an ominous story about Houston today. Here's an excerpt from the report by Darrell Preston, Edward Klump and Aaron Kuriloff:

Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which built the Texas city's 71,500-seat National Football League stadium, may need to refinance $1 billion in debt and pay as much as $142 million ahead of schedule on bonds and interest-rate swaps.

The agency, operator of Reliant Stadium for the NFL's Texans, must pay $117 million over the next five years after JPMorgan Chase & Co. demanded accelerated retirement of variable-rate bonds due in November 2030, said J. Kent Friedman, the authority chairman. UBS AG may also get $25 million to unwind a swap designed to offset rising interest rates. The extra costs will push higher annual debt service by $20 million to at least $83.7 million in 2011 from $62.3 million this year.

"This is like suddenly having to pay a 30-year mortgage in five years," Friedman, a Houston-based partner in the law firm of Kelly, Hart & Hallman, said in a phone interview.

Even though pols continue to promise that taxpayers won't ever be on the hook for any shortfalls, that is starting to sound like real money to us!

One month ago, the Chronicle's Bradley Olson warned of the possibility of this outcome:

JP Morgan's obligation to provide liquidity - essentially act as a temporary holder of the bonds - expires soon. At that point, the 30-year bonds will be converted to a loan that must be paid off in five years, requiring the sports authority to pay $12 million every six months. Emmett and Mayor Bill White were unable to persuade JP Morgan to hold off on requiring payment for a year.

The magnitude of that payment would trigger an obscure provision of the financing arrangement, requiring the county to pay $2 million every six months from parking fees collected at Reliant Stadium. The debt service on the bonds currently is paid from revenues generated by the hotel occupancy tax, motor vehicle rental fees, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Houston Texans and other Reliant complex events.

Edwin Harrison, the county's director of financial services, said the county would not use property tax revenues to make the $2 million payments, but he acknowledged the possibility that property taxes may have to be used to cover the $4 million yearly budget gap.

Taxpayers won't be on the hook... well, they kinda will be, but not really. *wink* Got it?

So far as we can tell, the Chronicle hasn't followed up today on its original story.

There is a very nice profile of Gene Locke in today's newspaper, however, describing him as "a consummate deal-maker, who has had a hand in just about every headline-grabbing step taken by local government the past decade: Three new sports stadiums, annexation of Kingwood, light rail, Houston Independent School District and Harris County redistricting, Houston Community College System expansion."

Rah rah rah, three cheers for the consummate deal-maker!

Sorry, the Chron's selection of the "cheerleader voice" for their series of mayoral profiles got us overly excited.

Anyway, questions have already been raised about consummate deal-maker Gene Locke's ties to the Sports Authority (and to METRO). Maybe it's time for him to start answering some of those questions. Because as mayor, Locke would be in a much stronger position to consummate deals that may just turn out badly for the City of Houston.

BLOGVERSATION: Texas Watchdog, Bay Area Houston.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/13/09 09:36 PM |


11 October 2009

Bill White's 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (#4)

9 Steps
Put a band-aid on the city's pension obligations early on, then ignore them. Lots of money "saved," cha-ching!

We are referring, of course, to the massive unfunded liability at the Houston municipal employees pension fund*, which Mayor Bill White inherited from Lee Brown, made a lot of noise about early on (including the bizarre Hilton Americas asset transfer), then proceeded to ignore for most of his term.

The next mayor will inherit the problem, as we've been saying for quite some time. In today's Chronicle, John Diamond (a Fellow at the Baker Institute) decided to call attention to the problem**:

It's no secret that Houston has a major problem with its pension funds. Liabilities -- or promised benefits -- are much larger than the assets that have been set aside to fund them in the future. The city reports that as of July 1, 2008, the ratio of assets to liabilities is 96 percent for the firefighters' pension, 82 percent for the police officers' pension and 70 percent for the municipal employees' pension. In other words, only 96, 82 and 70 percent of promised benefits, respectively, could be funded by accumulated assets. The unfunded liability -- promised benefits that the city has not set aside enough funds to pay in the future -- for all three pensions is equal to $1.7 billion, according to the city.

However, the problem is much worse than the current city government appears willing to admit.

We would suggest that it is a secret, at least an open one, since there's just not that much reporting or editorializing on the matter (or, to be fair, interest in the same). We do agree that the problem is worse than current financial reports suggest, mainly because those reports are out of date and the situation continues to deteriorate.

Perhaps the local media covering the mayor's race will ask the current crop of (me too!) mayoral candidates how they plan on dealing with the massive unfunded liabilities in the pension plans (psst... ask about other benefits too). And perhaps the media covering the race for a U.S. Senate seat that isn't yet open will also ask about the problem.

[Read More]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/11/09 09:31 PM |


10 October 2009

Chron: METRO bigwigs, light-rail contractors really like Gene Locke (updated)

Recently, mayoral candidate Peter Brown promised to fire METRO bigwigs Frank "Procurement Disaster" Wilson and David Wolff if elected mayor.*

Mayoral candidate Annise Parker chimed in with a somewhat more subdued "me too" in her discussion of the matter with the Chron's Caucasian Think Tank.

This is a rare moment in our lackluster mayoral campaign in which we did not expect a "me too" (subdued or otherwise) from Establishment mayoral candidate Gene Locke. As we noted back in July, David Wolff already endorsed Locke with the maximum, $5,000 campaign donation, and Mr. Establishment does not strike us as the sort of candidate who would bite the hand that feeds him.

In today's Chronicle, Bradley Olson and Carolyn Feibel report that certain METRO board members and light-rail contractors have supported Mr. Establishment to the tune of $33,000 in contributions. Later in the story, we found these two grafs illuminating:

Metro Chairman David Wolff also held a March 17 luncheon for Locke to which he invited more than 70 people. Within two weeks of the event, people on that list of invitees had donated $24,500 to Locke's campaign. In the past nine months, those on the luncheon list have donated $46,000.

City ordinance bars appointees to city boards and commissions from soliciting contributions for political candidates; they are not prohibited from giving themselves.

We're sure Wolff has a creative definition of "soliciting" that would explain away all those donations to Locke as mere coincidence (although strangely, the newspaper did not seem to press him for that definition). Indeed, The Houston Way requires no less of the Establishment and its candidates.

UPDATE: The really curious thing about this story -- which involves some nice work tracking down the invitees of Wolff's "non-soliciting" meeting and how so many eventually donated to Locke -- is why the Chron editors sought to bury their reporters' good work. It's a two reporter story that uncovers some new elements of The Houston Way at work on behalf of the Establishment mayoral candidate, and instead of giving it Sunday front-page treatment, the Chron buried it on B5, above the life insurance ad and opposite the legal notices on B4 -- not the highest-profile pages in the newspaper! Are editors at the establishment newspaper also in the tank for Mr. Establishment Candidate? It certainly begs the question.

BLOGVERSATION: Fireballs, Lightning Bolts and Hell Storms.

[Read More]

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


08 October 2009

Houston's version of "trust but verify?"

KRIV-26's Isiah Carey posted a release from HPD Sgt. Kenneth Perkins, who is running for City Council at Large Position #1.

We liked the bookends on his list of qualifications:

  • Sunday School Teacher
  • [snip]
  • Met the requirements for the National Weapon of Mass Destruction Standardized Awareness Program

Trust in God, but be ready for the terrorists just in case.

Amen!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/08/09 08:21 AM |


04 October 2009

Chron reports on years-long crime-lab backlog; Mayor White is concerned

Way back in April, we commented on Texas Watchdog's announcement they were bringing former Chronsters Steve McVicker (and Rosanna Ruiz) on board as follows:

We're looking forward to learning about more METRO deception and funny numbers, not to mention just how many thousand rape-test-kits are sitting in a (leaky?) closet somewhere still waiting to be analyzed several years after the Bromwich Report on the crime lab.

We haven't seen much Watchdogging Texas from McVicker*, but the Houston Chronicle finally got around to answering our question a couple of days ago:

Seven years after the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal first broke, city officials acknowledged this week that nearly 4,000 rape kits and other crime evidence remain untested for DNA.

According to HPD Crime Lab Director Irma Rios, that untested evidence stored in the property room includes a backlog of 1,048 active cases where police investigators have asked for DNA testing.

We're glad somebody finally decided to answer the question of whether the crime lab has cleared its backlog of cases. And we are glad Mayor Bill White told the Chronicle that he is concerned about the years-long backlog -- obviously it's been a priority for him!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/04/09 08:55 PM |


01 October 2009

Houblog analyzes the coming water-bill increases

Because of recent technical problems*, Ubu Roi wasn't able to post his thoughts here on the coming increases in Houston water bills.

Fortunately, he did post those thoughts on his original blog, Houblog.

Here's a completely out-of-context teaser to entice readers to click over:

It’s misleading, grandstanding, and worse, it’s utterly unwarranted....

Go read the whole thing.

* Our web host has become completely unreliable, hence the down time this week. We'll likely be moving things over the weekend. We'll try not to break anything, at least not for too long.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/01/09 10:07 PM |


Examiner: Trees return to Kirby

The Examiner's Michael Reed reported last week that trees are returning to Kirby.

It's still one ugly, expanded stretch of concrete if you ask us.

But, that's the price of progress, we suppose. Traffic should zip right along on the new, expanded runways. And hey, in 20 years those new trees might resemble all those that were removed for the raceway expansion. If they actually are watered and such, that is.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 10/01/09 08:32 PM |


30 September 2009

Texas Watchdog investigates adventures in no-bid contracting, METRO-style

Recently, we've seen Mayor Bill White skirt the city's contracting rules to put the artist now known as The One* in place to clean up a BARC mess that had not previously been a priority and that threatened to be a drag on Senate Candidate Bill White's campaign.

That's nothing, however, compared to METRO's use of no-bid contracts for consultants under Frank "Procurement Disaster" Wilson.

Texas Watchdog has the details in this story today.

METRO contends that the use of such consultants can actually save the taxpayers money, and gives the organization flexibility.

We're open to the argument that one-off consulting can sometimes be more efficient, but we also think public organizations should operate with much greater transparency than this.

When deals are ramrodded through by high-ranking public officials with no public debate or scrutiny -- especially when those deals involve former colleagues of the officials or even self-promoters who are known as The One* -- what is the public supposed to think? Indeed, how is the public even to know, in an age of shrinking newsrooms?

That's why public organizations should make the case with the public well in advance of any such deals (and in our view, should try to keep them rare).

* We are referring to BARC "change agent" Gerry Fusco, who has referred to himself as "The One" in public interviews.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/30/09 08:56 AM |


28 September 2009

Chron returns to topic of police shootings

The Houston Chronicle has returned to a favorite topic with this article about how shootings by law enforcement in Harris County have risen this year. According to reporter James Pinkerton, as of 24 September there have been 44 police shootings in Harris County. This has already surpassed the total number of police shootings for the last two years.

Read the explanations offered by our community.

First, HPOU President Gary Blankinship cites the end of the city's paid overtime program. He also cites rising unemployment due to the state of the economy as of late. However not everyone who is out of a job is out committing a crime. Police are hearing that excuse from people. However it's usually from the same people who were out screwing up when the economy was good.

Next we have media-appointed community activist Quanell X. He seems still hung up on Chuck Rosenthal. He also refuses to look at the whole picture, particularly from the perspective of the officer at risk, who doesn't have the benefit of hindsight. He wants to see more officers charged regardless of the facts.

Next was a shock. Donna Hawkins, spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, blames permissive gun laws! Was she reading a bad script? She was quoted as follows,

If more people have the access and it becomes easier to carry them, there tends to be more shooting and more situations involving police officers.

[Read More]

Posted by Jason @ 09/28/09 07:25 PM |


26 September 2009

Bill White's 9 Steps to Financial Freedom? (#2)

As reported by the Chronicle's Bradley Olson, Senate Candidate Bill White recently warned voters to be wary of any new spending proposed by Houston's mayoral candidates:

9 Steps
White, who has shied away from endorsing or even offering tacit support to those vying to replace him, weighed in last week with surprising advice for voters: Beware of any promises of new spending in 2010 and 2011.

“Texas has not come out of the recession, and sales tax receipts are dropping,” White wrote in a post on his Facebook page Tuesday. “Be sure not to vote for our next mayor based on commitments of more spending in the next two years.”

Houston Mayor Bill White, of course, has not been shy about spending money on his priorities. This week, KTRK-13's Wayne Dolcefino checked out White's prized weatherization program and found plenty of wasteful spending.

In Part 1, Dolcefino examines the high cost of the city's light-bulb replacement program (as opposed to the cost at Home Depot).

In Part 2, Dolcefino examines the high cost of other items (caulk, ceiling fans) purchased as part of the program.

In Part 3, Dolcefino reports that the State of Texas has been much slower to spend federal "stimulus" dollars that have been allocated for a similar weatherization program, in hopes of avoiding some of the expensive missteps of the Houston program:

Part of the delay is making sure Texas and other states can actually manage to spend all that money efficiently.

"The problem and challenge now is that you're going from a $13 million program to a $327 million program," said Gerber [from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs].

[snip]

"There are going to be a different set of rules the city is going to have to adhere to."

That will mean an end to spending the money the way Houston Mayor Bill White has been spending it: in handpicked neighborhoods where 50 percent of the homes met the guidelines.

We are not optimistic that the state's program will be significantly less wasteful than Mayor White's boondoggle, but kudos to Dolcefino for his investigation (we would love to see a followup on contractors who have benefited from the program). Be sure to click over, or check out the embedded videos below.

BLOGVERSATION: Live Oaks.

PREVIOUSLY: Bill White's 9 Steps to Financial Freedom? (#1).

[Read More]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/26/09 12:33 PM |


23 September 2009

Tyler Cowen and commenters address Houston, zoning, and land-use restrictions

Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog recently linked to this old (2005) paper by Michael Lewyn on "How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning)."

As readers well know, Houston does not have the sort of macro-level zoning that severely curtails how certain land can be used. However, Lewyn contends that some of Houston's micro-level land-use restrictions are, in some ways, as far-reaching as zoning -- and that a less restrictive environment might actually lead to less sprawl and less automobile dependency. We've seen some of these topics addressed on NeoHOUSTON and Houston Strategies, but this paper and the comments on Cowen's blog make for interesting reading (be sure to look for Houston Strategist Tory Gattis in those comments).

Since our audience is more local, we'd be interested in your thoughts.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/23/09 08:34 PM |


21 September 2009

Shay: Council turf battle over NASA?

KTRK-13's Miya Shay blogs about a little turf battle between At-Large Councilmember and Mayoral Candidate Peter Brown and Councilmember Mike Sullivan.

Apparently, Brown suggested that Council take up some vague resolution in support of NASA. Councilmember Sullivan rejected Brown's meddling (NASA resides in Sullivan's district), suggesting his colleague's recent interest in the matter could harm the strategy Sullivan had been pursuing in support of NASA. Be sure to click over to Shay's blog for all the details.

Here is the part that stood out for us:

The Mayor’s office replied that it does not in general issue resolutions on issues, but that it will discuss it in its weekly meetings.

Now, if one of the mayor's favorites needed a letter to help promote expensive condos, or needed someone to use eminent domain to seize land for an otherwise unplanned park in support of a favored development*, THAT might get some attention from the mayor.

Useless resolutions on issues? Apparently not. The Houston Way is more about making things happen than declarations.

BLOGVERSATION: Bay Area Houston.

* Speaking of that Galleria-area land taking, the folks at Texas Watchdog filed an interesting addendum to that story last week when reporting on spousal campaign finance disclosures more generally. "None other than Anne Brown was an investor in the development," they noted, "and her husband [Councilmember Peter Brown] voted to condemn the patch of land." To repeat -- The Houston Way is more about making things happen than declarations!

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/21/09 11:20 PM |


Letter writer Andrew Prieditis visits with blogHOUSTON

While catching up on the Chron letters page back in August, we ran across a writer (Andrew Prieditis) who managed to have two letters published in one week, a violation of the newspaper's stated letters policy. One of those letters was published in multiple newspapers across the country, with Prieditis claiming to be from the hometown of each newspaper. We discovered that Prieditis had published such letters all over the world, and wrote it up in this post (which was picked up by Romenesko, and led to other people looking into Prieditis and his letter writing).

At the time, we emailed several addresses we found for Prieditis to try to secure an interview. We finally heard back from Prieditis, and this is the Q&A we conducted via email. Of interest to local readers is his admission that the Chronicle never attempted to contact him to verify any of his information. The unprofessional and unresponsive newspaper ignored our questions about their letters policy at the time, and our recent followup questions (just as it ignores our legitimate corrections requests), but let it be noted that we did ask for comment. Here is our interview with Prieditis.

BH: It appears you lived for some time in the Germantown, MD area here in the states, but recent reports suggest you're in Australasia now. Could you tell me what place is truly "home" for you at the moment?

AP: Sure. Hamilton, New Zealand is currently where I reside.

BH: Why did you claim to be from the home cities of all those different newspapers?

AP: I usually put my address local to the newspaper in question to maximize the chance of being published. I've found that, as a general rule, if I were to put my actual address, I'd stand a lower chance of being published than if I were a local. Also, I just don't want to take any risks of not being published. Being published is really the big thing.

[Read More]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/21/09 12:10 PM |


15 September 2009

Rice Prof gives good grades to SAFEclear program he helped design

In today's Chronicle, Carolyn Feibel reports on a study by Bob Stein (Houston's expert on everything) that found a correlation between SAFEclear response times and a reduction in traffic accidents:

Bob Stein, Bicyclist and Houston Expert
Houston's mandatory towing program has continued to reduce crashes on the city's freeways, according to a city-commissioned study released Monday.

[snip]

“It makes the program look exceptionally effective,” said Bob Stein, a Rice University professor who co-authored the study with Tim Lomax of the A&M Texas Transportation Institute. (Stein's wife works for the White administration as a City Council agenda director.)

Cory Crow offers (tongue-in-cheek?) congratulations to the Chronicle for identifying Stein's wife (something that is not always done by the newspaper).

However, we would have preferred that the newspaper identify Stein as one of the architects of the SAFEclear program, a relevant fact reported previously by Rad Sallee for the Chronicle.

Helping design a program for the City of Houston and THEN being commissioned by the city to study its effectiveness is a pretty good gig!

Come to think of it, it's not unlike mayoral staffer Anthony Hall approving various expenditures by Richard Vacar at the Houston Airport System, and later overseeing the investigation of the same when Vacar's mysterious departure raised questions.

That's how the connected class rolls in Houston. We like to call it The Houston Way.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/15/09 09:57 PM |


04 September 2009

Harris County Sheriff's Office makes the right call on media access

We were amused yesterday when Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill issued his latest* over-the-top** email blast.

According to Woodfill, Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia had irresponsibly signed off on a plan for a quasi-terrorist organization to infiltrate the Harris County Jail! Here's an excerpt:

I was shocked and highly troubled to learn that our Democrat Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia had agreed to open the doors to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) to the Arab media network, Al-Jazeera. As you probably know, Al-Jazeera has been linked to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Hamas and numerous other terrorist organizations committed to the destruction of America and our allies.

Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill
These links are well established and not the stuff of closeted rumors. Examples include the Al-Jazeera reporter, Tayssir Alouni, who was jailed and charged in Spain for collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Even more disturbing is an account that parallels the Harris County visit, which was reported by Accuracy in Media, that reported, “Al-Jazeera International made a visit in May to Crosby, North Dakota, prompting inquiries from the local Sheriff, Lauren Throntvei, and U.S. Border Patrol. The local paper, the Crosby Journal, quoted a Border Patrol official as asking, ‘What is the interest of an Arab news organization in Crosby, North Dakota?’ The paper said that a U.S. Border Patrol agent asked for the names of the Al-Jazeera journalists, whether they had been near the border, and their stated motivations. The agent "said there were potential international implications to the journalists' visit, on which he could not elaborate." Read the full story by clicking here.

Apparently, Sheriff Garcia does not share Sheriff Throntvei’s suspicions of terrorist-linked media groups.

Woodfill went on to exhort recipients to call the sheriff's office and voice their displeasure. His initial email apparently included the dispatch number, which reportedly clogged up dispatch lines for a time.

Now, before we turn to the local angle, please indulge me for a moment while I lay out some thoughts on Al Jazeera. I suspect many Americans have not actually watched Al Jazeera's English television news broadcasts, or followed the news on their website. I use both, because my day job requires that I collect news from all over the world. Now, it's certainly true that the news organization's "perspective"*** on Israel, not to mention some Arab/Muslim nations and their relations with the United States, can come through strongly in its reporting, and sometimes that perspective is jolting to many of us (to say the least). However, it's also true that the organization covers some neglected parts of the world as well as any news organization, and that much of its English news reporting is pretty good (when traveling internationally, I'd rather watch it than CNN International if given the choice).

Turning back to the portion of Woodfill's email that I've bolded -- here is the news report by Al Jazeera English that resulted from that suspicious trip to Crosby, North Dakota:

That seems like much more of a respectful, almost Tocquevillian, look at the depopulation of rural middle America than it does quasi-terrorist propaganda! And Part 2 is well worth watching, for anyone who's so inclined. By the way, the reporting was done by Josh Rushing, the same individual who is here in town to visit our jail facilities (and to speak with HPD Chief Harold Hurtt). Today's Chronicle story describes Rushing as "a former public affairs officer for the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq." To be fair, he has also done more controversial reporting, as highlighted by David Benzion on Lone Star Times. But the question of what in the world he was doing in North Dakota seems to be answered sufficiently by the video I've embedded.

And now for the local angle.... According to Bradley Olson's reporting for the Chronicle, Rushing and Al Jazeera are working on "a long-form news story about treatment of the mentally ill by U.S. law enforcement." Olson's story notes that Chief Hurtt agreed to be interviewed. Sheriff Garcia was not interviewed, but did provide access to the Harris County jail (with a chaperone).

This afternoon, I spoke with Alan Bernstein, the director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, about the process of approving the request from Al Jazeera. Bernstein told me that when any such request comes in, the office basically asks two questions: 1) Is the request coming from a legitimate media organization? and 2) Is the level of access appropriate for the story being proposed?

[Read More]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/04/09 06:39 PM |


02 September 2009

Council drama (real and fake) plays out over The One's lucrative contract

Today's City Council meeting had two types of theatrics, one of which we are not accustomed to seeing under Mayor Bill White. There was the very real drama of a councilmember who dared to defy the mayor, and prevailed despite a rare council vote on the matter of upholding a tag, and the very fake drama of "change agent" Gerry Fusco (aka The One) threatening to take his gifts from God right on to the next savior-seeking client as a result of the delay in approving his lucrative contract.

Self-described change agent Gerry Fusco
Earlier reporting indicated that Mayor White had cut a deal with Fusco for $208,000 for roughly six months of consulting. $49,500 was paid on a no-bid contract that didn't require Council approval so The One could get started right away, with the rest of the contract to be approved later by Council*. Recently, the amount was reduced, so Mayor White was hoping to have the remainder of the new contract -- $135,000 over the next five months -- approved at today's meeting.

Councilmember Jolanda Jones gummed up The Houston Way, so to speak, when she put a "tag" on the matter, a prerogative of councilmembers that delays a vote until the next Council meeting. The councilmember indicated that she (like many of us!) had questions about Fusco and the contract that had not been answered satisfactorily. As Bradley Olson reported for the Chronicle, this led to some very real drama:

White, who appeared irritated in the meeting, urged council members to override the tag, saying that it would send “the wrong signal” to Fusco and many other corporate officials he's attempted to bring into the city.

[snip]

Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck proposed that [Jones'] tag be overridden, but that vote failed to capture the required 10 votes, with several council members stating they did not want to create a precedent for overriding tags.

Fusco's current lucrative deal will expire on Friday. Since Council is not meeting next week, that means that he won't be paid further for at least two weeks.

And that brings us to the very fake "drama" that also played out today.

[Read More]

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/02/09 09:57 PM |


01 September 2009

Mayor's spokesman confirms BARC move, following last week's denial

An email from a city official was floating around earlier today, and KRIV-26's Isiah Carey has confirmed the news with Mayor Bill White's communications director Frank Michel: BARC will be moving out from under the city's Health Department.

Click here for Michel's statement. According to Michel, the city is still deciding whether BARC might become its own department.

Interestingly, when Carey first reported a week ago that he was hearing rumors BARC might move, the same Frank Michel emphatically denied the rumor:

The fact is BARC will remain under the auspices of the Health Department. There are no plans to move it.

I am happy to speak to you if you have further questions.

Regards,

Frank M.

So, the possibilities would seem to be that: 1) Michel misled the media about this move, 2) Michel didn't know about the move for some reason, or 3) Mayor White decided to reverse course over the last week for some reason that he could share with the public, perhaps, being the transparent executive and all.

UPDATE: The Chronicle's reporting on the topic has been interesting as it has "evolved" today. Here is the lede that was posted on this afternoon's version of the story:

Mayor Bill White on Tuesday reversed course and announced the troubled Bureau of Animal Registration and Care will be moved out of the city health department and could be run as a free-standing agency or added to another city department, top aides confirmed.

Later in the day, that lede evolved to this much more positive one (with no warning to readers):

Mayor Bill White, impatient with the slow place [sic] of reform at the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, has changed course and decided to separate the troubled agency from the city Department of Health and Human Services.

To interrupt the cheerleading for just one second.... given how long this problem has lingered because it hasn't been a mayoral priority, isn't it a little silly to editorialize about the mayor's impatience" at the "place" of reform? And wasn't the earlier lede, with just the facts and without the editorializing, in fact a better news lede?

BLOGVERSATION: Hair Balls.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/01/09 02:29 PM |


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