22 October 2009
The Chron Caucasian Think Tank's rough couple of days
The Chronicle's Caucasian Think Tank has had an erratic few days (maybe that should be, "even more erratic than usual").
That's hardly surprising, since the CCTT is frequently a cheerleader for Mayor White. But check out the error in this graf:
[T]he Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care has been overwhelmed by the number of abandoned and abused pets, with its primary business being the gassing of thousands of animals a year. Lack of a dedicated funding source has contributed to substandard and inhumane holding facilities.
BARC is certainly a hellhole (whose hellishness endured through Mayor White's three terms), but it does not gas animals. They are killed by lethal injection. Thousands and thousands.
While the lack of a dedicated funding source may have contributed to BARC's problems, we question whether it is the job of our area's doctors of veterinary medicine to act as the city's revenue collection agency. We think they have trained for much more important work.
On the other hand, Mayor White has shown he can be very effective at raising money for his priorities. Take a look at
the Marvy Finger Park Discovery Green and all the funding that Mayor White has secured. Or take a look at all the money he's raised for his U.S. Senate campaign while moonlighting as Houston's mayor this year. If funding BARC had been a priority for Mayor White, he surely would have found the cash. Leave it to the CCTT to blame veterinarians instead of Mayor White for BARC's enduring problems!
After a 10-day span without a murder reported in the city that once made headlines as the murder capital of the country, a woman's body was discovered north of downtown Houston Wednesday with a bullet wound in the head.
If the death is ruled a murder, it would end a moratorium that had cops and police reporters searching their memory banks for any comparable murder hiatus. Harris County is still enjoying its grace period, with no murders reported by the Sheriff's Department for more than a month.
The last time we checked, north of downtown Houston was part of Harris County. So if the death is a murder, Harris County is no longer enjoying a murder-free period.
The CCTT may have meant to refer to unincorporated Harris County, but that's not what they wrote.
And finally, Texas Watchdog broke an interesting story today on controller candidate Ron Green's back-tax problem. Texas Watchdog used public documents available to anyone for their reporting. Apparently, the CCTT, which endorsed Green, either missed that issue during their vetting, or didn't think it important enough to mention.
Are there any actual copy editors, fact-checkers, or researchers still employed at 801 Texas Avenue, and do they ever check the work of the CCTT?
19 October 2009
Houston mayoral candidate loans money to campaign, charges usurious interest rate
Political candidates loan themselves money all the time.
Indeed, mayoral candidate Peter Brown has surged into the lead in Houston's mayoral race largely based on media buys made possible by the large amounts of money he has loaned his campaign.
And then there are lesser candidates who loan themselves money.
At usurious interest rates.
The current prime interest rate (as of posting) is 3.25%.
Morales is charging his campaign 15% interest on that loan.
It's not the first time candidate Morales has charged his campaign usurious interest rates.
In 2007, he loaned his campaign a truly minor sum (as local campaigns go): $100.
He charged his campaign 23% interest!
In contrast, Peter Brown has not charged his campaign any interest on the considerable loans in this campaign.
We have no idea why any candidate (even a marginal one) would charge usurious interest rates for relatively small amounts of money, so we will crowdsource this one. What do you think?
UPDATE (10-20-2009): David Jennings obtained an explanation from the Morales campaign.
BLOGVERSATION: Red Ink: Texas.
All campaign finance references courtesy of the CoH searchable campaign finance database. We've checked, doublechecked, and triplechecked our figures, but always welcome extra eyes. Unlike the Chronicle, we make prompt corrections.
Roy Morales screencap courtesy Roy Morales campaign website.
18 October 2009
Changes at the blog
As readers have no doubt noticed, we've made some changes at the little blog.
Anne Linehan and I have decided that we're going to move forward with shorter, more frequent posts with more links, less blockquoting, and maybe a little more attitude.
We may still be doing some of the old-style, longer posts (now located here), but for now we're interested in trying something a little different. We're thinking of it as a cross between the formats of Instapundit and Twitter. More pith and opinion, less filler, and certainly no copyright-abusing 12-graf rips with minimal attribution! We're calling the reworked effort The Stream.
I hadn't intended to roll out these changes until we were on a new software platform, but that's going to take a while, and we didn't want to wait. So we reconfigured things here on the fly. If you find something that looks broken... that won't necessarily surprise! As always, please drop a note or leave a comment and we'll try to fix. Also, some of our early "trial" posts don't actually sync to a forum post for reader comment (they just point to the same post, this one). That's a development anomaly, but all new posts after a certain point should have full commenting capabilities. So chatter away with us!
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!"
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.
"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.
Are there any editors left at the local newspaper?
A story about funding for a segment of the Grand Parkway on Page B1 Saturday misspelled the name of the chair of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, an advocacy group. She is Robin Holzer.
The newspaper only seems to have the same three or four sources on mobility issues. It's sad when they can't even get those limited, go-to sources right.
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.
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.
Texas Watchdog: M.J. Khan still can't decide where he lives
Lame-duck councilmember and city controller candidate M.J. Khan apparently still can't decide where he lives.
For years, questions about his true residency have dogged Khan. And as Steve Miller and Jennifer Peebles point out at Texas Watchdog, Khan's latest campaign donations raise those questions once again:
When Khan filled out his 2009 personal financial statement -- due back in April -- he listed under "address" 6289 Wilcrest Drive, No. 6103 --that's in Alief, inside both the city limits and Khan's council district. However, Khan did not check the adjoining box that said "check if filer's home address."
The home at 6289 Wilcrest is also the address that Khan had listed on his Harris County voter registration as of Monday. And it's the address that Khan gave to John McCain's presidential campaign when he gave money to the Arizona senator in 2007, and which the McCain camp listed on Federal Election Commission disclosure filings.
But when Khan donated last year to the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, he listed another address -- a 10,000-square-foot home in Piney Point Village listed in county property tax records in his wife's name.
It must be very confusing trying to keep track of two residences and where one lives for political versus practical purposes.
Nonetheless, that's just sloppy.
Political candidates who hope to move up the political food chain via carpetbagging really need to be much smoother in their
lies presentations of their case to the public.
11 October 2009
Bill White's 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (#4)
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.
Bill White's 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (#3)
Don't pay the bills (via KUHF-88.7):
One of the challenges is the overhead required for companies to participate. Rash says smaller operations get frozen out because financially they can't compete.
"For instance, it has been three months since we received payment because the money hasn't been allocated. "
With sales tax revenues dropping, one presumes financial prioritizing becomes key for the city.
10 October 2009
Chron: METRO bigwigs, light-rail contractors really like Gene Locke (updated)
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.
Mayor White backtracks from Mayor White: immigration screening program
White, who is running for U.S. Senate, now appears to be backing away from the program, saying ICE officials were "bureaucratic" in the negotiations. Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman, declined comment on the Houston negotiations.
"Rather than letting us simply write the agreements on our own terms, they want to put language in there that we object to," White said. "We don't want anything that creates obligations on the part of the city, or that would be inconsistent with our policies not to divert patrol officers from solving crimes."
Mayor White is used to being the big chief, but being told by the feds that if he wants to participate in the feds' program, he'll have to follow the feds' rules is just too much for him to tolerate.
White said he would have preferred for the city to just have access to the government's immigration database last spring, but was told by DHS officials that he would need to sign up for 287(g) in order to use the database.
But there's even a problem with that:
However, the city so far lacks the technical capability to directly access ICE's immigration database. White said he plans to have the technical problems resolved before the end of year, when he leaves office.
When he leaves office -- meaning the next mayor will get to deal with it.
08 October 2009
Yes, the dreck he is criticizing is truly dreck.
But given the amount of amateur and semi-professional dreck that regularly appears on the Hair Balls blog*, are they really in any position to offer up credible media criticism of anyone?
It's hard to take it all that seriously, especially given recent Press journalistic misadventures involving Connelly and his wife.
Then again, it's not about being taken seriously at Hair Balls these days. The edict from Village Voice, we hear, is just to crank out the content in an effort to generate pageviews. Indeed, it's not all that different from the Chron.commons approach. Very corporate. Not very alt. And honestly, not very compelling.
UPDATE: Banjo Jones notes that there is some credible media criticism taking place in town.
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
- 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.
07 October 2009
Which of these does not belong?
Texas Watchdog has followed up on their interesting story on Gene Locke's A&K/Sports Authority connections with this more general post on mayoral fundraising (including Locke's A&K fundraising connections).
The post includes a nice roundup of posts from local bloggers, who have done a good job devoting attention to a mayoral race that, frankly, has bored us to tears (although we have enjoyed the recent, overdue dissection of Gene Locke's insider ties and Houston Way connections).
Oddly, Slampo's latest and greatest is not included in the roundup, but The Plagiarist's lazy, weak column for the Chronicle is. Still, the Watchdogs saved us from doing the roundup*, and for that we're thankful!
* We realize we haven't done a blog talk linkpost in a while... life has been busy, but they'll be back soon!
Chronically out of touch (the "well-off endowment fund manager" edition)
A few months ago, the Chronicle ran a story about how tough government has it in these rough economic times.
It was one of those stories for and of the newspaper's sources -- and of little use or interest to the poor guy trying to pay his mortgage, or find a new job, or pay for his kid's college, etc. The sorts of people who actually purchase the newspaper, in other words.
Yesterday, the Chronicle had another one of those stories for and of the newspaper's sources -- this time focusing on how tough these uncertain economic times have been on university endowments.
We hear from Scott Wise (identified by the Chron as "the president of Rice Management Co., the investment arm of Rice University"). We hear from Carl Carlucci (identified as UH's executive vice chancellor for administration and finance). We hear from Kevin Hegarty (identified as UT-Austin's vice president and chief financial officer). We hear from Bruce Zimmerman (identified as "chief executive of the University of Texas Investment Management Co., which manages investments for all UT system schools and for the Permanent University Fund"). And finally, we hear from Ken Rudd (identified as the director of research and policy analysis for The National Association of College and University Business Officers).
We don't hear from anyone who explains what exactly these tanking endowments mean in terms of potential cutbacks at universities (or, more likely, tuition and fee increases). We don't hear from the working mom wondering why the Chronicle is asking her to feel bad about tanking endowments when her kid's tuition has skyrocketed every year thanks to deregulation. We don't hear from the student who has had to attend the local community college this year, because the big university has gotten too expensive. In short, we don't hear from anyone who might make this story more human, and less about the higher-ups at big Texas universities.
Why did anyone at the Chronicle think this half-finished, dull story was front-page material?
05 October 2009
Area transportation gets the ChronDiary treatment
We frequently refer to the Chronicle's junior metro/state columnist as a diarist, because so many of her columns resemble the personal diary of a teenager.
Unfortunately, that style of "journalism" seems to be spreading at the ever-shrinking newspaper.
Last Monday, the Chronicle's transportation column (hereafter to be known as the transportation diary) began as follows:
I shudder when I recall the "distracted driving" behaviors I engaged in as a 16-year-old in suburban St. Louis.I would often eat a bagel as I sped (late) to school. In a stick-shift car. I remember applying mascara in the rearview mirror. I hope I only did this while at a stoplight, but I can't say for sure.
Once I ran a red light while chatting intently with a friend in the passenger seat. Luckily, no one was crossing. A collision could have been deadly.
And here's the start of this week's transportation diary:
I'll quit tomorrow.
Isn't that what smokers sometimes say? I recently chatted with a woman who was "getting ready" to quit when she began her vacation. She told me this while puffing away during a coffee break.
I felt like that this week. I couldn't break my cell phone habits in the car. Today is the start of "Heads Up Driving Week," and I've pledged to turn off the phone while behind the wheel. So I thought I'd practice last week, get ready for the Big Unplug.
If all this column is going to be is a personal diary and a vehicle to quote Christof Spieler/Robin Holzer* ad nauseam, wouldn't the newspaper be better off killing the thing and redeploying the news resources? Wouldn't readers be, as well?
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!
On the new host...
The site is now residing on the new host.
If you're seeing this post, then the DNS updates have been successful and everything should be working as usual.
However, there may well be some glitches or cleanup left to do, so please leave a comment or shoot me an email (klw2005 at gmail dot com) if you see something that appears broken or otherwise needs attention.
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