in Houston, Texas
Austin officials escape charges in open meetings case, pledge to follow law in agreement with Travis County DA
Thursday, Oct 18, 2012, 12:42PM CST
By Curt Olson
Austin City Hall

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Austin City Council members will avoid being charged with criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by agreeing to conditions of future behavior.

The move by some city leaders to sign a “compliance agreement” seeks to end the long investigation into accusations city officials violated the open meetings law. Leffingwell and Councilman Mike Martinez signed the agreement this week, and former Councilwoman Randi Shade signed it during the summer, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Under the agreement, city leaders admit no wrongdoing. They will take open meetings classes and have pledged to follow open meetings laws.

“We said from the beginning that (council members) did not do anything sinister or improper. They are hardworking and have made every effort to be transparent, to go beyond what they think is required in the Open Meetings Act, because they all agree open government is a good thing,” Martinez’s attorney, Joe Turner, told the Statesman.

Austin resident Brian Rodgers filed a complaint with Travis County District Attorney David Escamilla in January 2011, contending council members routinely gathered in small groups to discuss city business prior to council meetings, the newspaper reported. A “walking quorum” is a violation of the state open meetings law.

As part of his investigation, Escamilla asked the officials to turn over notes and e-mail records. Media outlets including the Austin Bulldog, an investigative news website, did as well.

The Bulldog sued the city and council in March 2011, arguing officials failed to disclose all emails and other messages regarding city business sent on private accounts and mobile devices. That lawsuit is pending.

By June, the investigation had cost Austin taxpayers $344,000 to hire three separate Austin law firms to advise city officials on the investigation and open meetings issues, according to the newspaper.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of Austin City Hall by flickr user Michael Connell, used via a Creative Commons license.

Water company in San Marcos hikes $40 meter fee to $4,000
Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012, 11:09AM CST
By Curt Olson
water

Customers of a San Marcos water company are experiencing sticker shock after the utility catapulted the water hookup fee from $40 to $4,000.

The Crystal Clear Water Supply Corp. was downright murky in its notices about its purchase of the previous water supplier, residents say, with the detail of the astronomical increase in the fine print. There’s also the matter that on the day of the sale any inactive meters with an outstanding balance on the books would require a new hook-up charge, KVUE reported.

Crystal Clear’s attorney Mark Zeppa said the company was “under no obligation” to tell customers of the closing date or its consequences, according to KENS in San Antonio.

Residents are turning to their state lawmakers because Crystal Clear won’t budge.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of water by flickr user fd, used via a Creative Commons license.

Feds to withhold $100 million from La Joya ISD if school lunch program errors persist
Monday, Oct 15, 2012, 03:23PM CST
By Curt Olson
lunch tray

La Joya Independent School District has two months to prove it can account for all lunches served in the district or risk losing out on $100 million in federal funding.

The district has struck out twice so far. The district has reported serving thousands more meals a month than it actually doled out, two audits conducted by the Texas Department of Agriculture in the last year showed.

If a third audit in December reveals discrepancies, the district will lose $100 million over five years, the Mission Progress Times reported. The Rio Grande Valley district has about 29,000 students, more than 90 percent of them identified as “economically disadvantaged.”

In November the district reported 4,600 more meals than were actually served. In March, the district over-reported by 3,200. Federal officials suspended funds for school lunches, and the district has been paying about $1.5 million a month since then, the McAllen Monitor reports.

Superintendent Alda Benavides has implemented stronger monitoring of school lunches for the district.

“I make a promise to the community that whatever the situation, that we as a board will work diligently to make sure the students of La Joya ISD will continue to see their free lunch. This is something we need to take seriously,” said La Joya ISD Trustee Isaac Sulemana, as reported by the Progress Times.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of lunch tray by flickr user bookgrl, used via a Creative Commons license.

Rift at Texas’ cancer institute widens as more scientists defect
Monday, Oct 15, 2012, 11:44AM CST
By Steve Miller
cancer cells

If there are people involved, it’s going to get political. And if it’s government-run, ah, see the first point times 100.

The Associated Press writes of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a taxpayer-funded program, after filing an open records request for letters of resignation from key advisors to the agency.

It found that seven advisors resigned last week, claiming “suspicion of favoritism” in doling out grants and warning that the program is becoming subject to abuse.

“You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise — and my understanding was that the intended goal of CPRIT was to fund the best cancer research in Texas — on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission,” wrote advisor Dr. Bryan Dynlacht in his resignation letter, cited by the AP.

Another letter, from Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in Cambridge, Mass., said the program “was tainted by baseless accusations by members of the CPRIT Oversight Committee that our review of a series of multi-investigator grants in the spring was influenced by regional or institutional bias and the consequent failure to advance these grants for funding consideration in that cycle.”

Records show the agency spent 83 percent of its funds on grants in 2011, or $50 million out of $60 million in spending. The share dropped in 2012, to 41 percent, with the agency doing out $42 million in grants out of $102 million.

The agency was accused earlier in the year of awarding a grant based on commercial potential – the grand Texas tradition of making a buck – rather than scientific merits.

Weeks before that, the chief scientific officer for the agency, Alfred Gilman, said he was asked to step down by the agency’s executive director.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas was created by statewide voter approval in 2007, sold as a means of research and prevention and put on the ballot by the state legislature. The measure authorized the issuance of $300 million in bonds that would be paid by taxpayers.

As it moved through both chambers of the statehouse, there were several objections, including that of state Sen. Kevin Eltife, who said, “I cast a "no" vote on HJR 90 because while I support Senator [Jane] Nelson’s efforts to ’ fund cancer research, I prefer spending general revenue for this effort rather than borrowing money.”

Among those testifying for the bill was Lance Armstrong, the dubious king of bike racing. His Livestrong foundation received a grant from the state agency in 2010.

The recent controversy has prompted calls for reform. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle he will file legislation to put more funding emphasis on prevention.

The board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas includes comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of prostate cancer cells via the National Cancer Institute.

Austin residents give City Hall high marks in $36,000 survey
Friday, Oct 12, 2012, 10:26AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Austin

Austin, we’re taking a stool at the counter, ordering a cup o’ joe and tucking the napkin in the front of our shirt for that double-wide slice of humble pie, and we don’t mean the band that rocked the Fillmore East so hard in 1971.

We’ve picked on you for everything from your cash-bleeding, hardly-anybody-toting $1.3 billion MetroRail, to your obsession with outlawing plastic grocery bags, to your scheme to turn private contractors into city employees with real living wages and bountiful pensions.

But even though you pay our police force more extravagantly than any other in Texas and secretly pine to put a solar panel in every pot, your residents think you’re doing fine. And not just fine, but really fine.

Go ahead and say it loud, Austin, “You like me. Right now, you like me.

And how do we know this? Because you paid $36,000 for roughly 1,300 Austinites to tell you, according to the Austin American-Statesman today.

With this city’s mania for buying local, we’re not sure why you brought in ETC Institute, a marketing survey outfit from Olathe, Kansas, but it sure came out all right, didn’t it?

Nearly 70 percent of the people surveyed found the customer service offered by city departments satisfactory or very satisfactory, the Statesman story says.

Most thought the city spending for city services was about right and could, maybe, be bumped up a little.

Overall, those surveyed thought just about everything about Austin was peachy. Except maybe its planning for growth, street maintenance and traffic.

Maybe nobody told them about MetroRail.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Austin skyline by flickr user treasuresthouhast, used via a Creative Commons license.

City of Austin official insists taxpayers not taken for a ride with purchase of Mercedes Benz vans
Thursday, Oct 11, 2012, 11:55AM CST
By Curt Olson
Mercedes Benz hood ornament

With an eye toward the environment, Austin officials have outfitted the city fleet with vans by luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz, KEYE TV reports.

The 2010 Mercedes Benz vans cost about $17,000 more than the comparable Ford and $5,000 more than the comparable Chevrolet. However, city of Austin officials say they expect to recoup $10,000 in fuel savings from the Benz vans, which run on biodiesel. City fleet manager Gerry Calk says when you factor the Benz’s higher resale value, the purchase makes sense.

The Mercedes Benz model still ends up being “slightly more expensive” over its lifetime than the similar model from Ford, but less expensive than the similar Chevrolet, KEYE reports.

The news came as a surprise to longtime Mercedes car owner Frank Muller, who pointed out that once the warranty on a Mercedes expires, the cost rises for repairs.

“Certainly a Mercedes is not something that I would think is appropriate,” Muller told the TV station.

However, Calk insists he’s not taking Austin taxpayers for a ride.

“My goal in life, if you will, is to make sure taxpayers get the best bang for their buck for every dollar we spend,” Calk tells KEYE.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Mercedes Benz hood ornament by flickr user JWSherman, used via a Creative Commons license.

Feds launch multimillion-dollar dome project to provide shelter during hurricanes, at least for some Gulf Coast residents
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 02:07PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
hurricane

Displaying an eagerness to burnish a reputation earned by its response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has embarked on a $50 million plan to build hurricane-proof domes along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

More like a $60 or a $70 million plan when you count the local money going into it.

And what will taxpayers be getting for their money? Thirty-five domes for 1,000 people each - 4,000 in an absolute pinch - able to withstand a 250 mph tornado or a 175 mph hurricane, the Houston Chronicle is reporting today.

Kountze and Lumberton in coastal Hardin County are pretty danged happy about their domes today, too.

That’s shelter for up to 140,000 people in a 13-county coastal region of roughly 6.5 million people. Finally, a place for all those Texans who stock up on candles and liquor, surf the Gulf, lash themselves to trees and otherwise refuse to flee a hurricane.

And, according to the story, they make swell community centers during down time.

The dome plan is part of FEMA’s Texas Safe Shelter Initiative, which began in December 2009 with a $1.5 million grant procured for the Woodsboro Independent School District by Texas Congressman Ruben Hinojosa.

The program is a likely boon to ABC Domes, conveniently located in Sealy, one of the few companies in the country building this kind of dome, using spray-on concrete over steel reinforcement.

While its developers haven’t considered it because federal tax money is free, the extremely limited capacity of the domes offers opportunities for communities to recover some of their investment through reserved seating.

Just a suggestion.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Aerial photo of Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 by flickr user kakela, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston Public Works employees shop, work side businesses on taxpayer’s time
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 01:02PM CST
By Curt Olson
Houston City Hall

Taxpayers scoff when they see road crews standing around, but the city of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering has workers who are far more creative. They shop, run errands, go home and work their side businesses.

All while they are supposed to be repairing streets and sewers for Houston taxpayers, according to an analysis of personnel records conducted by KHOU.

Consider utility worker Keith Perkins, who has spent up to three hours a work day the past couple of years tending to his horses at his private stable. Or field supervisor Carlos Ramos, who attended an auto auction to bid on vehicles for his side business while on the city clock.

There’s also meter reader Marcus Estes, who KHOU trailed one afternoon. Estes sat in a drug store parking lot for 20 minutes, drove his city pickup in and out of neighborhoods, headed to the Gulfgate Mall and spent about 30 minutes in a grocery store. Shortly after, he clocked out.

When KHOU questioned him about how he spent taxpayer time, Estes drove away. The department, which has fired some workers for slacking on the job, issued Estes a verbal warning.

"Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable," Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright said of such conduct. “The public demands and expects our employees to be accountable, and so we feel an obligation to make sure that that occurs.”

Department leaders call the employees’ behavior dereliction of duty and theft of time. The department turned to GPS technology beginning last summer to track the location of employees that it suspects of wrongdoing. The strategy has caught about 24 employees so far. Public Works is asking residents who see workers goofing off to snap a photo, jot down the details and send the info to the city.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Houston City Hall by flickr user luna715, used via a Creative Commons license.

CareFlite paramedic, who broadcast on Facebook her urge to slap patient, loses appeal in wrongful termination case
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 09:25AM CST
By Steve Miller
facebook

It seems that slapping a patient being transported for critical care is hardly proper procedure. But that’s what CareFlite paramedic Janis Roberts announced on Facebook was her instinct regarding a difficult patient.

Roberts was warned by a superior that her post to a colleague’s page was inappropriate.

“I just wanted to remind you that the public sees your posts,” CareFlite compliance officer Sheila Calvert told Roberts in a message. “People outside of CareFlite and outside of EMS. In fact, my sister saw your  post to [colleague] Scott Schoenhardt where you stated you wanted to slap a patient and she thought she wouldn’t want anyone such as that taking care of her and made the comment that maybe she didn’t want to renew her CareFlite membership. People you don’t expect to see your posts do.”

"Yeah, whatever," Roberts replied, with the air of someone who didn’t need a job. "YOU weren't there. Whenever I have to have a firefighter ride in with me because of a patient's attitude, and I fear for MY safety, I truly believe a patient needs an attitude adjustment. Think about that the next time YOU correct someone!!"

You probably guessed what was next: Roberts was unemployed. She sued, of course, because this is Texas.

In her appeal she used a case “that considered whether the Texas Public Information Act required disclosure of the birth dates of state employees or whether the information was exempted from disclosure under a provision exempting information from an employee's personnel file,” according to a synopsis of the case on Courthouse News.

After a lower court ruled against her non sequiter citation and claim of invasion of privacy – on the Facebook thing - Roberts found more tough sledding in the appeals court, which denied her appeal.

CareFlite never had to do any digging into Roberts’ file or check out her past; it was there in the public domain, for all to see, on Facebook.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

Illustration by flickr user toodlepip, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Texas trooper pay lags that of local police, auditor finds; $51.5 million price tag to bring salaries in line
Tuesday, Oct 09, 2012, 12:11PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state trooper

Your state Auditor has a plan to pay a competitive wage to state law enforcement officers, and all it is going to cost taxpayers is an extra $51.5 million a year.

That is, if the next Legislature likes the idea. Past experience suggests taxpayers might be less receptive.

The maximum base pay for the 4,428 officers in the Department of Public Safety, Department of Criminal Justice, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Parks and Wildlife Department lags by as much as nearly 25 percent, on average, compared to the seven largest municipal law enforcement departments in Texas, according to the Auditor’s report, released today.

They are the police departments of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department.

The average maximum base pay for officers, corporals and detectives in those departments is $74,543 or 20.6 percent more than the $61,793 average maximum for those ranks in the state Department of Public Safety.

DPS sergeants make 18.6 percent and lieutenants 20.2 percent less than their urban counterparts. The maximum base pay of $84,427 for captains is 24.3 percent less than the  $104,971 for the police and sheriff’s department captains.

The Austin Police Department offers, by far, the highest maximum base pay for each rank, followed by Fort Worth and Dallas. (Please see the chart on page 9 of the report.).

To bring those state salaries in line with the metropolitan average could be accomplished by paying out an additional $51.5 million annually, according to the Auditor’s report.

The Department of Public Safety has asked the Legislature to approve a plan that would involve a change of job classifications and pay increases at an annual cost of $41.5 million, the report says.

If the Legislature were to consider increasing state pay based on mid-range rather than maximum base pay, taxpayers would have to spend $33.7 million a year, the report says.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of a Texas state trooper writing a ticket by flickr user rschroed, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

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Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 6 years 8 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 6 years 8 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 6 years 8 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 6 years 8 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 6 years 8 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 6 years 8 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 6 years 8 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 6 years 8 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 6 years 8 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 6 years 8 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 6 years 8 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 6 years 8 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 6 years 8 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 6 years 8 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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