in Houston, Texas
San Antonio ponders bolstering disclosure requirements, city official recommended contractor with ties to new employer
Monday, Oct 01, 2012, 03:11PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
riverwalk

Let’s see if we have this right.

The deputy city manager of San Antonio admits to doing something wrong that isn’t something wrong because it isn’t in the ethics code the mayor of San Antonio would like to change to make it wrong.

So as to make it right.

As is the case with much political logic, an explanation is necessary. Mayor Julián Castro is asking City Manager Sheryl Sculley and the City Council to support changes he would like to make in the city’s ethics code, the San Antonio Express-News reports.

Castro told the newspaper the changes are needed to “enhance trust and confidence” in city government. And by that he means acknowledging in a generalized but codified way what most San Antonians concluded from the start:

Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni made a big boo boo.

DiGiovanni was a member of a city selection committee that recommended a $300 million downtown convention center contract  - the largest in San Antonio history - be given to Zachry Corp. of San Antonio and Hunt Construction Group of Phoenix, Ariz.

The City Council unanimously approved the recommendation.

At the same time he was mulling the attributes of Zachry Corp., DiGiovanni was in talks to become the chief executive officer for the non-profit Centro Partnership devoted, not quite so coincidentally, to the development of downtown San Antonio.

Among the people taking part in those talks and who, eventually, signed off on hiring DiGiovanni was David Zachry, a member of Centro’s executive committee and, not quite so coincidentally, the chief executive officer of Zachry Corp.

In a letter obtained by the Express News, DiGiovanni said he believed he violated nothing in the city’s ethics code. Zachry and Centro, he contended, are separate entities. Still, he said, “I made a mistake here, and I deeply regret that mistake. And I'll have to live with it for the rest of my career.”

The city’s Ethics Review Board has yet to rule on whether or not DiGiovanni’s negotiations posed a conflict of interest.

Castro isn’t waiting for a decision. He wants the public to know who sits on city committees and wants committee members to disclose their affiliations. Companies that want to do business with the city would have to disclose the names of partners, board directors and officers.
Castro also wants a city official designated to research conflicts of interest.

The most experienced city official will not be available to take the position, as he is leaving to join Centro Partnership.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitterand 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 San Antonio's Riverwalk by flickr user Princess Stand in the Rain, used via a Creative Commons license.

North Houston man sues city over $9,087 water bill
Friday, Sep 28, 2012, 10:58AM CST
By Steve Miller
pipe

A couple years ago, we managed to get the unreasonable water bill of a resident reduced to almost nothing, as it should have been.

The resident, Morris Wiegman, had been wrongly billed for $2,500, then, even more wrongly, treated like a pest by the city of Houston. His saga began in September and ended in November, which is lightning quick in the world of bureaucrats but painfully long for a 65-year-old in poor health, as Wiegman was.

Due to the flood of communications we received from other folks with similarly inflated water bills, we understand this is a common occurrence.  When something happens over and over, it would seem someone would want to fix it, unless there’s money being made. It seems that most people suck it up and pay the bill. Fighting City Hall is a tough ride.

Then comes Jose Valera, a North Houston resident who has filed a case against the city of Houston, which is threatening to shut his water off for a $9,087.98 bill.

In a court filing, Valera, who has owned his home since 2003, says he came home in February to find water bubbling up around the city meter on his property. A city inspector came out and advised Valera that the water was coming from his side of the the water meter so Valera had the leak fixed by a couple of plumber buddies. Should be a simple end, maybe a small charge for some extra water usage.

But the $9,000 bill was a bit much. Valera claims there was no standing water, no flooding that would cause usage of an alleged 719,000 gallons in February. As the court petition notes, that amount would fill 38 average-sized home swimming pools or cover the annual usage for 5.6 households in the city.

Valera went to the city, which was happy to fix his bill. Down to $4,590.86. He appealed the amount and, at a June hearing, officer Lynette Howe ruled against him. According to her LinkedIn page, Howe studied accounting in college. Not plumbing, not utility management.

Valera filed his petition asking both for relief from the charges and for a temporary restraining order against the city, and on Sept. 14 the court granted an order keeping the water on at Valera’s place pending his next hearing Oct. 29. This time the hearing won’t be in front of the water folks, but in a state district court. Valera is taking on city hall.

See the case against the city of Houston by clicking here.

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

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Photo of pipe water leak by flickr user Pricey, used via a Creative Commons license.

Because of Texas legislature, names of finalists for Angelo State president kept secret
Thursday, Sep 27, 2012, 01:51PM CST
By Steve Miller
capitol

The public can be prevented from knowing the candidates for president of Angelo State University because of a law passed by legislators in 1993 and updated last session.

A story in the San Angelo-Standard Times reports that there are four finalists in the search, but the university will not reveal them due to the law, stemming from a bill that was authored by then-state Sen. Bill Haley and updated by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini.

 

Zaffirini defended the secrecy, telling the newspaper that "by keeping the names confidential, and avoiding releasing information that could put a presidential candidate's current job at jeopardy, we get a better selection of candidates.”

 

In December 2010, on the eve of last session, Zaffirini received a $1,000 contribution from lobbyist Ben Barnes of the Ben Barnes Group, which that year was among the stable of lobbyists for the Texas Tech University System, which oversees Angelo State. Barnes also contributed to Zaffirini in 2006 and 2011.

 

Haley and Zaffirini were on the state Senate Education Committee together in 1993.

 

The names of candidates for public jobs are generally considered public record, although government agencies often violate the law and keep them private, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association has done.

 

***

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


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Photo of 'Texas Capitol' by flickr user ilovemypit, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texans carry state/local debt load of $9,212 per person, for statewide total of $233.2 billion, according to comptroller
Thursday, Sep 27, 2012, 10:20AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
debt

Texas taxpayers were on the hook for $233.2 billion in debt in 2011, the cumulative result of spending by local and state government officials.

Local spending accounting for $192.7 billion or 83 percent of the total, has increased by more than 122 percent from $86.7 billion in 2001, according to Your Money and Local Debt, a new report by State Comptroller Susan Combs.

State debt, making up the remaining $40.5 billion, has grown by 134 percent from $17.3 billion during the same period.

Debt is rolled up by the state to finance transportation, university, housing, water and military projects. Cities, counties, school, hospital and water districts take on debt to pay for their projects.

Texas ranks fifth in the country in its combined state and local debt, $9,212 for every Texan behind New York, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The state’s per capita local debt, $7,983, is second in the country behind only New York, the report says.

As might be expected, Houston had the highest outstanding debt of any city in Texas, $13,150,526,369. Houston was followed by:

  • San Antonio: $9,424,770,314
  • Dallas: $6,555,273,086
  • Austin: $5,315,491,444
  • Fort Worth: $3,139,402,000

San Antonio, however, carried the highest per capita debt at $7,100, followed by Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.

While the report issues no dire warning, Combs says taxpayers should be concerned that a small percentage of registered voters bothers to cast ballots for or against  issuing new debt locally or statewide.

Combs proposes that ballots make clearer what projects voters are deciding on, what their debt obligation is and the total debt being carried by the governmental body asking for new funding.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitterand 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 'pile of debt' by flickr user msaari, used via a Creative Commons license.

Harris County GOP asks for state approval to solicit campaign donations via text message
Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012, 06:27PM CST
By Steve Miller
texting

A Republican political committee has asked the Texas Ethics Commission to decide if it can receive small-scale political contributions via text message, as is done in California and Maryland.

The Harris County Republicans posed the question in a 72-page request that includes examples of previously approved rules.

The group would use a smartphone app that identifies phone contacts who are registered voters in a given area.

The app then has a window that permits one-touch calls or emails to the voter. If the voter is amenable to the idea of texting a contribution, the process is completed.

The contribution would be added to the donor’s wireless bill, and the committee would receive the money minus a transaction fee.

The app is designed by Harris County Republicans director Robert Flanagan, who said the technology will help candidates contact voters throughout the wide reaches of Harris County.

***
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.

Photo of 'Texting' by flickr user Joi, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas Supreme Court will weigh whether courts can award damages based on sentimental value of pets
Wednesday, Sep 26, 2012, 11:28AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dog

How much is this aluminum good luck piece I stamped out in a Greyhound bus station back in 1971 worth? How about my high school football mouthguard?

How about my dog, Liberty?

If you answered incalculable, you’d be correct, at least for the first two if you aren’t a judge or a member of a jury in Texas. State law has long allowed for the award of damages based on the sentimental value of property.

(Please see City of Tyler v. Likes, 1997, Porras v. Craig, 1984 and Brown v. Frontier Theaters Inc., 1963.)

The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to consider what is for most pet owners the correction of a horrendous 120-year-old legal oversight, allowing courts to assign a dollar value to their emotional attachment to their pets, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is reporting.

The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth thought this was reasonable, deciding in favor of Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen, whose beloved 8-year-old Labrador mix, Avery, was euthanized in error three years ago in an animal shelter, according to the story.

A Tarrant County civil district court originally refused to recognize sentimental value and dismissed the case, which the Medlens appealed.

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners," the appeals court said in its ruling. "We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law to acknowledge that the special value of man's best friend should be protected."

Based solely on unconditional devotion, I certainly hope no one mistakenly euthanizes my mouthguard.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitterand 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 cute dogs by flickr user ario_, used via a Creative Commons license.

A victory for transparency in Texas: Federal appeals court rules against city officials who claimed Texas Open Meetings Act impedes free speech
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 03:25PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
gavel

We here at Texas Watchdog are getting just a little bit wistful realizing there is only one court in the land left to smack around our very own Furtive Fifteen.

Those are the 15 city officials from across the Lone Star State who banded together to employ lots of lawyers with your tax dollars, occupy the precious time of judges and get the Texas Open Meetings Act tossed because it intrudes on their peculiar notions of secrecy in government.

Thankfully, the 15 have a perfect score: The Fabulous Furtives today extended their record when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found baseless their contention that the law requiring they keep public business public curtailed their freedom of speech and was, therefore, unconstitutional, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting.

The appeals court heard the snivell...their arguments in April, a little more than a year after U.S. District Judge Robert Junell luxuriated in a 37-page lambasting of their logic.

Echoing Junell, the appeals court ruled the Texas Open Meetings Act does pretty much the opposite of what the frank Furtives contend, broadening discussion of public business, increasing transparency and promoting trust in government.

As it has in every court so far, this repudiation will be taken by their counsel as a signal to push on to the last available venue, the Supreme Court.

There is no guarantee the High Court will decide to hear the case, but for our collective enjoyment may we remind the justices there is no mercy rule in our judicial system.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitterand 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 'judge hand with gavel' by flickr user s_falkow, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas state Sen. Robert Duncan calls for state property tax for schools
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 12:44PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
tax

State Sen. Robert Duncan has banged his biennial gong for the state to take over property tax collection for public education.

Normally timed prior to a session of the Legislature to get ahead of the Chicken Little school finance crowd, Duncan, R-Lubbock, may be the beneficiary of the claxon sounds of nearly half the public school districts suing the state of Texas.

The lawsuit is scheduled to commence Oct. 22 in Austin.

An influential longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee and its Subcommittee on Public Education Funding, Duncan is asking the Legislature to consider a statewide tax of $1 for every $100 valuation of property to operate all public schools in Texas, the Dallas Morning News reports.

The statewide tax would supplant local property taxes, but allow individual school districts to add as much as 17 cents per $100 valuation more for their own programs, according to Duncan’s proposal.

As he did right about this time in 2010, Duncan promised, as politicians are wont to do, a statewide property tax would not - and we repeat on the senator’s behalf - not be a tax increase.

Texas last taxed property to pay for public education in 1975, according to a report on the impact of such a tax prepared last year by the Property Tax Assistance Division of the state Comptroller’s office.

Less than a third of the states have a statewide property tax, and only a handful of them use any of the money collected to fund public education, a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures says.

However sane Duncan sounds as he continues to present this alternative funding universe, expect the thunder of local control advocacy to join in the noisy school finance symphony, performed from now until the end of the 2013 session.

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

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 'tax' by flickr user 401(K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Little distinction between criminal acts and lesser violations in League City’s ethics law, review finds
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 10:39AM CST
By Steve Miller
ethics

The ethics ordinance in League City is flawed, according to a review by a national ethics researcher, who found that the law confused ethics violations with criminal acts.

The “means that enforcement is in the hands not of the ethics program, but of a criminal enforcement agency, which may very well be led by colleagues or allies of city officials,” writes Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics, a group that assesses and assists local government ethics programs. “In addition, this means that there is little distinction between a crime such as bribery and an ethics violation such as accepting a gift from someone doing business with the city.”

 

Wechsler also faulted the process for appointing people to the ethics review board (ERB), where appointees are selected by city council members.

 

“If the ERB dismisses a matter against a council member, it will appear that its members were voting in the interests of their appointing authorities rather than in the public interest,” Wechsler wrote.

 

Both the ethics compliance officer and the city attorney are allowed to provide ethics advice, Wechsler found, “allowing forum shopping among officials who feel the city attorney might let them do something the (compliance officer) would not.”

 

On a more positive note, Wechsler pointed out that the council’s recent ban on electronic communication between council members during public meetings was a step in the right direction and that anything other than such a prohibition goes against the state’s open meetings act.

 

***

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


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Ethics sign via Texas A&M University.

State Rep. Vicki Truitt spent six-figure money with Eppstein Group in primary campaign’s last days
Monday, Sep 24, 2012, 04:45PM CST
By Steve Miller
checkbook

As her seven terms in the statehouse ebbed away in May’s Republican primary, state Rep. Vicki Truitt paid tens of thousands of dollars in advertising and consulting fees to political starmaker Bryan Eppstein, records show.

Truitt made two separate May 21 payments of $31,311.22 – ten days before the primary – to The Eppstein Group, one for advertising, and one for printing, according to Truitt’s most recent campaign finance report, which covers expenditures between May 20 and June 30. In total, Truitt paid $114,002 to The Eppstein Group in those 40 days.

Truitt lost the primary 56 percent to 44 percent to Giovanni Capriglione, a Tea Party-backed candidate who spent $20,847 on advertising in the same period.

In 2010, when Truitt narrowly won her seat in the North Texas district, she spent $54,355 on advertising with The Election Group, which was Eppstein’s company at the time. She won the primary with 52 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in the general election.

Other entrenched Republican incumbents who were ousted in May’s primary spent much less. Wayne Christian lost his East Texas seat to Chris Paddle, the former mayor of Marshall, 52 percent to 48 percent, spending $9,270, including $400 on Facebook ads, in the last days.

In The Woodlands, Rob Eissler lost to minister Steve Toth 57 percent to 43 percent after five terms in office. Eissler has $639,761 in his campaign coffers, according to his most recent finance report, and spent $40,025 on advertising in the last days.

Truitt was fighting adverse publicity as she lost her seat, which may account for her hefty advertising.

On April 10, Texas Watchdog reported on the no-bid contracts that Physician Resource Network, the consultancy run by Truitt and her husband, Jim, had secured from Tarrant County’s public health agency. The contracts were carried out down the line by Truitt donors. Five days later, the story was also run in the hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

***
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.

Photo of checkbook by flickr user adamthelibrarian, used via a Creative Commons license.

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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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