in Houston, Texas
El Paso considers ban on plastic bags, which make up less than 1 percent of national waste stream
Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012, 02:28PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
bags

Banning plastic bags. Everyone’s doing it, from Austin to San Fransciso to Delhi.

El Paso thinks it might want to join in and why not? It’s cooler than telling people Sherman Hemsley lived there or getting your own Triple A baseball team.

The El Paso City Council on Tuesday asked city staff to explore an ordinance to ban plastic grocery bags or to assess a fee for their use, the El Paso Times reports.

The council then took a vote to assure the public it would continue to support the city’s plastic bag recycling program, for which the council was responsible.

Should a bag ban pass, the council will be able to go to bed at night (early and without a nightcap) knowing it stood up courageously against less than 1 percent of the city’s total waste stream.

While El Paso hasn’t studied it, and votes in cities like Austin suggest the facts don’t much matter, plastic bags accounted for 0.6 percent of the litter in the most comprehensive national study done to this point, by Keep America Beautiful.

When the California Integrated Waste Management Board studied the state’s overall waste stream, it found plastic grocery bags made up 0.3 percent or half the national average. (Please see Table ES-3 on page six of the study for the breakdown.)

There has been precisely no movement to ban the sale of tobacco products, whose packaging and butts make up more than a third of the litter, perhaps because federal and state governments profit so handsomely from their taxation.

There are no popular uprisings against paper, which makes up more than 20 percent of our litter, or plastic containers and packaging at nearly 20 percent. Metal, glass, organic waste, construction and motor vehicle debris, even waste with no category are bigger litter problems than plastic grocery bags.

Coalitions will inevitably form when the technology to produce reusable hemp soda bottles, cigarette filters and fast food clamshells with clever environmental slogans on them catches up.

It’s much easier to punish grocers and their customers. And besides, the folks in Austin, San Francisco and Delhi will think El Paso is cool.

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

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Photo of plastic bags by flickr user Heal the Bay, used via a Creative Commons license.

Hundreds of El Paso public corruption documents remain under seal
Monday, Sep 17, 2012, 09:44AM CST
By Mike Cronin
files

Reams of court documents remain sealed in an El Paso public corruption case --- including two documents that the judge in December said should be unsealed after 2011, the El Paso Times reports.

First Amendment experts have said (Judge Frank Montalvo) has been too quick to seal some of the hundreds of documents and proceedings that have been hidden from the public in El Paso's raft of corruption cases, which stretch back to 2004.

Under the law, court documents and proceedings are supposed to be open unless a judge determines there is a strong government interest in sealing them.

Among the docs that are public is the Dec. 9 transcript of former County Judge Dolores Briones’ guilty plea, in which she admits accepting $24,000 in bribes in exchange for supporting a $600,000 federal contract. The court unsealed the transcript this week, even as Montalvo ordered that any other motions using the plea be sealed. The plea agreement itself and the factual basis for the plea both remain sealed, the Times reports.

Montalvo previously stated in court that he sealed many of the documents at the request of federal prosecutors, based on their continuing investigations.

Charles Daughtry, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the El Paso Times that he could not “see any legitimate reason” to keep any of the remaining Briones documents sealed. Those documents already are available to the defendant and the statute of limitations has expired.

The El Paso Times estimated in July that 268 orders, documents and motions remained under seal.

Nine people, including six public officials, have pleaded guilty to corruption charges resulting from a 2010 indictment that states $100 million in government health-insurance business was illegally steered to Access HealthSource. The investigation stretches back for years and has managed to touch virtually every corner of government in El Paso.

Wiretaps of three men connected to businessman Bob Jones, sentenced to 10 years and fined $68 million for his role in the Access bribery scheme, revealed that the scandal penetrated El Paso County government and its courts; local police; and the El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro school districts. Prosecutors have presented evidence of bribes accepted by elected county officials and school board members.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of files by flickr user T a k, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso Times alerts public to potential waste -- $3.7 million of it for building owned by El Paso Times
Friday, Sep 14, 2012, 03:26PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
elapse

Lest you doubt the indispensable role of the press as guardian of the commonweal, we offer the El Paso Times warning that the city was on the verge of paying $3.7 million too much for a downtown building.

And lest you doubt why the entire newspaper business is in deep financial trouble, we point out that the building in question houses the El Paso Times.

The Times compounded its scoop by reporting today the City Council decided to wait just a bit before moving to acquire its building for $14 million.

The city had the 83,000-square-foot building and a parking lot across the 300 N. Campbell St. location appraised for $10.3 million in August. The appraisal report had not been read by the City Council and brokers for TVO North America, the real estate company handling the deal, until Thursday after being requested by a reporter for the Times.

In a bit of an understatement, City Manager Joyce Wilson told the Times there had been “some confusion” and that the appraisal figure had gotten all balled up with other numbers, including the $14 million offer.

The confusion may have something to do with the speed with which civic dominoes began toppling after the City Council offered $50 million in taxpayer money to build a stadium downtown as a lure for to a Triple A baseball franchise.

The plan, the secrecy surrounding elements of it and the lack of public input is quite unpopular with certain constituencies in El Paso, including the hotel industry.

While the negotiations to bring the Tucson Padres east continued, the Council voted to raze City Hall to make room for the ballpark and prepares to vote this Tuesday on an $83 million bond package pay for everything, including the Times building.

Where to put all those displaced city employees cannot be determined until the Council decides on what it is willing to ask taxpayers to pay for the Times building. "There is no way we would ever consider buying anything for $4 million more than its appraisal," City Rep. Michiel Noe told the Times. “If it is $4 million more, then hell no.”

The story does not say whether or not the Times is willing to sell its building for $3.7 million less than it thought would be offered.

Nor does the story say whether a desk will be made available in the Times’ new headquarters for the reporter who made the much lower offer possible.

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

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Photo of El Paso Times front page via Newseum.

Will it matter if El Paso voters reject downtown stadium in May? Council to hear stadium bills next week
Thursday, Sep 06, 2012, 01:30PM CST
By Curt Olson
baseball

It remains unclear if El Paso voters will get their say on the construction of a minor league baseball stadium, and if they do get that opportunity, if it will have any significance.

El Paso City Council will discuss ordinances next week that advance the acquisition of a Triple A minor league baseball team, the construction of a stadium for that team, and relocating city operations to make way for the stadium, the El Paso Times reports. In the same meeting, council members will discuss a certified petition calling for a public vote on the stadium plan.

The issue is one of timing. If the referendum were held during the the May election and voters rejected the downtown stadium, would that deter anything that appears to be on a fast track between now and then? An initial petition calling for a referendum in November did not have enough qualifying signatures, a detail revealed even though the City Council refused to discuss the matter in the open.

City Council members offer mixed responses to the new petition, from predicting it will have little impact to asserting that some council members have been having second thoughts, according to KFOX in El Paso.

After City Council voted in the spring for a stadium for what looks like will be the Tuscon Padres of the Pacific Coast League, many citizens demanded the opportunity to vote to either confirm or reject Council’s vote. The $50 million stadium to be built where city hall stands forces city leaders to examine other options for city operations, which include the El Paso Times building and a second building.

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

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Photo of baseball by flickr user theseanster93, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso ISD trustees delay decision on putting more information online
Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012, 04:38PM CST
By Curt Olson
delay

El Paso Independent School District trustees seem stuck in the mud on how to improve transparency in an atmosphere of scandal that screams for immediate action.

In a split 4-3 decision, El Paso ISD trustees opposed putting more financial information online under the premise that doing so prevents the district from getting best prices on contracts, the El Paso Times reports. Trustees tabled the matter until the board’s next meeting.

The move comes amid increasing impatience from El Pasoans that trustees do something to re-establish public trust. The group Kids First! Reform EPSID!, which is a political action committee seeking district reforms following the guilty plea of former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in a cheating scandal, pushed trustees for more online access to back-up information of issues trustees discuss at their meetings.

The group has a petition effort underway on its website calling for the resignation of trustees “who openly failed to perform your duties even after being advised of irregularities.”

While a majority of trustees delayed a decision, one trustee said it’s time to restore the board’s shattered credibility.

“It’s about public trust. At this point we’re not trusted very much and if this means, if somebody has to look at our checkbook because they aren’t sure what we’re doing with it, I can’t say no to that,” Trustee Rocio Benedicto said, according to the Times.

Board President Isela Castanon-Williams last fall supported a loophole that allowed the district to withhold from online posting agenda documents involving any “situation where the board president and/or superintendent concludes that the best interest of the district would not be served.” But in this week’s discussion, Castanon-Williams said the district should err on the side of disclosure.

The trustees’s decision does nothing to burnish an already lackluster transparency record.

A state monitor was asked by the district’s lawyer to step out of a closed-door meeting one week ago because, he said, her presence violated attorney-client privilege. El Paso ISD trustees have allowed a community advisory group, which is charged with helping trustees improve governance, to close its meetings. And trustees blamed state open meetings law for their failure to supervise an internal audit.

For now, taxpayers must accept the baby steps of progress at EPISD.

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

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Illustration of 'delayed' by flickr user WaveBreaker, used via a Creative Commons license.

Another transparency blunder from El Paso ISD: Trustees exclude state monitor from closed meeting on litigation from cheating scandal
Friday, Aug 24, 2012, 02:39PM CST
By Curt Olson
door

Despite a cheating scandal that has crushed the credibility of the El Paso Independent School District, trustees or their lawyers continue to find ways to obstruct full transparency.

The newest excuse reared its head this week when EPISD’s attorney Anthony Safi asked newly-appointed state monitor Judy Castleberry to leave a closed-door meeting, the El Paso Times reports. In that closed meeting, trustees received legal advice regarding potential litigation related to the cheating scandal - at the heart of the problems that Castleberry is supposed to help the district fix.

The district’s lawyer argued since Castleberry wasn’t his client her presence infringed on the attorney-client privilege. Ron Rowell, senior director of governance and waivers for the Texas Education Agency , said the issue would be clarified so Castleberry can do her job.

Bill Aleshire, an open-government attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, disputes Safi’s move and told the Times:

“Attorney-client privilege extends beyond communication between the school’s attorney and the school board members themselves. It includes anyone considered to be within the core-client circle. Considering the role the monitor has, the monitor certainly is not adverse to the intentions of the district and could be included as part of the core-client group.”

TEA has placed EPISD’s accreditation on probation, among other sanctions.

That kind of crackdown might prompt a wave of openness, an effort to regain community trust. Instead, the district has allowed a task force on governance to close its meetings. Arguably one of the biggest openness blunders in this drama occurred when trustees blamed the open meetings law for preventing them from supervising internal audits.

Many would argue trustees should have learned their transparency lessons long ago, but apparently they remain slow learners.

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

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Photo of the 'keep this door closed' by flickr user roujo, used via a Creative Commons license.

‘Daunting task’ for state monitor of El Paso school district in moving past cheating scandal
Wednesday, Aug 22, 2012, 01:33PM CST
By Mike Cronin
elapse

A monitor appointed by the Texas Education Agency will oversee the El Paso Independent School District’s steps to overcome a cheating scandal perpetrated by the former superintendent.

“It is a daunting task,” Judy Castleberry told the El Paso Times. Castleberry previously served as a state monitor for the Dallas Independent School District. A San Antonio resident, she also is a former executive director of that city’s Region 20 Education Service Center in San Antonio.

“It's a big task, and if I can have a small part in it and students will be better served because of that, then I'm pleased,” Castleberry told the Times, while describing El Paso public schools as “a system that’s broken.”

Former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty in June to fraud and directing a contract to a mistress. He and other district leaders received raises due to the cheating. School board members blamed the state’s open meetings laws for their failure to get information from the district’s internal auditor.

Trustees further outraged the public by allowing a task force with the responsibility to address the district’s problems to hold its first meeting in secret. Half of the task force members showed up for the first meeting, and two members resigned, the El Paso Times reported.

The state earlier this month put the district’s accreditation on probation.

Castleberry will visit the district periodically and “attend at least one school board meeting a month to determine whether the district is making progress in correcting systemic failures that led to its cheating scandal,” the newspaper reported.

From the El Paso Times:

When she is not in El Paso, Castleberry said, she will have daily contact with interim Superintendent Terri Jordan and other administrators and will watch a live stream of school board meetings online.

Castleberry will submit reports on the district's progress to the state education agency at the end of every month.

She will submit her first report at the end of September.

After reviewing a report, the state will send the document to Jordan, who will distribute it to trustees.

Those reports will be subject to the state Public Information Act, so anyone can request a copy from the Texas Education Agency.

The monitor will earn $75 an hour and receive travel reimbursement on the district’s dime. The TEA will assess the situation every three months.

Other state sanctions include:

  • An independent examination of what allowed the cheating to occur.
  • The hiring of an outside organization to oversee administration and security of standardized testing this academic year.
  • Training of district officials and trustees to prevent comparable violations that would be conducted by an independent company.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850.  Follow him on Twitter @michaelccronon.

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Photo of 'Amtrak Station El Paso Texas' by flickr user Loco Steve, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso City Council rejects open discussion about aspect of $50 million stadium plan; petition likely too late
Thursday, Aug 09, 2012, 05:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
baseball

Possibly inexplicably oblivious to the El Paso area public corruption scandals that have destroyed public trust, half of El Paso City Council quashed a move to bring a discussion into the open about the planned baseball stadium.

A group of citizens, Quality of Life Voters for Democracy, want to vote Nov. 6 on the $50 million Triple A minor league baseball stadium planned for downtown, but apparently submitted its petition too late, KVIA reported. The city has until Sept. 21 to verify signatures, but the issue must be finalized for the ballot by Aug. 20.

“We use this term all the time that we want to be transparent,” City Rep. Carl Robinson was reported saying. “If we really believe in the word being transparent we should be transparent to the people that have filed the petition and let them know whatever they’ve done is all for naught.”

Robinson’s comment came during an effort by council to waive its attorney-client privilege and discuss the stadium vote petition timeline in public, just as they had earlier in closed session. Council’s legally allowed to do that, but the move died, 5-4, with Mayor John Cook casting the deciding vote.

A Triple A minor league baseball team would replace the current Double A Diablos. Council also voted Tuesday to spend $22 million to relocate City Hall to two other downtown buildings, including the current home of the El Paso Times, so the stadium can be built where City Hall now sits. The city would pay for the new City Hall beginning in 2014 with certificates of obligation, which don’t require voter approval, the El Paso Times reported.

The city also will have voters determine the fate of $468 million in “quality-of-life” bonds for parks and other projects in November, and Cook’s concerned about public trust.

“When community trust is shaky, then they (voters) are liable to go vote no for everything,” said the mayor, in explaining the importance of the bond issue, the Times reported.

Ironically, that same public trust didn’t compel the mayor to level with citizens in the open.

If voters reject his prized quality-of-life bond issue in November, here’s hoping Cook points a finger at more than those who’ve been indicted or are already in jail.

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

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Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

El Paso considers making hotel tax highest in state to pay for new baseball stadium
Monday, Jul 16, 2012, 02:12PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
field

Thanks to the courage of El Paso politicians, voters on Nov. 2 will get to decide to stick at least part of a $50 million bill for a downtown baseball stadium with the city’s hotel industry.

The proposed stadium will be home to a Triple A minor league baseball team the city doesn’t have and will not get unless the park is built, the El Paso Times reports. El Paso is currently making do with the Double A Diablos, just now sitting in last place in the league’s South Division.

Maybe the city’s hotel managers, concierges and maids should get together this week and have a showing of Field of Dreams to get pumped up, rather than grousing about why their industry should be singled out to pay for the enjoyment of baseball fans.

Should a majority of voters approve - and why not, most of those people spend few nights in their own city’s hotels - a 2 percent increase in the hotel occupancy tax will leave El Paso with a 17.5 percent hotel tax rate, the highest in the state.

Surely, $1.40 more per night isn’t too much to pay to say you stayed in a Triple A town. At least the local investors, who are decidedly not interested in investing in a ballpark, think so.

A ballpark is good for everybody in El Paso, the investors say, a carnival pitch repeated endlessly over the past 30 years in wanna-be Zeniths all over the country. Which is probably how that Field of Dreams quote got changed to, “If we build it, they will come.”

The quote, “If we build it, he will come,” is closer to the truth. For three decades, one sports economist after another has demolished the myth that a baseball, football, lacrosse or lawn bowling stadium is a net benefit to a local economy.

An oft-quoted 2000 study by the libertarian Cato Institute found no economic benefit in any of the 37 metropolitan areas reviewed. In several places, the impact was negative.

“If you want to inject money into the local economy,” University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson once said, “it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark.”

However apt, we at Texas Watchdog take no responsibility for the use of the previous quote if it results in a helicopter being added to the El Paso hotel industry’s tax burden.

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

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Photo from 'Field of Dreams,' the 1989 movie staring Kevin Costner.

El Paso schools trustees say open meetings laws prevent them from supervising internal auditor; lawyer says that interpretation flat wrong
Wednesday, Jul 11, 2012, 10:47AM CST
By Steve Miller
bus

The El Paso school board is truly becoming the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

In the midst of a massive audit, the board now claims the state’s open meetings law is hindering it from overseeing and sharing information with the district’s internal auditor.

In fact, it even wants its statehouse delegation to propose legislation that allows it to do so, even though an open records lawyer says there is nothing in existing law that prohibits the sharing of info between the board and internal auditors.

Bill Aleshire, an open government attorney in Austin, told the El Paso Times, "If they're suggesting the Open Meetings Act prevents their duty for overseeing the internal auditor, they're wrong about that. If the board president goes to the internal auditor and says, 'I want you to tell me what you're doing on every audit,' there's nothing illegal with that."

Whew.

This after the board was notified last month by the district’s lawyer that it legally erred by allowing internal auditors to report directly to the then-superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who kept members in the dark regarding fiscal trouble in the district.

The district is trying to square up how its internal auditor was finding numerous problems yet the discoveries never made it to board members during the Garcia’s tenure. Among the problems were cheating and unexplained class promotions.

Garcia last month pleaded guilty to fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced in September.

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

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Photo of school bus by flickr user torres21, used via a Creative Commons license.

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FEBRUARY 27 / Eric Hoffer on . . . . . . baby boomers and alienated intellectuals. "SCRATCH AN INTELLECTUAL, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the...
Update:3 years 1 month
Unca Darrell
2017 Project: January “Progress” There are two different ways to interpret my 2017 project: that it's a way more complicated New Years Resolution, or that it is essentially...
Update:3 years 2 months
Greg's Opinion
Ted Cruz's first senate term in a nutshell The National Review's Tim Alberta switched to Politico, and one of his opening pieces put Ted Cruz's first term in a nutshell It...
Update:3 years 2 months
Rick Perry vs The World
Andrea Parquet-Taylor named KTVT CBS 11 news director Former KHOU 11 assistant news director Andrea Parquet-Taylor named Vice President, News Director for KTVT CBS 11 Andrea...
Update:3 years 2 months
Mike McGuff
VIDEO: KPRC 2 10pm newscast (1-24-99) ...
Update:3 years 2 months
Mike McGuff
Democrats actually thought Wendy Davis was a serious candidate? Hat tip to Willisms: VIDEO- Wendy Davis being Wendy Davis: https://t.co/SHq3ACGVDJ #txlege— Will Franklin (@WILLisms) January 24,...
Update:3 years 2 months
Rick Perry vs The World
Luke Bryan to sing National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI on FOX ​ Country music superstar LUKE BRYAN will sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI pregame festivities at NRG Stadium in Houston...
Update:3 years 2 months
Mike McGuff
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 7 years 10 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 7 years 10 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 7 years 10 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 7 years 10 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 7 years 10 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 | 7 years 10 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 7 years 10 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 7 years 10 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 7 years 10 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 7 years 10 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 7 years 10 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 10 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 10 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 10 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 10 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 10 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 | 7 years 10 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 10 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 10 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 10 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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