Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hate and Terror

I was surprised to read the letter in the Standard Times today complaining about Hate Terrorist groups, and complaining "there ought to be a law" against them. I was even more surprised when I saw it was from an elected law enforcement official, a constable, who really ought to be more familiar with the law of the land and the concept of rights.

First, he seems to forget there are already laws against terrorist actions. In addition to the myriad laws against murder, assault, arson, burglary, vandalism, conspiracy to commit criminal acts, racketeering, etc., there is the patriot act which is currently under review and revision. Being a terrorist, or terrorist group has never been legal, and the laws are on the books to deal with that.

The problem comes in when you lump hate groups in with terrorist groups. Like it or not there is a constitutional right to hate. Remember the first amendment? There is a constitutional right to get together with like minded people and hate as a social group, as long as no laws are broken or advocated to be broken. That is the right of assembly from the same amendment. Just because a group advocates a position that we interpret as hateful doesn't make the group illegal.

The small, sad, ignorant group here called the KKK has a right to be as stupid and hate filled as it wants as long as its actions remain within the law. No additional laws are required if they cross the line and become a terrorist group. We don't need more laws, we just need elected and government officials that understand these laws and wisely use and enforce them.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sundry Solstice Thoughts

The last two weeks I have mostly lived in a truck, had lots of time to listen to radio, and sometimes even think. Turning of the year may be characterised as arbitrary, but at least in this hemisphere there is a certain tug in the direction of the solstice, so a few random thoughts with the turning of the calendar.

There has been a lot of commentary on the proposal to build a physical wall along the Mexican border. This is of limited local impact, save for the INS dumping OTM illegals at our bus station, but it did give me reason to reflect on one of my simplistic axioms. I do not intend to pronounce for or against what is really a national issue, but one radio guy caught my ear when he wondered how the party which virtually worships Reagan could embrace a wall, when one of Reagan's most famous quotes was, “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev!” My theory has always been that the freedom quotient of a country with a border fence could be measured by one simple fact: is the fence designed to keep reluctant citizens in, or too many aspiring citizens out. On that basis, we rank as one of the most free nations on Earth. Keeping us that way will always be an ongoing task, but our comparative status is worth a Christmas toast.

Speaking of Christmas, another highblown radio controversy is the “War on Christmas”. I think it speaks well of San Angelo's generally tolerant people that we have, as usual, a predominately religious display on the courthouse lawn, and no one has ever called in the ACLU to move or abolish it. My fundamentalist church gives no theological significance to Christmas, but I cannot imagine trying to rain on the parade of those who still think the holiday primarily religious rather than commercial. Being raised Church of Christ with an aunt who was a Catholic nun might have broadened my perspective.

Actually, I find San Angelo, compared to other places, very broadminded, and not just among the educationally advantaged. The change from the early 70's is dramatic. Today, even in blue-collar beer joints, the revelation that so-and-so is gay is most often met with “and your point is?” Racism and related “isms” definitely still exists, but it just as definitely does not rule a city with a freely elected Mexican-American police chief and a popular city manager of the same ethnicity. Look at how hard the paper had to work to get a quote from our supposed local klansman. Another Christmas toast to our city.

I believe we have the best city government in living memory. There are still factional issues, council representatives are elected to represent their specific precincts, but this Council seems to have more willingness to look at the city as a whole than I can remember.

On that thought, let me move to Christmas wish list. On the positive side, Council reacted to the deplorable Kelo decision on imminent domain by declaring that San Angelo would not engage in such takings for private use. It would be preferable to have this as a City Charter measure than a more easily reversed ordinance, but our last Council saw fit to take Charter elections off the table for two years with an appointed polce chief measure no one took seriously.

I would hope that Council would appoint a board to look forward to next year when Charter measures can be put to a vote. As this Blog has pointed out, there is some housekeeping to be done before a change in selecting a police chief can be properly put forth if at all. I hope the next eligible election puts imminent domain limits in the Charter on the ballot. As the lamentably retired Jack Cowan pointed out recently, we could try to synchronise traffic lights, something Mr. Turner has past experience with. We should consider allowing the Economic Development Board a little leeway to deal with changing needs. We can pray that a faith-based prison, if built at all, gets built elsewhere, on somebody else's nickel.

Overall, San Angelo is doing well. Employment is high, if still less well paid than we might like. The Art Museum just got an exceptional recognition for a community our size. We are about to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse with the Library project. We are an unusally generous city, while others worry about “cuts” to say, Meals on Wheels, a federally funded program, we have Meals for the Elderly, a totally voluntarily funded local program. The seemingly bottomless well of qualified volunteers to pitch in and work on local solutions to our problems continues to astonish me.

Problems we have, as does any city. What I do want to do at this season of reflection on the past year, is to acknowledge the good, celebrate the things and the people that make San Angelo such a nice place to live. A Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and an even better New Year to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Problems with the Faith Based Prison Project

  1. Economic impact is overstated.
    1. Initial impact is unlikely to be as large as anticipated (see here and here).
    2. Long term impact is likely to be slower growth (see here).
  2. County must contract for prisoners (see here and here).
    1. Government agencies outside of Texas can't contract directly with a private prison in Texas.
    2. Any problem between these other government agencies and the facility will leave the county in the middle.
  3. County sheriff's department must inspect prison and ensure it meets standards (see here).
    1. The sheriff will need additional resources to inspect the prison if he is not to short other duties.
  4. County government will still be involved in the prison industry program (see here).
    1. The state has so far expressed no official interest in a program with no Texas prisoners.
    2. Even with the states involvement, the county will have supervisory responsibilities as they will be part of the contract.
  5. Lost tax revenues compared to other businesses because it will be not for profit.
    1. On a $30,000,000 facility, there is more than a $450,000 loss of school taxes.
    2. A state or federal prison will pay for this lost tax revenue with a direct payment in lieu of the lost taxes where a private, non-profit prison won't.
  6. Impact on the court system is largely ignored.
    1. Prisoners are notorious for filing lawsuits. It is unlikely that this Faith Based facility will be significantly different.
    2. How will the current system handle the increased case load and added security requirements.
  7. Impact on city facilities such as police and fire departments is ignored.
    1. What additional training will be required for our police officers and fire fighters?
    2. What provisions are being made for security during medical transport and emergencies. The proposed medical care will be at Community hospital, which will require transporting the prisoners clear across town, the shortest route being approximately 10 miles.
    3. Who will provide the guards for hospitalized prisoners? The facility? The sheriffs department? The police?
    4. Who will be providing EMS service to the facility? If our firefighters, what training will they be given on how to handle such an emergency?
  8. County government responsibilities and liabilities when the prison is operational is under estimated, if acknowledged at all (see here).
    1. It has been ignored that Texas Government Code requires the county to be prepared to purchase and operate the facility in the event of bankruptcy. Considering the fact that this is a new approach by an untried company, the likelihood of bankruptcy is high.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Jewel in the Crown

New Library: A Jewel in the Crown
A little history is in order here. The original purchase of the Hemphill-Wells Building was pushed through as a matter too urgent to allow for study and reflection. The city absolutely needed this space right now. I contended we could afford to look at other options, or at least further inspect the H-W Bldg. as to its suitability for our needs. I recall suggesting H-W would make a lovely library and open Ed Keyes for office space. Mayor Fender informed me the building was structurally incompatible with a library, the votes were in hand, and the purchase was approved forthwith.

I signed on with a move to petition for recall of the Council members voting in favor, one of the dumber things I've done. The public focus moved from the purchase itself to the recall, which went nowhere. In retrospect, at least for many years, neither did San Angelo's new acquisition. The city got to pay for asbestos abatement and has received use of the street level windows for posting signs and such. The lesson for politically active people; being right is not enough, if one opts for stupid tactics, one still loses.

Fortunately for San Angelo, wiser and cooler heads prevailed, and it appears the transformation of the Hemphill-Wells into a library is well on its way. This effort took a lot of people working together, and I don't wish to slight any of them. I do think a special attaboy needs to go out to Ralph Hoelscher. With polite, but dogged persistance, he got this on the agenda, got City and County governments to sit down together, and kept it on the table until a consensus was worked out. Another big attaboy to Steve and Pollyanna Stephens for a two million dollar contribution to the cause to bring it to the realizable stage.

As planned now, we will get a much larger library with a surrounding balcony, use the basement for really dense stacks, with room left over for government offices, possibly some compatible commercial use. We have invested a great deal of effort and money in downtown revitalization, if this gets done as planned, it will be the jewel in the crown of downtown.

The San Angelo Area Foundation has agreed with the county to act as Fund Administrator, accepting donations for the library project. We will need to raise about $9.5 million for the capital fund. The official fundraising effort will begin in January, but the Foundation is ready to accept donations now. Donations will be tax deductible and donations made prior to Dec. 31, 2005 will be deductible on 2005 tax returns. Checks should be payable to San Angelo Area Foundation, with “Beacon to the Future Fund” on the memo line. The address is

Beacon To The Future Fund
San Angelo Area Foundation
2201 Sherwood Way, Suite 205
San Angelo, Texas 76901

My check is on the way. This is a chance to help bring about something that will be an asset to San Angelo long after we are gone. No tax increase, only the willing need apply, this is how free people make good things happen.

School Board Business

The School Board meeting yesterday (Dec. 12th) was interesting. There was a lot of ground to cover. There were a number of reports that were presented, but not covered in depth, which is a good thing. For example, one report on the Academic Excellence Indicator System is 296 pages long. (Can be found by searching here on the TEA site if you are interested.) They also covered the calendar for next year, and boundry changes which were proposed to improve safety of school routes. This information is available on the districts website at SAISD.org.

During one of the breaks I talked to Mr. Layman. He was disappointed in the controversy about the meetings, as he felt that the board was more open and forthcoming with information than in the past. With the amount of information and discussion required for this meeting it is easy to see how having two sessions to cover the material would be a plus. He also reassured me that minutes were being kept for all the meetings, and the public is invited to all the meetings, including the workshops, except for executive sessions. He also stated that they would probably review the current procedures after everyone has completed mandatory Open Meetings and Public Records training early next year.

Hopefully we can now concentrate on the important issues affecting local schools such as academic performance, facilities and upgrades, taxes, and bond issues.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Faith Based Prison, again

The Commissioners court is going to look at the private prison project again. They have added it onto the agenda for the 13th. This project is still full of problems and unanswered questions.

They still don't have a location. As more is known about this project, the opposition to the original locatation has grown from a "not in my back yard" group to a more fundamental questioning of the project.

They have no idea where they are going to get the prisoners from. They have not been able to bring the Texas Prison Industries on board yet. They still haven't been able to get Born Again Corporation in good standing with the state yet. They are still worrying more about making money off of out of state prisoners rather than addressing crime problems here. I hope the voters of Tom Green County think about this in the upcoming elections, and remember which commissioners are pushing this project and which ones are listening.

These issues have been brought up here, on the ConchoInfo website, and Concho-Online.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

School Board Redux

The school board made the news again. The sad thing is that most of the news is about how the meetings are scheduled and conducted. There are some real concerns about keeping the public involved and informed. We have covered it previously here and here.

There have been some improvements since the first time I looked at this issue. The Board Book, an online agenda management tool, seems to be working now when it was just a link to the company page the first time I looked. It is on the SAISD Meeting dates and Agendas page. Some points stand out looking over the history of the board meetings. The first workshop session of 2005 was in September, and it was apparently a presentation on how school boards and superintendents should work together, with no action items or resolutions required. Strictly information and training. Pretty much similar to what you find in workshops held by other government entities. An open meeting where the public is welcome to observe, but normally of little interest unless someone is looking for a cure for insomnia.

In October the board started doing monthly "workshops" on the agenda of the next regular meeting. They also stopped video taping the workshops, although they are still open to the public and printed minutes are being maintained as required. In these workshops, they apparently go over the same items that will be presented in the regular, televised meeting. There is apparently some discussion at these sessions. One of the goals seems to be to get the discussion out of the way so that the reports and presentations can be moved along quickly and in a set amount of time. Almost comes across as a rehearsal for the SAISD TV show.

Truthfully, there is a lot of ground that needs to be covered by the school board. The proposed agenda for the next (Dec 12) meeting has 31 items and the total agenda packet is 91 pages. Many of these items, such as recognition of specific teachers, etc. with no money involved don't need to be discussed at 2 board meetings. There are other items, such as beverage contracts and the scope of work of architects, that deserve the fullest public involvement and disclosure.

In the end, I see some problems. First, this is not a very time efficient way of handling the meetings. All the reports and background information have to be presented twice. Why not handle a report or item completely at one time, and only have it on the next agenda if there are changes or further discussion required. Second it appears on the surface that a large part of the serious discussion will be done in the workshop and a dressed up, professional image will be made ready to be presented to the TV camera and the public. Last, on major issues it will require concerned citizens to attend twice as many meetings just so they can actually see and be involved in all the discussions. It means that in order to see the full discussion, you will have to attend the workshops, instead of being able to watch the proceedings on the ISD channel.

It would be easy to say that this method of conducting business was a deliberate attempt to keep part of discussion obscured from the public at large and increase the difficulty of public involvement. I don't believe it was deliberate but the net effect is the same and in the end the effect is more important than the motivation.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Taking Issues

To kick off the political season, I thought I would start a list of the issues that are likely to be part of the upcoming elections. This is just a starting point. As the list grows, these issues will get their own articles.

1. Taxes.
2. Education.
3. Public Safety.
4. Jobs and industry.
5. Water.
6. Traffic Lights.

Lets keep the list growing. Add your favorite (or most irritating) issues.

Tis the season

Thanksgiving is behind us and we are in the middle of the biggest shopping season of the year. At a less materialistic level, this is a season of good tidings and great joy. A season of preparation for new beginnings.

There is a season that is starting that we will be paying more attention to as time goes on: Election Season. Candidates are registering for offices at all levels. Soon, the campaigns will make us wonder what happened to all that good will to men.

Here at conchoinfo, we hope to highlight the real issues for the elections, especially the local ones. We will not endorse any candidate, but will post information about them when appropriate and we will tie this to issues. That will stay our primary focus.

Your opinions on candidates are, of course, welcome. We ask that you tie your opinions to issues. Don't just say that one candidate is the best unless you can say why. This forum strives to be a source of information. Add yours to the mix.