Saturday, December 30, 2006

Thoughts on Voting

The elections commission decided Friday that Vona McKerley will be the elections administrator. She will have her hands full and I wish her luck. She has a big job ahead of her.

I must confess I know Vona, and not the other applicants for the office. Based on my observations, however, I am sure she will bring leadership, openness and a strong work ethic, not politics, to the job. She does have the most elections experience of those that applied for the job.

She will have to hit the ground running. There are voting systems examinations due in January, May or August. There are elections in May and November. There is a lot of training needed, and a lot of work rebuilding the elections office and system into something the voters will trust. We will be following the progress here.

We wish Vona luck. She will need it.

Monday, December 25, 2006


It's Christmas, and the ConchoInfo BLOG has recently been given a couple gifts.

If you haven't noticed, we now have another blogger - Allie Devereaux. She brings a fresh perspective to the issues that affect the area. I look forward to her continuing participation.

The second gift was from Google, which hosts our blog on They have updated their blogging software and interface. The two most visible changes are the ability to add category labels to posts, and in the way the archive index is arranged. You can now open a month and see the articles from that month.

Have a great Christmas, and stay with us in the new year.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rethinking the Energy Farm

In October I wrote an article in which I advocated solar and wind farms as alternative energy projects to a municipal solid waste gasification plant. I was not fully confident in doing so at the time and would now like to revisit this prospect. In the current political climate there is pressure to embrace these big “alternative energy” solutions and there is currently a lot of campaigning related to this issue by the legislative figures.

In light of the lawsuit that is currently under way against FPL Energy and their Horse Hollow wind farm in Taylor County we should consider that these massive energy farms are not the best solution and in fact may leave us with another flawed but entrenched technology as the massive infrastructure required for such operations bogs down our ability and willingness to keep moving toward new and innovative ideas.,1874,ABIL_7959_522335

The energy “farm” concept is based on current energy model and a common flaw is shared --- the energy is derived from a primary source and then mass distributed. While we may benefit from the cleaner energy that is generated from a wind farm, we are still just as vulnerable to “rolling blackouts,” and price gouging as we were before.

Our water distribution is handled in the same way and we have recently witnessed in the south part of town businesses closing down, hospitals and nursing homes without water, and homeowners dipping water out of neighbors swimming pools with trash cans so that they can flush their toilets.

As humans we are instilled with the gift of reason, which should tell us that erecting massive energy farms and monolithic power lines to disperse electricity to far away lands only benefits the corporate “providers.”

Not only that, but it is probable that in the long run the energy farm concept will serve a greedy bureaucracy as land owners begin to sell their heritage to developers and the state as their love for the land is sacrificed to taxation and as industry creeps into our sacred spaces.

Truly it seems that today there is a deliberate and joint effort by political and corporate powers to herd us out of the rural areas and into more manageable and profitable urban configurations. The TransTexas corridor and the National Animal Id Program are other ways we see rural existence in America becoming inconvenienced if not rendered impossible due to taxation, regulation, and imposing infrastructure.

We saw a massive migration out of the rural areas with the coming of the Industrial Age. The family farm population continues to dwindle. But this is where our stability and sanity lies as a society. In energy production and food production and in many other aspects of our lives we need more independence, not more reliance on international corporations and bureaucracy. Yet these influences are growing in massive proportions.

As we are losing our knowledge of relevant and accurate history, we are repeating it. The founding of America truly was a shining moment of hope in a long history of humanity filled with oppression and subversion; but with each deviation from the principles that this country was founded upon, the opportunity to start anew unravels and the patterns that have plagued humanity from the beginning reestablish.

We do not need corporate wind farms subsidized by government. If here in San Angelo we had solar panels mounted on every home, business, and public building in town, we could generate much more energy than any solar or wind farm could muster, and there would be more to spare. Some may argue that it is not economically feasible, but if those who could afford it started the trend, commerce would be generated and the cost of the equipment would go down. I would gladly vote on a bond package that would enable the rest of us to rig our homes with solar energy, trade our electric bills that are as much or more as our monthly mortgage payments for checks from the energy companies as we sell excess energy back to the grid. If land owners wanted to erect windmills that they themselves finance and own, that would beneficial to all as well. This is as feasible as a corporate energy farm if we decide to say that it is --- the only difference is: more energy, more commerce, more jobs, more financial freedom for the citizenry and less of our hard earned money in the pockets multinational corporations and federal, state and municipal coffers.

Don’t believe anyone who says it’s not possible. Sustainable developments are already becoming established in areas that have less energy potential than we have here. New residential developments in the US, Europe, Japan and elsewhere have homes equipped with solar and wind power, innovative plumbing designs that harvest rain water, recycle grey water and send solids into methane digesters for the creation of heat and additional energy. No municipal waste problem, no energy problem, no massive aging infrastructure to deal with down the road that will cost millions of dollars to fix, less pollution, and an enhanced sense of community.

Let’s make San Angelo into a true model community wherein ingenuity flourishes and the people truly fare well. This all begins in thinking for ourselves, thinking outside the box, and abandoning the idea that improvement only happens with bureaucratic oversight and that government exists to orchestrate and define our future for us…

Friday, December 22, 2006

Water they up to

The water main break is the big story in town right now, and for good reason. Water is essential to the citizens and businesses of San Angelo. Basic maintenance shouldn't have been ignored for as long as it was. That is not acceptable.

Before we break out the torches and pitch forks and go after the city council, lets take a deep breath and look at some basic facts. Our current city council is relatively new. Three of the members just took office this year (although Mr. Cardenas had been on council 10 years ago.) The majority of the council has less than 2 years in office. Only Mr. Cardenas has more than 4 years experiance on the council, and much of his is not recent.

The current council has not ignored maintenance issues. They finally stopped treating water as little more than a revenue source when they eliminated the PILOT transfer of money from the water fund to the general fund, and started looking at water as a fundamental service. They directed staff to come up with a plan on maintenance and improvements to infrastructure. They specifically asked about using the current 1/2 cent sales tax to fix some of these problems. They have been trying to fix a problem that was left for them by previous councils and city managers.

There has been some interesting timing for these water line problems. The Honey Creek fire happened just before the council had a 2 day workshop. When tough questions were asked about why the hydrants weren't working in the honey creek area, it was pointed out that a previous council had eliminated the hydrant and valve inspection and maintenance team in the water department to "save money." Other "savings" such as eliminating some road and bridge maintenance capabilities were also mentioned. Council put money into the budget for the hydrant and valve maintenance program, allocated a much higher amount of money to maintenance, and directed staff to come back with more information and to develop a plan of attack including priorities.

Money was allocated to fix the mains in the current budget. They were planning for when and where to start when the mains made that decision for them. A capital improvement plan outline was presented to the council last Tuesday. This presentation had been scheduled long before the main broke. It added emphasis to the presentation, but didn't change the core of it. The picture presented was not good. The false economy of putting off maintenance by previous councils and management is going to cost the city millions of dollars to fix. The current council is at least addressing the issue head on.

One question that keeps coming up is "why don't they use 1/2 cent sales tax money to fix some of this?" Short answer is that by law they can't. Type 4B economic development sales taxes can't be used for capital and infrastructure unless it is an improvement that will help promote or expand business, or is tied to another 4B project. Check here for more information. The ballot language voters approved for our local 4B tax further limits how that money can be spent.

There are alternative sales taxes available to cities. They can adopt a sales tax that is dedicated to road and bridge projects. They can also adopt a sales tax to reduce property taxes. Any of these options would have to be voted on by the citizens of San Angelo. It is probably time to look at these options. Lets see if the council will bring this before the voters.

The council and city staff have a lot of work to do. They have a problem to fix that is left over from their predecessors. Let's give them a chance to do a long term fix. The infrastructure didn't get this bad in 2 years, it won't get fixed in 2 years. Let's also remind the other local government bodies, like the school board, that maintenance must be a priority. And let's not forget to thank previous mayors and council members for the fine shape they left the city in.

Friday, December 15, 2006

TTC: Another sign of things to come

We recently mentioned the Trans Texas Corridor on this BLOG, and how it is also our issue. Apparently someone else realizes it because I saw this sign just south of town on Hwy 67.

While you want to check their website, you also want to check out They have information that is hard to find. Also check out this report and this article.

My opinion on this project so far is that it would be a disaster for West Texas. I am especially concerned that they are trying to pull the Port to Plains project into this mess, and that I-10 and I-20 will likely get "improved" into toll roads as part of the TTC. There has got to be a better way to build roads.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

School Bond Off to a Bad Start

I have been hearing from people about the poll commissioned by the school district regarding the bond proposal. As luck would have it, I finally got the call myself. For full disclosure, I supported the last bond in '96, wrote a guest column in the Standard-Times and urged voters to approve. At this point, I have too little information on certain specifics to make a final declaration one way or another on this bond issue. I speak here only as regards the poll itself.

I am not a political neophyte. There is a campaign tool called a push poll. The term means a phone campaign called a poll, but designed more to influence voters than to measure sentiment. I usually find myself embarrassed when my Party's candidates resort to this rather shabby device, but candidates are generally allowed to spend money foolishly if they wish. It is flatly illegal for a governmental entity to do this.

Towards the end of this poll the lady asking me questions veers from opinion sampling to saying, “I am going to read a series of statements. Please indicate whether what you hear makes you more or less likely to vote to approve the bond issue.” This is followed by a list of declarative sentences having to do with the wonderful things that will happen if we approve the bond. A quick Google search got me the content of polls this Raymond Turco and Assoc. has done in Windsor, Lewisville, and Bryan, Texas. These were legitimate opinion measuring polls. The bit of work being conducted in San Angelo is so far over the line, I recommend the County Attorney get a copy of the caller's transcript and determine whether this is an illegal governmental expenditure in furtherance of a ballot measure, should the bond actually move to a ballot issue.

It is possible SAISD got good enough legal advice to skirt an actual violation, but if so, they have still flouted the intent of the statute, not to mention wasted $15,000. The caller speaking to me was unable, or just didn't bother to conceal that the responses have been largely negative.

If this exemplifies the SAISD's opinion of the voters, the board is off to a poor start in regaining our faith in them. Frankly, my reaction to the “poll” was “Gee you guys must think I'm stupid.” To be sure, it has inspired me to look more closely than I have at the specifics of the proposal, but it did nothing to incline me favorably toward either the bond or the body that spent my money on this shabby bit of foolishness.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Something Positive

We have been doing Concho Info and this blog for a little over 2 years now. With all the issues out there, it is easy to overlook the positive things that are going on in our community.

Keep San Angelo Beautiful is doing some good work to live up to their name. At the last council meeting, they showed off a fleece jacket that a result of their successful plastic bottle recycling program. The jacket was unique for two reasons. First, it was made of 100% recycled material (30% from the plastic bottles, the rest from recycled fabrics.) Second, 2000 of these jackets came back to the community for free distribution as a reward for the local effort.

We will continue to talk about curfews and gasification plants and taxes, etc.. We will try to point out the positives more often. After all, the positives are why we stay here instead of moving to New York City.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Curfew Issues

Youth curfews will be a major issue brought before the City Council in the near future. The next council meeting will decide if there need to be changes to the night time curfew, and there will be discussion of a day time curfew at the January 23rd. meeting.

I have been doing a lot of research on this issue lately. Start at the NCJRS articles. Then look this California study, this 347 city study, and this report from the OJJDP. You will start to see a pattern emerge.

Curfews are not a general crime fighting tool. They can be effective in some situations when combined with other tools and programs. Even Local Government Code Sect 370.002 requires a review of a curfew to ensure it is still needed.

There are really only two reasons to have a juvenile curfew: To reduce juvenile crime, and to reduce the number of juveniles victimized by crimes. Laudable goals, but there are a number of things to keep in mind. Curfews compete with all the other law enforcement and public safety areas for resources. For this reason curfews tend to become weakly enforced. Night time curfews can frequently be justified because they do keep kids off the street during the highest crime, most dangerous hours of the day. Daytime curfews, on the other hand, tend to have little impact on actual crime rates. They frequently just change the times when the most crimes are committed.

I have heard the argument raised that school hour curfews are useful because kids should be in school. The problem is this argument mixes apples and oranges. There are already truancy laws and regulations to deal with deal with kids that skip school. There are also significant numbers of home schooled children whose hours won't always coincide with regular school hours. There is the special case of those suspended from school, but there is little to prevent an individual curfew from being part of a suspension when appropriate. If there is a problem with kids skipping school, enforce the existing laws.

I have a number of philosophical problems with juvenile curfews that aren't targeting a problem. Rights don't suddenly appear at a certain age. Some rights and privileges, such as driving and voting, should be reserved till a certain maturity is attained (I know, some drivers never get that mature.) It can be shown that they have to be a certain age before most people can drive safely on their own. You also don't teach responsibility to kids by just adding laws and rules. You want people to do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because of fear of what will frequently be seen as unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions. In those cases where a real public problem can't be shown to exist, people should not be unnecessarily burdened with laws no matter what their age.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Clear Horizon for Voting

With the resignation of Mike Benton we have a chance to step back, at least briefly, from the voting question. We can hope the elections commission will take the time to find not only the right person to revamp the office, but consider the voting system of the future. By requesting paper ballots in large percentage, the voters in effect voted on an issue not specifically on the ballot.

While the Hart Intercivic system now used lacks a full voter verifiable paper trail, it is capable of being upgraded to that and still comply with HAVA. In fairness to Hart, had all our equipment been put in the field and used as designed, we almost certainly would have had a reliable result by 10:00 election night from a system that still allowed voters a choice of ballots.

Prior to Ron Michulska's untimely death and Dennis McKerly's defeat, the two Party chairs here may have been diametrically opposed on political policy, but problems such as this were sorted out amicably. I often heard Dennis praise Ron's cordial bipartisanship on process matters. We can hope the two new chairs can find a path that will reassure all voters their votes will be correctly recorded.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

R. I. P. Milton Friedman

I depart from the normally local focus of this Blog to note and mourn the passing and celebrate the career of one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Milton Friedman. By sheer force of intellect, this Nobel Prize winning economist effected more fundamental change in the course of secular history than anyone I can think of who never held significant public office.

He won the Nobel for undermining the Keynesian macroeconomics that had guided policy until then. Friedman disassembled a theory called the Phillips Curve, holding that inflation was an inverse function of unemployment. Friedman held inflation to result from expansionist monetary policy. Since his theory correctly predicted, among other things, the stagflation of the 70s, which Nixon compounded with Keynesian prescriptions, the Phillips Curve is now an historical footnote to the “dismal science”, and restrained monetary policy is axiomatic in any healthy economy.

Friedman's book, “Capitalism and Freedom”, now in its fortieth anniversary printing, put forth a host of thoroughly goofy ideas. They included an all volunteer army, floating currency exchange rates, lower barriers to international trade, private accounts for retirement, school vouchers and other unthinkable proposals. Friedman laid the groundwork for Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan to build on and give us the healthiest 25 years economy in American history. Anyone holding today's economy to be ruinous has to have forgotten the twin killers of 18% prime interest rate combined with double digit unemployment of the 70s.

In one of the last interviews I saw with him, Friedman was asked about his best and worst calls. He unhesitatingly named as his worst product payroll withholding of income tax, in that it hid from less astute taxpayers the real cost of government. He named as his proudest, the progress he had made towards making school vouchers acceptable. In his last few years, he dedicated nearly all his effort to expanding the pockets of success on vouchers.

The world of economics had not been so utterly turned upside down since the fever dreams of Karl Marx gained acceptance. A fundamental difference is that Marxism never controlled except by force of arms under totalitarian dictatorship and has mostly collapsed of its own weight of error even then. Friedman, who shunned political power his whole life “ruled” only by being consistently and demonstrably right.

In the heyday of this debate, many collectivist academics sought to belittle Friedman by referring to him as “Uncle Milty”, comparing him, one supposes, to the goofy comic Milton Berle. This actually appealed to Friedman's sense of humor, and became an inside joke and term of affection among his followers. Always a gentleman, never one to resort to the personal ad hominem, this great man won his stature by sheer force of intellect. Godspeed, Uncle Milty.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Computer Ate My Vote

I want to relate a story I found online from the Houston Chronicle. Seems that Hidalgo County had a brush with “The Computer Ate My Vote”. This south Texas county had a heavily favored Democrat running for state House against a Constitution Party candidate. Teresa Navarro, the elections administrator said the problem was in the software written to compile totals.

The machines in use were made by ES&S, on whose machines some 67 million voters cast ballots this election. The machines were reporting that long shot Avery was 2,000 votes ahead of incumbent Henry Cuellar. “We knew there was no way that could be correct”, said Navarro. According to Scott Heywood, spokesman for the Secretary of State, “the situation was dealt with appropriately, and handled well once the problem was realized. Here in Texas, voters can feel confident that their votes were counted in the way they cast them”.

Well, not so fast Scotty me lad. Let's look back at that quote. The key phrase is “once the problem was realized”. What if this machine had started “flipping” votes in a race that was maybe 52% to 48%? Navarro said their initial clue was the improbability of the result, not some internal automatic audit built into the voting system. Had this happened in a close race, it is very likely Hidalgo County would be preparing to swear in the wrong candidate.

Vote flipping is not that rare a problem. Allegations of that are rampant in Maryland and parts of Virginia, some in Texas, including Tarrant County, which uses Hart Intercivic, our company. In Maryland, election officials were so concerned they were asking voters to show up with their camera phones in hand so that possibly they could catch the touch screen machines as they flipped and have evidence of what they were claiming to see. That remedy may not be legal in Texas. I know poll watchers are forbidden under 33.051 of election code to possess any “means of recording images or sound”.

I mention Hildalgo County because in this instance we are not talking about “allegations” or investigations underway. Everybody involved agrees on what happened, that part is established. Where I fall out with them is the rosy picture they paint of this being an indication that e-voting is just hunky-dory. This foul-up was only caught by the luck of its having yielded so wildly improbable a result.

The next time you hear someone from say, Abilene or Lubbock crowing about having a result by 9:30 or so, bear in mind, thats exactly what they have; a result. Whether that result bears any resemblance to actual votes cast is not something I would not be so quick to sign off on until the system has been by some circumstance tested. In a way, we in Tom Green County are lucky to have had back-to-back recounts, with another on the way. I was present at both recounts, may be part of this one, I have volunteered. We have seen, up close and personal, some problems in the system.

Absent a verifiable paper trail or a VVPAT requirement, a recount of e-votes is really meaningless. All the machines can do is spit out the same results every time you hit “print”. In fact if a machine were to do anything else, then you would really know you had a problem. That would be new election time.

Check out either BlackBoxVoting or VotersUnite online, both do excellent, non-partisan research on e-voting and they are involved in numerous lawsuits nationwide. There are literally thousands of credible reports of e-vote problems. At this time, has posted over 200 problems in Texas, this election, and the hits just keep on coming. Spend an hour or so trolling these two sites and tell me how secure you feel about e-voting. So far, none has been proven to be intentional fraud, which is actually scarier than not. If the systems are making this many mistakes by accident or poor design, what will happen when the stakes get high enough to make real vote theft worthwhile?

Four Strikes and You Should be Out - corrected

In my earlier post on this topic, I said Judge Brown's intention were undecided, but, I have been told that some of my phrasing was taken as an implication that Brown was equally culpable for the election night fubar. That was not my intention, and I apologize if I left that impression. To the best of my knowledge, Judge Brown is asking for details of the election and has not yet taken a position.

I have talked to a lot more people and have more first hand information than I did Wednesday. I am sorry to say, nothing I have learned makes Mike Benton look any better.

The paper ballots were not counted by hand as I satirically suggested in an earlier post. The one scanner we had was smaller and slower than had been used in past elections. Workers were feeding stacks of 30 to 40 ballots at a time, waiting for it to digest them, and repeating the process. About 10:00 PM, someone, by one report Vonna McKerly, suggested bringing up some of the Hart E-Scan machines and putting them to work. As they had not been prepped, each had to be programmed before being put to work, but eventually 8 of them were added to the assembly line.

The E-Scan machine was designed as a precinct counting machine, as it was used in March. The study I mentioned in my Standard-Time guest column, in a review of Florida jurisdictions with various voting systems, the paper ballot with precinct scanners to tabulate the vote had the lowest error rate of any looked at. This study was also sent directly to Mr. Benton. I do not know whether he read it, but it was provided to him. Used as a precinct counter the E-Scan has the additional advantage of being its own paper trail, as the physical ballots are preserved in the event of a recount.

This brings up the critical question of why the E-Scan machines were not used as designed, as precinct level tabulators. In the March primary, some E-Scan machines, the one in my precinct being one, failed to close down at end of day, they did not recognize the password provided. We were eventually told to unplug them and bring them in. On election night, my party Chair, Russ Duerstine, queried Mr. Benton on just this point. Nearly everyone with real knowledge of the systems I have told about this problem had the opinion the problem in March was bound to be improper programming of the E-Scans that did not respond. Mr. Benton told Russ those machines had malfunctioned and that was why they were not used at precinct level this time, they were unreliable.

Had those E-Scan boxes been used at precinct level, instead of feeding over 10,000 paper ballots through slow scanners, elections office would have pulled the cards from 50-some scanners and read them. If those scanners were so unreliable we could not use them in the way Hart Intercivic designed them, how could Mr. Benton turn around and decide they were adequate to do a central counting station function for which they were never designed?

How Mr. Benton arrived at his 25% paper ballot figure is another mystery. In the early voting, where there were plenty of both paper booths and machines available, the voters, under no pressure of limited availability chose paper right at 50% of the time. The initial count showing Kay Longest ahead at 64% came from the 3,100 early votes cast on the E-Slates. Total early vote was about 6,800, 3,100 of which were cast on paper, on site, the balance being mail-in absentee. In that ballots are now printed in house, there is no excuse for not erring on the side of caution and having plenty of ballots. They are not expensive. In my years as an election judge, most of which was solely paper, we normally turned in more unvoted ballots than used. Why this sudden frugality on paper?

Compounding the crush of election day ballots, the early voting paper was not counted until election night. 68.034 of election code demands that the county clerk transmit the early voting results to the Secretary of State at 7:00 PM of election day, consistent with 68.033 which says the early voting ballot board shall count the ballots “periodically throughout the day.”

I have talked to a number of precinct judges, over twenty to date, who did work this election. When directly questioned on these two points not a one of them claimed to have faith in the current voting system, and not one had faith in the competency of the current elections administrator. Aside from the election night debacle other complaints surfaced.

Inadequate training was high on the list. I did work the March primary, and Hart provided four hours of training, with another hour by the elections office itself. This time we watched an hour long movie provided by the Secretary of State, which was not even specific to the Hart system we are using. If Mr. Benton presumed everyone had done the training in March, he was wrong. He had no basis for such an assumption, he of all people should have known who had volunteered.

Poor communication was another. In previous elections I had been provided with as many as four phone numbers, three being numbers not in the phone book. Some judges still had those numbers from previous elections and had no problem getting through, those lines are still active. Why weren't all election workers given these numbers?

One judge told me she was not given the notice giving the Secretary of State's toll free complaint line to voters, and was taken to task over that by an observer from that office. Posting that sign in the polling place is required by statute. I started asking that, and no judge I spoke to was given one.

Poll workers complained of being assigned to precincts other than that for which they had volunteered. That is something I had never heard of before, and I have done this for many years.

I will add one of my reasons for resigning, though it goes back to the March primary. In earlier elections, on paper, we picked up our supplies the day before election and did the physical set-up the afternoon or evening before. I would have everything set to go when I walked in the polling place in the morning. The only thing that did not stay in the polling place was the bundle of ballots. They went home with me and I literally slept with them, only unwrapping and signing them on election morning with other poll workers present. In March, elections office came to each place and put in the E-Slates, the JBC controller, and the E-Scan for paper ballots. Those machines then sat there overnight. In the fifty some polling places I don't guess much more than a thousand or so people between deacons, janitors, teachers, etc. had keys to one or another of them. That was totally unacceptable ballot security to me. The E-Slate machine heads were the ballots.

Several judges I spoke to expressed their belief that Mr. Benton had set out with the intention of making paper ballots look bad, and it is true he has more than once publicly expressed his personal preference for an all electronic voting system, most recently on KSAN news last Wednesday. On election night, Russ Duerstine overheard Benton to say, “We are just going to have to force the voters to use the electronic option.” Fortunately, that is not his decision to make. The County Commissioners, or in Party Primaries, the respective Party executive committees, selects the system to be used. I have no personal knowledge of evidence that would prove Benton deliberately sabotaged this election, but that leaves one with the alternative that he was staggeringly incompetent.

I originally supported Mr. Benton's selection enthusiastically. I spoke to my party chair, Dennis McKerly at least twice urging his appointment. I am now forced to the conclusion it is time for a change in that office. Aside from the sheer ineptitude, by continuing to advise adoption of a system the voters have so clearly expressed distrust in, Benton shows no faith in the judgment of the voters he works for. Unless the many, many people I have talked to are by some fluke a totally unrepresentative sample, the voters have no faith in him.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bad, Bad Voters

The voters of Tom Green County spoke loudly on an issue that was not even on the ballot. Over 50% of them requested paper ballots, rejecting the new E-voting system the county had chosen under pressure of the Help America Vote Act. I was one of many who raised questions about E-voting in general and the locally used Hart Intercivic system. The opposition to electronic machines was bipartisan and included many people with direct knowledge of the new system. At a recent county Republican Executive Committee meeting the question was debated at length. At the end of the session the Chair, Russ Duerstine, asked the twenty some precinct chairs, nearly all of whom had conducted elections under both the electronic and paper systems, how many of them trusted the new system. Not a single hand went up.

The demand for paper ballots somehow caught the elections administration flat-footed. They went with an estimate of 25% paper, and obviously made no provision for that estimate being wrong, despite an early vote that had gone over a third paper. Many precincts ran out of paper ballots, some twice. Compounding this miscalculation, unlike the March Primary, our first adventure with this technology, the precincts were not given E-Scan readers to process and count paper ballots at the precinct level. All paper ballots went downtown to be counted there, apparently by hand. A Princeton study of Op-Scan paper balloting in Florida showed that such ballots counted in precinct yielded an error rate of under 1%, while the same ballots centrally counted resulted in 5-12% errors. This study was pointed out in my guest column of October.

Elections administrator Mike Benton seem to have the cure at hand. Benton was on KSAN news Wednesday saying “A number of counties in Texas do not offer paper ballots. We would hope to move in that direction.” So much for the voters' opinion. By his read, we are so many undisciplined puppies who have figuratively pooped in his house and he is telling us, “Bad Voter, bad, bad voter!” Presumably he won't be spanking us with a paper. County Judge Mike Brown was less direct about future intentions, but was quoted in the paper saying of the demand for paper ballots, “It's with the negative national media coverage of the electronic voting.”

There were problems with the E-Scan devices last March, but there were also problems with the E-Slate electronic machines, problems that became glaringly obvious during a recount that stretched over two weekends. Actually, in that recount, the paper ballots were the only part that went smoothly. One sure thing now is that we will have a recount of the only seriously contested local race, the Longest/Martinez JP1 office, with a 45 vote margin.

If you have not read Jack Cowan's lead editorial of Wednesday, “Electronic voting still too risky”, I recommend it. I suppose Jack and I should thank Judge Brown, he seems to have promoted us from local ink-stained wretches to national media. I would prefer that Brown and Benton listen to the electorate they represent. Really, it doesn't matter if they could prove the electronic system they stand by actually is error-free, imposing a system the voters obviously distrust does nothing to encourage the electorate to use it and believe in the ballot as the voice of the people. The arrogance inherent in Benton's quote in the face of a clear decision of the electorate is stunning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Signs of the Times

In case you haven't seen it, this sign is on loop 306.

I hope we can avoid having a hospital district otherwise it will change to this sign.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Unintended Consequences

I have posted here, and in a guest editorial in the Standard-Times, and made clear that I do not trust e-voting machines required by HAVA, the Help America Vote Act. For the first time in 14 years, I will not be serving as Precinct judge/alternate judge in a major election because I cannot in good conscience tell my voters their votes will be accurately recorded.

There is another unintended consequence of election “reform” I address here. The earlier Motor Voter Act is generally praised as a good thing. What can possibly be wrong with anything that increases voter registration? Here I introduce a contrarian view.

Face it, a certain percentage of the eligible electorate simply does not give a hoot about political policy. If they read the paper, they read the sports reports, the comics, Dear Abby. Such TV news as they accidentally see is as they channel surf to a sitcom. Mind you, I have no beef about taste in media intake, but why by all that is holy do we want to encourage the willfully uninformed to vote for or against candidates or questions about which they know nothing?

I recall a few years ago, my county chairman suggested we make a voter registration drive part of our campaign. I rose to point out that we would be wasting our time plowing already tilled ground, as I thought something like 80% of eligible voters were already registered, a figure he thought was way high. Well, I was wrong. It was actually closer to 85%.

If this seems incredible, think “Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes”. The company really does give some lucky soul a barrel of bucks and they clearly state that no purchase is required for entry, but how many entrants might still think their chances are enhanced by buying a subscription or two? The same principle is at work with Motor Voter. When every interaction of people with the government, vehicle registration, library card, WIC or Section Eight housing application is accompanied by shoving a voter registration card at the civilian, how many do you think believe that is just another form to fill out as part of the process?

The effect is actually anti-democratic. A recent example locally was the successful petition and vote allowing liquor sales in county precinct 4. That election cost almost $15 per “yea” vote. I'm not talking bribes or graveyard votes, most of the expense was in collecting the voter signatures required to get on the ballot. Since the proponents had to gather a set percentage of registered voters to get there, the artificial inflation of voter enrollment by people who never intended to actually vote raised the bar to be cleared in order to put the question before the voters. Once they achieved that, the vote itself was a slam-dunk, but the expense, not some principle, was the reason for limiting the measure to one precinct.

Another unintended effect of Motor Voter is to dilute the strength of younger voters. The 18-24 demographic has less interaction with the government, and fewer occasions to have that registration card shoved across the desk at them. Nationally, only 40% of that group of eligible voters is registered. In any given election, the cost per vote for that group is three times that of the over 40 group. Brand loyalty, be it beer or bath soap or political parties doesn't kick in until mid-thirties. Any advertiser of any product targets the available money at the most changeable audience.

The next time someone tells you the horror of the huge sums of money spent on political campaigns, reflect on this fact: in a given four year election cycle, 2.5 million candidates run for 511,000 elected offices nationwide. Still, more ad money is spent advertising breakfast cereal than all political campaigns put together.

There is good news. Measuring by absolute vote instead of percentage of registered voters, the number of voters is steadily increasing. The percentage commonly bemoaned as the Death of Democracy has its origins in an artificially tweaked baseline. In my two precinct combined polling place, I have seen a big boost in registered voters, but I see the same “give a hoot” voters every time. We have now almost 1,500 listed on our combination forms, but the highest actual turnout I've seen was the 2004 Presidential, with about 400 actual early/election day voters.

If a body is more inclined to go fishing than to read up on candidates, I have no quarrel with his choice of interests. I would suggest that such a person would be making more productive use of his time this Tuesday in a boat than at a ballot box. I would never suggest making it difficult for any voter to exercise the franchise, but neither will I expend any effort to motivate the politically uninformed voter.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trans Texas Corridor is Our Issue Too

Many people will remember the I-27 or Ports to Plains TXDOT hearing in the mid-90s. The hearing here in San Angelo was packed, a a good many of us rode a chartered bus from here to Lubbock for another hearing before the same panel. City leaders, business owners and just plain concerned citizens such as myself attended because we understood how critical it was to our future that San Angelo not be left out of any such project.

In my remarks to the hearing here I pointed out the lovely, but abandoned courthouse in Sherwood. Everyone knew Sherwood, located on a year round flowing stream, was going to be the county seat of Irion County. Then some enterprising souls discovered the line manager of the railroad then pushing westward was a man named Mertz. The town of Mertzon was platted out northwest of Sherwood, the railroad went through Mertzon and Sherwood is now a scenic, but largely forgotten backwater.

Too little attention has been paid to two huge projects which can do for most of West Texas what the railroad did to Sherwood. The Trans-Texas Corridor is the 800 pound gorilla, and the one with the big political support. As proposed, it will be a quarter-mile wide collection of superhighway with truck-only lanes, non-commercial lanes and eventually aggregate oil pipelines and railways in the same wide corridor, the current model starting in McAllen, going north through San Antonio, Austin, Dallas/Metroplex connecting north to Kansas City. The other is an I-69 project from Laredo and going along the Texas coast and up our eastern border.

Did I mention Kansas City? That is to be the new Customs Port of Entry. A truck entering at Laredo could be sealed, and then processed by Customs in KC. Plans and funding for that facility are already moving through Congress as TTC comes closer to a done deal. The eventual intent of this project, accompanied by Mexican match-ups, is to provide a cheaper alternative for Asian goods to enter the US than San Diego. Much of this freight will simply transship through Texas. I-70 could become the most important east-west Interstate in America.

Are you getting a picture of what this mega-corridor could do to all of West Texas? Sherwood could bloom without a railroad, but with one bypassing it, the town withered on the vine. This could happen, long-term, to everything west and north of San Antonio.

The TTC is to be built by a Spanish company, Cintas, which plans to invest at least $7 Billion in the project. They also plan to make big bucks on the 50 year deal. Based on their Canadian tolls, estimates of a Dallas to Austin fare are about $60. The deal includes a sort of “non-compete clause”, under which the state agrees to make no substantial improvements to existing I-35. Maybe the state will at least adequately maintain what we have, but maybe they will claim budget shortfalls (when do they not?) and encourage users to get with the TTC program.

So far, this has been a much bigger issue in East Texas, where people are concerned with the land grab aspects and mostly the local costs and inconvenience of constructing this monster. Genuine concerns, but focused on the short term. The term “I-35 divide” already has political and demographic meaning due to the way prosperity tends to follow transportation routes. This I-35 squared will make Ross Perot's “great sucking sound” in reference to Mexican maquiladoras sound like a whisper to West Texas as commerce rearranges itself along the path of least resistance. The TTC may not be in our back yard, but it will have a huge long term effect on our economic prospects.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pay Da Man

Wednesday's headline story on Kenneth Landon's request for more money reminded me I had not been the Lily Park in a long time, not since the improvements had been completed. I made the time and spent an hour or so there.

When I first tripped over the park, pre-improvement, I thought it was a little noticed treasure, just the thing to set one's mind in a contemplative mode. The new version is a real jewel.

I recommend a visitor pause, as I did, about halfway down the entrance ramp. On my right, a beautiful floral border, to the left the ponds themselves from an elevated position that lets one view the entire collection.. In fact about the only improvement I would suggest would be to label the flower names as is done for the lilies. I spent several minutes here, leaning over the rail and taking it in. Then one goes to the ground level to take in each pond in turn. Many of the plants are in bloom, and the variations are simply delightful. I left feeling as if I had shed a weight of tensions that had been preoccupying my mind.

I doubt that San Angelo could match the six-figure sums mentioned in the article, but fortunately Mr. Landon's love of San Angelo is such we won't need to. If Mr. Landon is actually dipping into his money to keep up this work of art, surely we can scrounge up enough money to repay some of that and provide him a bit of positive cash flow. I doubt the park would maintain its current level of beauty without his loving ministrations to it.

If you doubt it, go visit the park one nice day. You will not have wasted your time.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

We Ride Again

This week, Mr. Turner and I showed up at the CVCOG hearing on the transit system. With one exception, we were received well, as one fellow told us, we were the first public comment the board had ever received. As I related in a comment to this Blog last week, I went for a bus ride then. I may be mistaken, but I got the sense at the hearing that I was likely the only person in the room to have actually ridden a bus in recent memory.

I was told that my experience, all of a week old,was out of date, improvements had been made. Well, seeing is believing, so I climbed aboard another bus this Thursday. My first question to the driver had to do with buying a weekly or monthly ticket book. No, the drivers still can't offer that, but this fellow got on the radio and assured me the guy selling tickets would be at the transfer point, the old depot. He did show up, I could have bought passes without physically going to CVCOG. Seems the drivers don't have that capability, which at least one person at the hearing was sure they did, but at least a rider can get tickets from someone along the route. By the way, my advice concerning a strong bladder still stands, the depot building is locked, no rest rooms available to the traveling public.

It happened I sat behind a young lady who was not riding for fun, she is disabled and very much needs the service. She told me of her experience with the system, and she allowed that she would have been at the hearing had she known about it. Now that she brings it up, it does seem we could have managed the 7 cents a page copying cost to have posted notice of the hearing on each bus and at the terminal itself.

I want to make plain, I am not out to make anyone look bad. Had someone asked me about bus service two months ago, my response would have been, roughly, “Huh?” We got involved with this topic because people started calling us. The people who ride the bus are not on it because the Beemer is in the shop. This is the scuffling, scrambling, make from today to tomorrow class. The management folk we talked to at the hearing appeared to me to be really trying, and I heard some good ideas. Problem is, these ideas should have been kicked around and some concrete decisions made before this transition of ownership. From the point of view of the rider, not to mention the employees, the transition should have been effectively invisible.

The people at the bottom of the food chain don't really care if San Angelo, the CVCOG, or Ross Perot in a fit of madness owns the bus, they need the bus to run on time and possibly get them from point A to point B in something under two hours. Let me stress, the employees I have dealt with have been unfailingly polite, they have gone out of their way to get my questions answered, and I have seen them go out of their way to help the “challenged” riders.

Let me put it this way; next hearing I attend, I expect to be talking to more people who have put their butts in a bus seat and hear less noise about what has and has not changed from people who have not “been there, done that”.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Taking a Ride

I am still looking into issues with the local transit system consolidation. For background, look at the CVRTD page and the SASRC page. I found the the Multimodal Terminal study especially interesting. This study, started in November 2004, analyzes the state of transportation in the Concho Valley area, and recommends a terminal facility that is used by all the bus systems, public and private, in San Angelo. This is a roughly $4.4 million project. The 193 page report wasn't designed to study consolidation of the SASRC and CVRTD, but on page 10-13 it does recommend that if the 2 groups want greater cooperation or consolidation, the study and planning may include:

"• Clear understanding of each agency’s operations and management;
• Clear understanding of all agencies within the Concho Valley area that have transit services and/or transit needs;
• Researching and defining implementation strategies for cooperation and coordination;
• Researching and defining an implementation strategy for consolidation, including contracting transit services to a third-party service provider; and
• Calculating costs and benefits for each strategy."

I leave it to the readers to decide if that happened before the consolidation. I think you already know my opinion.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Right Bus

Back in May, the city council passed a resolution to consolidate the city transit system with the Concho Valley Council of Governments rural transit system. I had high hopes that this would be the start of many joint ventures that could provide expanded services at reduced costs. It seems I may have been a bit optimistic.

People have started coming to me about problems with the bus system. There will always be issues with any move or change, but what I am hearing makes me wonder "what are they thinking." On Sept. 1st, when control was transferred to CVCOG, they closed the Santa Fe depot. This was the central terminal for all the buses, and the place where riders could buy weekly or monthly bus passes.

There is a flyer in the depot window that says the bus depot is closed. There is another one that says "Under new ownership." It also says that all passes must now be purchased at the CVCOG offices at 2800 W Loop 306 Ste A. Seems simple enough except for a couple problems. There is no scheduled bus stop on W Loop 306. The closest scheduled stop is on E loop 306 at Sitel. A rough measurement using Google Earth shows the bus stop is about 0.2 miles across one of the busiest highways in San Angelo. If you walk the frontage roads and cross at either Knickerbocker or College Hills, you walk about one mile and the intersections are still very dangerous. This makes it impractical for most riders to stop there to get a pass.

The "managers" at the Concho Valley Transit District recognized this was a problem. One of the people I talked to actually made the walk from Sitel to the district office, only to be told that they wouldn't be selling the passes there. They said that the bus drivers would be selling the passes as soon as the procedures could be worked out and the old passes could be used until then. This still hasn't happened yet which is costing the bus system significant money every day.

I have heard that transfers run out before the end of the day. In addition, I have been told that many bus drivers think they had a pay cut, even though the agreement the city signed was supposed to guarantee the drivers would receive the same pay, with only a difference in the benefits package.

There are other problems but these seem so basic that you really have to wonder about the management. What sense does it make to close down a centrally located depot when the alternative is extremely difficult to get to by bus and at the edge of town? Why didn't they realize they needed a different way to sell passes and have it in place on the first day, or at least delay closing the depot until the new procedures were ready? They had four months to work on the transition.

I am left with a couple of concerns. First, bus riders are often among the most disadvantaged citizens in our community. Problems with the bus impact their ability to get around this community. If the bus system is broke it impacts their jobs, health care, shopping, etc.. If we don't do the bus system right, we hurt some of our most vulnerable citizens.

My other concerns are about what this tells us about our local government organizations abilities to cooperate on projects. This bus system transition should have been almost invisible. We had a mostly functional system with drivers, equipment, routes, and procedures already in place. With proper planning and coordination, the changes could have been positive with all concerned seeing it as a step forward. Instead we have a series of snafus with the bus system losing fares because of the lack of planning about passes and transfers. We have bus drivers that are confused and are becoming disillusioned. We have the opposite of what should have happened. This leaves me with this question: If we can't combine two working transportation systems how are we going to handle larger multi organization problems such as public safety communications upgrades, regional water problems, emergency preparedness, homeland security, etc.? If our local government organizations can't do the small and simple stuff right, why do we think we can do the big, complex stuff?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Constitution Day Thoughts

Here it is Constitution Day, the 219th anniversary of that great document. Our constitution has earned a prominent place in the history of governments. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry adds some important perspective.

Written codes of law are not uncommon. It appears that soon after writing was invented a code of laws was written down. For the most part these were a list of offenses and punishments. There was no hint of a limitation on government power. Until the new ideas from the reformation and the renaissance, a mandate from heaven was the only limit on a rulers power. How could you impose limits when the kings had a divine right?

Early steps at limiting government power, such as the Magna Carta, were aimed at reigning in a particularly difficult ruler or settling some regional dispute. Most legal documents and "constitutions" were governments imposing laws and limitations on subjects until we changed that in 1789.

Our Constitution is unique. It started from a radical premise that government is a man made creation that is not all powerful. The Constitution is based on the idea that governments should be limited. Everything up to the Bill of Rights is a plan for a government with limited, narrow powers with a check and balance system to help maintain the limits. The Bill of Rights was not added as a complete list of rights, but a list of examples. The ninth and tenth amendment are there to make it clear that people have rights not in the list, and the federal government is not all powerful. The idea that people have fundamental rights, and governments should only have delegated powers is still unique.

We are in trying times, where the fundamental principles of the Constitution are being challenged both at home and abroad. Our government officials and the military take an oath to "“protect and defend" the Constitution from "“all enemies, foreign and domestic"”. Lets ensure they remember that oath.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Water Planning

Tuesday evening the Texas Water Development Board hosted a meeting at San Angelo's Convention Center to present its current plans for long range water planning and to take public comment on the subject. While the Standard-Times did a front page report on the meeting, there was precious little advance notice, two Community Calendar notices, and attendance was sparse. In that this Board is considering water development proposals for the next fifty years, this was disappointing. I will say those who noticed and attended, including one gentleman all the way from Midland, were remarkably well informed. Between the books provided gratis by TWDB and the comments, this meeting was well worth the time.

This is the Texas Board responsible for the Region F Water Study Report, which I have referenced in earlier articles here. I did comment, suggesting we at least actively explore a regional water “grid”, not unlike the connectivity familiar to us in electric power distribution. The Region F study in Chapter 4.3.11. “Strategies for Hickory Aquifer Users” has been advanced by the Region F group since the 2001 edition, but has not gained traction due to the expense to the under-populated smaller users. It is not something that will generate a positive economic return in the short term, but the planning being discussed is for a fifty year term.

In my opinion as expressed earlier here, here and here. San Angelo would be remiss if we let this opportunity pass to explore seriously a regional water supply/use solution for the long term. Too often in the past we have cost ourselves money and options by waiting until the crisis was upon us.

Central to my thinking on this is recognizing that water mains, like electric lines, flow in either direction. Thanks to Representative Campbell's work in the Legislature, we have a jump start on developing a desalination/brackish water field nearby with nearly unlimited long term supply potential. At this point in time, neither that source nor a regional grid is economically competitive with current local water rates, but again, we are looking 50 years out. I make a living servicing oil wells that were were not very attractive at $30 Bbl crude prices.

San Angelo was well represented in the Region F Group, and our incoming State Representative Drew Darby has chaired our local Water Advisory Board. The issue is obviously taken seriously.
My vision here is a water grid centered on San Angelo and going west until we bump into Midland/Ector County region and going east to Eden and Brady. If that seems expansive, this is all area with economic impact on San Angelo. These people trade with us, shop here, and we contribute in both directions to one another. In many ways our water future is already inextricably bound together, like it or not. Absent a regional plan, the Region F recommendation for many of these smaller users is, and I quote, “bottled water”. In municipal terms this means central kiosks where residents would fill 5 gallon containers of water, water most likely bought and trucked from San Angelo.

Better we should plan to make lemonade from lemons than to wait until circumstances leave us fewer and poorer options. San Angelo would have to overcome its deserved image as a “water bully” and make nice with our smaller partners, bargain in good faith rather than throw our weight around.

If a water distribution system sounds unreasonably expensive for any potential return, think of the old Tennessee Valley Authority or the now renamed REA electric grid. Long before anyone saw commercial viability in extending power to these blighted areas, these quasi-governmental creations lit up the night and created economic growth beyond their own dreams. Even the federal government gets it right once in a while, and water is at least as critical to growth as electricity.

To conclude, like my idea or hate it, the public comment period on TWDB's plan is open until October 6. Comments to this Blog will be forwarded or you can send them directly to I can think of nothing more important to the future of San Angelo and our part of West Texas. Please take the time to share your thoughts on this vital issue.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 and Public Safety Commo

I only caught the last hour of the ABC special “Path to 9/11”. As tempting as it is, I have little to add to the tons of verbiage justly honoring the almost casual heroism of both uniformed and civilian Americans who willingly, knowingly gave their lives for others on that day. Sufficient to say, I regard it as a distinction between a civilized society and barbarian tribalism that in a civilized society, the common civilian is willing to give his life to save others; in the barbarian tribe honors go to those who willingly commit suicide to murder strangers of another tribe.

The thought I wanted to pass along inspired by this dramatization came from scenes toward the end with everyone in the crowd background getting the “all circuits are busy” message on the cell phones. As has been commented on a few times by Blogmaster Turner, San Angelo, like most cities, has not yet mastered public safety communications.

In times of natural or man-made disaster, communications between different law enforcement agencies, EMTs, Fire and other “first responder” personnel is being improved, but is far from perfect. It is not hard to imagine a circumstance such that those people are falling back to cell phones to coordinate their response.

Should San Angelo be hit by a storm, a bombing, whatever, I am asking you, if you get that “all circuits are busy” message GET OFF THE CELL AND STAY OFF OF IT! Hard as it may be to sit and fret about Aunt Mabel or brother Bob, by tying up the circuits, you could actually interfere with the efforts of the professionals who may well be out there trying to save just the person you are worried about and getting the same signal.

In the movie, I noticed one license with reality they took was to let the MVP's phone calls go through while the street folk got the busy signal. In reality, phone circuits do not discriminate by priority, only random chance. Please folks, restrain your anxiety for a few hours. Officer Friendly has a better chance of doing good if he can tell Fireman Fred where the fire is instead of grinding his teeth at a phone that tells him “all circuits are busy”.

Remembering and Honoring

Today, Sept. 11th, is the appropriate day to remember victims of terror and honor those who rose to the occasion and unselfishly went beyond all expectations.

The best way to honor the victims and heroes is to get past all the partisan finger pointing, look objectively at all the information, get to the truth, and prevent a recurrence in the future. There are enough problems to go around.

A few good places to start might be
The March of Folly
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
Wikipedia Article

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Escape From Lineland

When I was in high school, I stumbled across an interesting little book called Flatland by E. A. Abbott. Not only did this little book about a two dimensional world spark my interest in higher math, but it also was a great look at rigid belief systems and prejudice. It is still a great social commentary written at the end of the Victorian age.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on Lineland, a one dimensional world. The exchange between A Square (hero of Flatland) and the king of Lineland is an example of the problems of a limited perspective. It is also highlights the problems some have accepting new, uncomfortable, ideas. These themes are expanded throughout the rest of the book. I found it quite interesting and humorous. The resistance to different ideas and perspectives seemed incredible to me. When I grew up and got into politics and issues, it was like deja vu.

Every issue, no matter how big or small, is forced into a political lineland. Issues such as immigration, crime, prisons, and welfare are forced into a one dimensional, left vs. right, liberal vs conservative lineland. Often the debates, discussions, and reporting will be limited to this one dimensional world. This ends up giving a distorted view. Look at a map of the USA (google maps is good.) If you just limit your perspective to east - west distances, we are right on top of Robert Lee and Christoval. Using only north - south distances, we are only a short distance from Paint Rock or Goldwaithe. It is only when you look at the complete map that the true distances become apparent.

The same thing applies to politics. Some groups finally recognize this. The Libertarians have had the Nolan Chart for a while and recently we have seen charts such as the Moral Matrix and the Political Compass but 2 dimensions is still not enough to describe complex problems. Still, it's a start.

It's time to escape from Lineland and bring politics into the real, multidimensional, world.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Truth and Freedom

Most people have heard John 8:32. And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Politics, on the other hand, seems to operate on this quote from Cats Cradle: “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Early in human development ambitious people discovered that controlling hearts and minds was more effective than brute force. The simplest way to do that was get control of “ the truth.” The struggle for freedom is in part a struggle for individual, direct access to the truth for all people. In the process, numerous techniques have been developed to manipulate truth in the pursuit of power and control.

The first class of techniques involve hiding the truth. What people don't know can be used to control them. The problem is that what you don't know can hurt you. One example: Agent Orange. Information hiding has a problem. People want answers and can be pests until they get what they want. Which brings us to our next class of techniques.

Misinformation often fills the voids in a search for truth. Sometimes it is unintentional, such as the primitive belief in evil spirits causing disease. It is often deliberate as in classic propaganda. Look at issues such as immigration, global warming, crime, terrorists, etc.. All the information out there can't be correct. Only study and research can get to the the truth. This leads us to our last set of techniques.

Disinformation is the set of techniques used to discredit and discourage the quest for other truths. Calls to authority, guilt by association, attacking the messenger and character assassination are all well known disinformation techniques. Most of these techniques rely on a simple observation: people most readily believe what makes them the most comfortable.

This leads me to this observation: Most people prefer a comfortable lie to an uncomfortable truth. The lies may be very comfortable, attractive chains but they deny freedom.

Lots to think about here. This could be a key to freedom, or maybe all of the true things that I told you were shameless lies.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Step One: Get the Name Right

Names are powerful. Names help us recognize and keep order in our world. They are a major part of how we communicate. Millions are spent every year so we will buy our cars and deodorants by name. This is a key idea from primitive sympathetic magic: If you know the true name of something you can control it. In advertising and politics that old magic still works.

There is a lot of activity on political strategy sites right now on a concept called framing. Simplified, a frame is a name with built in boundaries and a subconscious, emotional payload. We use the term “frame” as in “frame the debate” without thinking much about what that means. Will taxes or revenue streams draw more attention in a debate? If you get to frame the debate, give it a name, you have a significant edge. Take a look at Blaines Picnic, for example. It started out framed as “ensuring family friendly picnics.” It ended being reframed as “preventing under age drinking and drunk driving.” This happens in most issues. Look at water rates, the prison project, pay raises, or any national issue for more examples.

Next time you think about an issue, take a close look at the name. How does that name frame the issue? What is the emotional content of the name? What subconscious response does it evoke? Is the name that it has truly the right name? You don't really understand an issue until you know its right name.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Political Points

Points I try to remember when analyzing issues. I will be talking about each of these in more detail in the future. Please feel free to add your own.
  1. The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their correct names.
  2. Truth sets us free, lies are subtle and comfortable chains.
  3. Life isn't one dimensional. That includes politics and solutions.
  4. The government is not the village (or city, or county or society).
  5. The government is not your daddy (or mother or rich uncle).
  6. Government was invented by humans to solve some very specific, basic problems.
  7. Government is not the solution to every new problem.
  8. One size never fits all.
  9. When we forget why we do something, we use tradition as an excuse.
  10. Problems are solved faster, easier, cheaper and with less pain when government involvement is minimized.
  11. Government changes lag societies changes.
  12. Governments do most things poorly, so should be limited to those functions for which it was invented.
  13. All jobs are not equal.
  14. Fairness is an invented concept. It rarely occurs in nature.
  15. It is easy to confuse equality and identity. Things that are equal are seldom identical.
  16. If you keep doing what you've been doing, don't be surprised at what you get.
  17. Success is measured at the edge.
  18. Blindly adding money or technology to a problem doesn't fix it.
  19. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
  20. I know of nothing more destructive than good intentions.
  21. Life is not a Zero-sum game.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Picnics and Politics: What are they thinking?

Blaines San Angelo Picnic was back in the news after the City Councils recent decision on BYOB at ticketed events. Since that happened, I have been asked repeatedly: What were they thinking?

This really has little to do with the final decision. Blaines picnic was becoming a unique event that attracted tourists and benefited groups such as 4H, United Blood Services, etc.. At the same time the true economic impact was mostly extra work for bottom of the wage scale jobs like hotel maid, waitress, and convenience store clerk. Nobody can deny that there were problems. This years picnic was not what most people would call family friendly. Changes were necessary. What I find interesting is not the decision, but how it was eventually arrived at, and the perceptions that people are left with. I think it is important to highlight a number of the "what were they thinking?" moments that led up to the recent decision.

The problems at this years picnic were nothing new. Trash, arrests, rowdy conduct, drugs, etc. were at previous picnics but were not as noticeable because cleanup always happened the next day. Even the household furniture was not a problem because the cleanup crew either donated it to some group or disposed of it some other way. This worked well until this year. Someone had the bright idea that the city could get extra money by having Blaine pay the city for cleanup and using free prisoner labor to cleanup after the weekend. The resulting pictures of the trashed river stage area are definitely a "what were they thinking" moment. The answer is simple. The city government had done what governments and organizations at all levels do. They took a multi-dimensional problem and reduced it to a single dimension: Money. The page one photos of the aftermath did show that money was not the only, or even the most important, consideration but by that time the damage had been done. Blaines successful money making picnic was now an embarrassing problem that couldn't be ignored.

The aftermath of the picnic revealed another "“what were they thinking"” area. When the citizens outraged by the trash started digging, they discovered the public safety problems. There were numerous arrests during the picnic and as people were leaving. The descriptions of drug use, under age drinking, lewd conduct presented at the next council meeting were disturbing. There were problems, but not significantly more than in prior years. It's interesting that outside one letter to the editor last year, the biggest complaint had been the shortage of porta-potties. The security at this years picnic was also different with sheriff's deputies doing the security that was previously done by SAPD officers, mostly because they gave Blaine a better price. There have been attempts to say the deputies didn't do as good a job, but if the arrests reported for both events are accurate, then there was really little difference. Still it is one of those decisions that when a problem occurs make people ask "what were they thinking."

Now we come to the most amazing part of this whole process: how they came up with "the solution."” Once the trash made the news, the council put the picnic and river stage policies on the agenda. The May 16th meeting showed that city staff really had no good answers for the concerns raised. The fact that cleanup had been delayed to save money looked foolish next to the pictures of the area. The fact that arrests were not really much higher than previous years only made people ask why this wasn't fixed before. Then someone remembered that there is a civic events board that is supposed to set policies and regulations for city owned facilities like the river stage. So the problem was handed off to a different board for study and recommendation. The heat was off of the city council for a while, but there was still no solution.

The Civic Events Board is 9 advisors appointed by city council to develop policies and regulations that the council has to approve. Most of the time, they try to come up with ways the city facilities can be used more frequently and make more money. Policies that affected cleanup, furniture, and alcohol haven't changed for years. Most of the time, board membership is a part time, low risk, position. The only qualification is someone that wants to be involved and help the city. This group of well meaning volunteers was handed this hot potato. I was at the CEB's June 26th meeting, and by that time the problem of how to have a safe, family friendly picnic with quality live entertainment had transformed into how do we prevent under age and problem drinking. They already had a prepared plan that called for the elimination of BYOB at all ticketed events. There was discussion of alternative controls and rules, led mostly by the Mayor, but at the end of the meeting they put forward the proposal with a ban on BYOB at ticketed events. As the meeting broke up, most of the board members were confident they had "“solved the Blaine's Picnic Problem." The fact that Blaine had said he wouldn't put on a picnic that was not BYOB was met with "good riddance."” They had been embarrassed and weren't going to let that happen again.

Almost 2 months after the CEB meeting, their proposed rules were presented to the council. I thought that in that amount of time, supporters of the picnic could have organized themselves and presented an effective and workable alternative to a complete ban on BYOB. There were a number of supporters of a picnic that was BYOB but outside of various suggestions made by the Mayor and some supporters, there was no coherent or organized plan put forth except for the ban. No one effectively made the point that the ban wouldn't solve the problem, it would just move it to a different location. In the end, the council took the easy way out. The approved the advice of the board they had appointed specifically to advise them on such matters. I look back on what happened so far still have to ask "“what were they thinking?"

Blaine Martin has been conspicuously absent from this process. I couldn't understand this for a while, but this is really not his problem. What we have is people in the local government that finally woke up to a bad situation. They were embarrassed by the results of their habit of reducing all decisions to a question of money. They made sure that Blaine won't embarrass them at the River Stage next year. Any unintended consequences were never presented coherently enough to be considered

After eight successful picnics, Blaine will have no problem finding someone willing to host his picnic. We know that none of the larger west Texas cities has a wide open BYOB policy, but there are plenty of private sites just out of town that would be fine for a picnic like Blaine's. Instead of having the picnic in town where realistic rules can be applied, where both sheriffs department and police department resources can be used the picnic will likely be held at a location with little required security and from which drunks will drive back to town.

I am sure that by this time next year I won't be the only one asking "What Were They Thinking?"

What are they thinking? Bonds.

We have been doing some research here on the likely school bond issue. It is an important issue with major impact on the area both economically and culturally. After spending hours looking at the proposal and what is being suggested in the Long Range Facilities Plan I have a question: What are they thinking?

Lets look at our situation here. Enrollment for the past few years has had a steady downward trend. Our population hasn't grown in the last ten years, it has just gotten older. The local economy is still not very strong. There is no indication of a major influx of new students for the next several years.

This doesn't mean that nothing needs to be done. Many of our school buildings need major work There are compelling reasons to balance the enrollment more between the two high schools. This would require enlarging Lakeview. Many of our school buildings require some level of modernization to improve energy and operating efficiency, allow better use of technology, and increase accessibility, but that doesn't mean throwing away our current buildings and starting over.

A building should have a very long use life. With proper maintenance, they can be used for centuries (when did Michelangelo paint that ceiling?) Buildings can age gracefully. They can change with the times. They often become the focus of proud histories and traditions.

It is usually much better and less expensive to upgrade a building than to start from scratch with a new one. In our case, it makes more sense to fix and upgrade what we have, and wait before going for an expensive dose of new buildings. There may be some compelling reasons for major new construction, but I haven't seen any yet. If you know of any, please post them.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Don't you just hate it when you miss an important date. Get busy and then you miss something. It happened here recently. is now 2 years old. We are still here being "aginers" and watch dogs, researchers and analysts with a dose of opinion thrown in.

Postings have been a bit slow lately. It's partly because the writers are busy. There is also a bit of a "what were they thinking" quality to some of the issues we are looking at, which really gives us pause to think. We are gathering information and energy to tackle some local issues that will affect the health of the area for a long time.

Time to finish the anniversary celebration and get back to the battles. There are windmills out there that we still haven't tilted against.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pay Me now, or Pay Me Later

I drive a somewhat beat-up '77 Ford F-150. Friends who know I can afford (slightly) better sometines ask why I drive that old junker. My reply: when I turn the key, it goes "Vroom", and takes me where I need to go; it is on propane and I pay $1.80 for fuel; and most importantly, it is paid for!

When I read of the huge infrastructure costs looming, I try to put them in the context of my pickup.

The water line work is indisputable. Two downtown breaks, one involving a front page picture of workers up to their necks in water, then the tragic fire at Honey Creek with no effective water pressure and purely decorative fireplugs, Yeah, I've got to agree, we need to spend serious money on water mains, not just the two inch residential lines. This will have to be paid for, but so long as no one tries to hang a bunch of bells and whistles on the funding, you won't hear this conservative beef about it; this is by definition, the proper work of local government. The fine distinction between city and water dept. budgets I will leave for another day, the point is, we all have a problem that the city will have to fix, and we will all, in one way or another, pay for it.

The school report is a bit different. The totally unrealistic "needs" list comes up with a figure we cannot possibly afford, and I ask , "For what?' Bear in mind, last school bond, I wrote a guest column in the Standard-Times supporting the bond issue, tax increase and all. I had been shown the projects, and used the line in my column that these nearly all fell in the "Pay me now or pay me later" category used in a commercial of the time. Before we can really judge today's high dollar estimate, we need to know the criteria used to declare physical plant unusable.

Most of my primary education happened in a building completed in 1890. Granted, this was the late Paleolithic era and we were happy to be out of the smokey caves our grand-parents had attended. It was also an era when eighth graders were expected to be able to diagram sentences and derive square roots. The first art is totally lost today, even among faculty; the second, I doubt many faculty members could do if an EMP rendered calculators useless.

My point is, reasonably well built buildings do not automatically become obselete in 40 years. We are not now looking at the 17th Sistine Chapel with a Jackson Pollock abstract no one understands on the ceiling. If we need to spend another serious sum on maintainence and upgrades, that is one thing. To suggest that strictly based on age and overdue maintainence we need to start nearly from scratch and build a new school system for a declining enrollment sounds like someone is dreaming with someone else's dollars.

Now we move, as my Mother put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is suggested, with a straight face, that San Angelo needs to spend $14 Million tax dollars (again, I skip over departmental budget details, but it IS public money) to build a convention center/hotel. From the location suggested, I suppose it is intended to relieve the economic blight endemic to Knickerbocker Rd. You see, the AV equipment at the convention center on Concho is outdated. "Golly gee honey, the motor went out on the rear window in the Caddy. Guess we ought to scrap that junker and get a new BMW!"

Let's ignore the huge available square footage of convention space normally unbooked in San Angelo. Forget the 50% average occupancy rate of existing hotels. Completely gloss over the inconvenience that the best-face-on-it figures assume a 70% occupancy of rooms 35% more expensive than similar vacant space in town for this taxpayer financed Taj Mahal to break even. Assume that the tooth fairy was going to leave behind each guest a gold doubloon and this fever dream was ever actually going to make a dime, someone tell me why the city should invest a plugged nickel in it. The city could take a mere $50,000, find a reliable bookie, and bet the Cubs to win the Series. The actuarial odds of making money are better with the bookie.

Back to Realityland. Some things absolutely need ground-up replacing, sooner the better. Other things, like the need for backup water supply ($50 to $150 million) are temporarily on the back burner. Schools probably do need a large sum for upgrades and maintainece, but overall they are in way better shape than the more recently and expensively constructed Boston "Big Dig".

We need to maintain what we have. Don't buy a new $50,000 dually when the '77 paid for Ford still works. Don't design for a 40 year life span to begin with. "Disposable" should be a term used for tissues and diapers, not buildings. I am old enough to remember an aphorism being common; "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". If that sounds a bit antiquated and overly frugal, compare it to coming up with roughly a Billion dollars we don't have.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Government and Maintenance Planning

Maintenance issues and planning have been in the news lately. Failures such as the main breaks and the low water pressure at the Honey Creek apartment fire have added urgency but the impression that this caught the city council or city workers by surprise is unfair.

Infrastructure and maintenance problems have been a frequent topic at current council meetings and workshops. A great deal of information had been presented over the last year. During the recent workshop, information on maintenance problems in all areas including water, roads, buildings, etc. was discussed. The one question that was continually is "How did we get in such bad shape?"

First off, maintenance is expensive. Maintenance is also necessary. Most people are familiar with regular, preventive maintenance on their car. Change the oil. Check and eventually change transmission fluid. Flush the radiator. A multipage checklist comes with each new car. With good regular maintenance a vehicle will last many years and miles. You can defer (put off) some maintenance, but if you put it off too long you will have a break down.

City maintenance works the same way but on a much larger scale. They have all the problems of your average home owner and business owner combined with some uniquely government problems. Managing maintenance on this scale requires planning and skilled, dedicated people. Some basics on this can be found here.

There is great political pressure to keep taxes and utility rates low. One way to do this is to cut and defer maintenance and hope that major problems won't occur on "their watch." This temptation has been yielded to in the past. The section that handled the inspection of hydrants and valves was eliminated in the 1990s and the water department had to try to keep up when other alligators weren't being wrestled. Similar cuts were made in road maintenance with the promise that outsourcing would make up the difference. Outsourcing can be useful but you have to be careful how far you go. I don't think I would do without a spare tire or jack just because I could outsource flats to some towing company.

Maintenance has an image problem. It isn't exciting. Buying a new car is much more fun than putting new tires on an old one. I've never anyone that thinks oil changes are sexy, but they still need to be done. Maintenance also has another problem: When it's done right, you hardly notice it.

We have a fairly accurate picture of the state of maintenance today. We need to keep that picture updated and accurate. We need to make sure that anytime a major project is proposed, we have answers to all the maintenance questions, including how much it will cost. We need a comprehensive maintenance management plan complete with maintenance indicators, schedules, and lines of responsibility. We need to make sure that these expensive projects that the politicians and voters love are taken care of after they are out of the headlines.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

License and this blog have been around long enough that it's time to clarify the copyright status on these sites. All original content is licensed under a Creative Commons 2.5 License. and the original authors still hold the original copyrights, but agree that these works can be used and shared, even for commercial use, as long as the author and/or the site is given proper credit and attribution. News media don't need to include a reference to this license for derivative works used in regular reporting.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, you will see a link has been added to help make it clear.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

All The News

We have had a news feed on for quite a while now. I have found the news feed to be less useful than I had hoped. Today I changed the news feed to use the feed from If you haven't looked at that site, you need to.

You can find our new news feed @