Tuesday, January 31, 2006

San Angelo Traffic

There are things the city could do to ease traffic flow, as has been noted here and elsewhere, synchronizing lights and adequate intersection signage come to mind, but a lot of problems could be reduced by individual actions.

In a city with many unmarked intersections in residential areas, one of my favorite offenders is the Braketester. This fellow waits until the last moment to begin slowing, leaving the driver with right-of-way to wonder a) does he know I'm there; b) does he care; c) are his brakes good if both the above are affirmative?

A close cousin is the Tailgator. This charmer pulls up behind me like he is trying to "draft" in a NASCAR race. He needs a sign (printed in reverse for rearview mirrors) reading "What are you doing on MY road, you old fart?" Curiously, said Tailgator is just as common on the fourlane where he could easily pass. On bad hair days, I am tempted to discover a stray cat whose presence demands an emergency brake on my part. Given the extra-stout towing package bumper on my rolling antique, I would be driving my dented, but servicable vehicle off while Tailgator is getting written up for a ticket and waiting for a tow.

Being the cautious sort of driver more likely to attract a Tailgator than to be one, I am not about to criticize anyone going perhaps a bit under the speed limit. There is one variant on this who contributes to the profits of makers of hypertension drugs. After patiently following this driver for a mile or few, I find an open lane or a four lane section and pull out to pass. Suddenly, the driver I have been tracking at 45MPH is impossible to pass at 60. This one needs a sign reading "I may not be fast, but I shore love to be in front."

We have moved to the point on intoxicated driving that people on the marginal edge are afraid to drive home from a dinner out after a glass of wine. I see people way more dangerous during the morning drive. They are tooling down the road, cell phone in one ear and hand, and/or finishing the morning grooming on the fly while navigating more or less across a couple of lanes in the day's busiest traffic. They need signs, front and back, "Just riding behind the wheel", so the rest of us know to give them lots of room.

By all means, the city can, and needs to, keep working on infrastucture, but we as users of it can help by paying attention. Helpful hint: pretend the cars close to you are piloted by armed former postal employees.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on the Prison

The Faith Based Prison operations contract was addressed in some detail today between the Commisioners Court, lawyers, and some of the principles involved with CCI such as the bond company, etc.. Some progress was made. Some of the concerns that have been identified were addressed, but a great deal of work needs to be done.

In the same vein, the Mayor is requesting feedback on the issue of a prison in Tom Green County. I have a copy of the Petition Form hosted on the main website, ConchoInfo.org. Please print it off and submit it to the mayor, and give copies to your friends and ask them to do the same. Be patient because the file is about 800k in size.

No matter which side you are on on this issue, let the Mayor hear from you. This might be the only chance you have for a while to express your opinion on this very important issue.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Faith and Liability

Bill Robinson was on the Voices radio program this morning. The question of the county's liability in the prison project was again raised, and as always the answer was incomplete.

Mr Robinson correctly states that the local government code section 303 states that the cost of the construction will be paid out of the profits of the facility, not tax revenues. That is good as far as it goes, but it ignores a very important source of liability: the actual operation of the prison.

Once the facility goes operational the county is liable in many areas and as stated previously here, here, here, and here on this blog there are many unanswered problems and unadderessed questions.

The county must be prepared to purchase and operate the facility if the vendor (CCI) goes bankrupt (section 351.103 of the local government code.) They continue to ignore this critical issue. They also ignore the fact that the county government must be the contracting agency for any prisoners (see here and here for details.)

Add in the unknown impact on public safety services such as the police and fire departments, the liabilities arising from the sheriffs inspection and supervision requirements, the lost tax revenues because of the type of facility this is, etc. and you have a long list of serious questions and issues that need to be addressed. I was disappointed that questions weren't asked about many of these issues. They have been put before the public and commissioners court before, so why no follow up?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Economic Development

It is no secret that I campaigned against the half-cent economic development sales tax. For that matter, this website originated as an instrument in that debate. Not to retill old ground, but a big part of my opposition stemmed from the virtual blackmail used to ram the measure through initially. Unlike the initial tainted passage, the current twenty year re-authorization came after a reasonably financed, thorough airing of the issues. I may have philosophical reservations personally on the concept, but I am satified the voters gave approval without any undue pressure.

While I have disagreed with some of the decisions of the Corporation, I have also come to respect the people who are directing the fund. Matt Lewis has personally contributed time and effort that in another venue would have drawn a six figure paycheck. Kathy Keane was the personification of competency as City Clerk and is an excellent choice for managing the Development Corp. I have sat in on enough board meetings to respect their efforts.

What I want to make clear is that I have no intention of revisiting the core issue of the tax itself. The voters have spoken and it not the sort of burden as would drive any taxpayer into penury.

We do have a fund that will bring in nearly $100 million over its life. I know I have brought this up before, but I think it should be pressed. The uses of this fund are limited by state law to the specifics of the ballot language. I'm not saying that language was sloppy or ill-conceived, but it was unavoidably entangled with considerations of gaining voter approval in a fairly tight race.

Using this fund for any purpose not encompassed in the original ballot language would require a new referendum. Attorney General Opinions on the authorizing legislation give the Corporation precious little wiggle room without voter approval. I believe since we have decided to have this tax, we need to grant the fund the flexibility to respond to changing conditions and needs. No household or business would lock its budget into a twenty year plan, nor should the city. A general concept is one thing, dedicated budget items twenty years out is another.

I am hardly so bold as to lay out specifics of a proposal to change the allowable spending, but I do think we should have an ongoing review process to look at ballot language to grant the Corporation more flexibility in expenditures.

A couple of examples that will give an idea what I have in mind. Last year's water rate increase understandably incensed many voters who felt poorly rewarded for their conservation efforts. State law does not allow the sales tax money to be used for operating expenses, but had we been able to fund some capital projects from the fund, that rate increase might have been lessened. We might reasonably decide it was to the public good to spend a little less on sports facilities in order to build some badly needed sidewalks and give our kids a safer route to get to and from schools and parks.

A good many capital projects can be reasonably deemed as furthering economic develoment and a justifiable expenditure of public money. The statute authorizing the Economic Development Corporation grants cities fairly wide discretion in areas other than rewarding employers for direct job creation/retention IF the voters have given approval.

More than asking for any specific project, I am suggesting a review process with the goal of granting the Corporation the flexibilty to work with the city to react to changing circumstances. Over a twenty year span, it is inevitable that we will wake up some day thinking "Whoa, Nellie, we need X way worse than the Y that looked so good five years ago". Why don't we start looking at ballot language that will allow us reasonable latitude to adapt now, before we have a more or less urgent problem in our laps.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Charter review

As welcome as was the City Council's action on eminent domain, its limited scope points up something I suggested nearly a year ago. My sense was that Council would have as gladly made the eminent domain limit a charter measure, that is, one subject to approval by the voters. I have no doubt that measure would have passed overwhelmingly and become the local equivalent of constitutional law. The ordinance just approved, and surely to be affirmed on second reading, can be overturned by a simple majority vote of some future Council. A Charter measure would require another vote of the people to be changed.

On this Council's hands were tied by a frankly dog-in-the-manger gift from departed members of the previous council who put the appointed police chief item on the ballot as a purely parliamentary manuever to block any other charter items from consideration for the next two year term. I am not speaking for or against the elected/appointed chief idea, it is a perfectly valid proposition with good points on either side. The utter lack of any public campaign to promote the issue they placed on ballot as a blocking move demonstrates the real motives of those who put it there and then left it to die a predictable death.

We will soon enough be free to consider Charter changes again. I suggested that Council appoint a committee or advisory board to look into potential charter modifications and point out conflicts either with existing city ordinance or state statute that might need to be addressed. Jim Turner's latest post revisited an obvious weak point; namely that our civil service infrastructure is, in technical terms, a mell of a hess. If we are to have a reasoned revisiting of our method of selecting a chief, we need to work out the kinks in civil service law.

Eminent domain is an item I hope will become a charter measure as soon as legally possible. Doing the homework on the details of that issue while we have the luxury of not being under an election date gun strikes me as an effort worth making.

Aside from charter proposals, I would suggest the scope of this board extend to reviewing existing ordinances for internal inconsistencies. As successive Councils approve new law, they do not necessarily stop to check for conflicts with sometimes old and forgotten actions of Councils long gone. As a minor example, in the course of convincing Council to amend animal control law to let a friend keep his pet pot-bellied pig, I tripped over one section that absolutely forbade the keeping of primates other than those in temporary shows or fair venues, while another section set out the conditions required for keeping monkeys as pets. The two sections were likely passed years apart by Councils which had forgotten the earlier, contradictory ordinance.

The problem is hardly unique to San Angelo. Newspapers everywhere delight in running stories from time to time detailing silly sounding laws, usually things that have come about by oversight. I recall when I lived in Raleigh NC, one such discovered it was still a misdemeanor violation to bathe more than once a week. That unenforced bit of nonsense had been passed as an emergency drought limit on water use in 1888, but someone forgot to limit it, and technically it was still law in 1982.

Rick Smith of the Standard-Times put in a humorous article pointing out some of the sillier bits of San Angelo law. If he cannot be convinced to be on the advisory board, the board might at least prevail upon him to share his research notes with them. Just a thought Council, but reviewing while we have no immediate deadline pressure makes sense to me.

(Un)civil Service

We haven't exhausted what should be discussed from this years city council meetings. One very contentious issue was on the agenda of both council meetings: Appointment of a new Civil Service commissioner. The Mayor nominated Stephen Mild, a member of the Tom Green County Sheriff's department, to fill the position. This was opposed strongly by the Police Chief and various members of the department and was eventually voted down 5 to 2.

There were two problems. First, the Chief and officers that spoke were concerned about apparent conflict of interest of having an active member of one public safety agency overseeing the promotion system and disciplinary inspections of another local agency.

Next, there is the problem of the DeSoto OAG opinion. Their city charter is worded similarly to ours. There is conflicting language where the Mayor is given the title of Chief Executive, but the city manager is given the job of doing all the managing of the city and appointing and removing officers and employees of the city. The language is not identical between the two charters, but close enough that it needs to be clarified so that there is no possible confusion about who should be doing the appointing. The mayor and the city manager both said that the city manager does not wish to appoint the commissioners, but that really has no affect on what the attorney generals opinion will be. It may be that this needs to be addressed when the city's charter is reviewed and the proper language put before the voters for approval.

The most important issue, though, is who should be appointed to the civil service commission. None of the parties involve had any doubts about the sincerity and integrity of Stephan Mild. The problem goes to the heart of why we have civil service at all. In the early part of our nations history, public officials were appointed and hired by what is called patronage, or more descriptively: the spoils system. There were attempts to clean up the system, especially after the scandal ridden administration of Grant. There was little real progress made until President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker. After that, merit systems with safeguards to prevent undue outside influence were eventually implemented across the country. San Angelo adopted its current civil service system in 1948. (Check here for more detailed history)

Texas civil service law already forbids appointing people who have been a public official within the last three years to the commission. Legally a sheriff's deputy, even a very senior one, is probably not a public official but I wouldn't want to bet on the outcome if that distinction went before a judge. The reality, though, is that it is a bad precedent to have public officers involved in the civil service. The appearance of outside influence, whether real or imagined, can only hurt. When the agencies have to work together as closely as the Sheriff and police department must, the appearance can overwhelm reality, and lead to friction where it can do significant damage.

The Mayor's objective of appointing someone with experience in both law enforcement and fire fighting is commendable. I support that objective. Still, he must find a qualified individual that will not set a bad precedent, and will not have any apparent conflicts of interest. When Stephen Mild retires from the Sheriff's department, I would support his appointment with no reservations, and I imagine the police and fire departments would do the same. Until then, we need someone else for the civil service commission.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Trash or Consequences

Let's get this straight from the start. There are some people that are just inconsiderate slobs. They will use their property, whether their yards or the back side of their business, as a private junk pile or dump. They will store broken furniture, old tires, etc. and create a hazard for their neighbors. Hopefully you don't live next door to one of them.

The city has an interest in making sure these people clean up their messes. That is what code enforcement is for. One of the problems has been that it is less expensive to game the system than to clean up the mess or find proper storage. There are people that have multiple properties that will move the mess from one property to another after they get a citation. The problem just keeps moving and is not solved. Until recently, there was little code enforcement could do.

At the last city council meeting a proposed ordinance was introduced that limited the number of warning citations that would be issued before a graduated series of fines could be assessed. First citation would be $200, next $500, etc.. These citations and fines would be per person, not property. For example, if a person was cited for junk behind his store, and was later cited for the junk at his house, that would be 2 citations for the person. The goal is to raise the cost and agravation to the point where it is cheaper to do the right thing. A noble goal and it will probably solve the problem.

There is a small little fly in the ointment here. This approach completely ties the hands of a judge in dealing with unusual circumstances. There are possible circumstances where this level of fine might not be appropriate. This is also a problem that can be solved. All it takes is adding language to the effect that "these fines will be assessed unless there is evidence of significant extenuating or mitigating circumstances." This is probably not how the language would be in the end as I am not a lawyer. I have, however, discussed this informally with a couple lawyers and they assure me that such language can be added to the ordinance. We need to allow the judge to consider all the facts and if appropriate levy a different fine. That is how it should be. Mandatory minimums are not good no matter what the type of trash you are dealing with.

Promises kept

Kudos to the city council for keeping a promise to limit the cities ability to use Eminent Domain. At this weeks council meeting they unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance that keeps the city from using eminent domain to take property from a private entity and give to a company for private development or use. This is a positive response to the infamous Kelo decision that said it was legal to take someone's property and give it to a company all in the name of progress. Luckily, our council sees it differently.

This is a good step in the right direction. After the next reading it will be a local ordinance. It would be better if it was part of the city charter, but that option was closed for two years by the poorly thought out attempt to move to an appointed police chief. It is likely that they will be considering charter changes in the near future and hopefully this will be included in the charter changes. The reality is that an ordinance passed by council can be repealed by council in the future.

Again this is one promise the council kept and they deserve recognition for it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cutting Again AT SAISD

This is one person’s opinion, over the cutting of several vocational classes at Central High School. A few years ago the arts were cut because we did not have the funding, now in the last week it is an emergency that the board votes on cutting the vocational classes because there is decline in the enrollment. The paper stated that this is necessary because the enrollment over the last three years has declined by 300 plus students. My first question is why did they wait until now and became an emergency? The second question is why didn’t Dr. Coleman bring this to the School Superintendent and the Board earlier than in January of this year when the catalog has to be printed for next fall? Were all the students that left central in the last three years all in the vocational classes? If they were, then yes the classes have to be cut; however, I do not think that was the case. I feel that the decline in enrollment was overall throughout the campus of Central High; therefore, it seems that there is a lesser need for the teachers that supported the 300 plus students. These are just a few questions that I have and I am certain that there are many more questions that may arise in the next week or so.

The vocational classes at any campus are needed today! Not all of our young people aspire to go to college or can go for one reason or another. We need to have the means for training and use the means to train our young people in all walks of life. The vocational classes are one of the greatest avenues of training that we have and fill a great void in our society for the trades that support every one of us each and every day. Over the years we as a village and community have seen how important and beneficial the vocational training is and the impact on the community. What impact on the community are we going to have in the future when we stop having opportunities for our youth? We seem to find funding for the sports and have coaches and assistant coaches on the rolls, but no ones takes a stand on cutting them when funding gets tight. WHY?

G.W. Elmquist

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Planning with Good Neighbors

The year is off to an interesting start. The first city council meeting of the new year was held today, and there were actually a few surprises and interesting developments.

The first real surprise was that ASU didn't convince the city council to close a section of Rosemont drive so that there would be no street between the new residence halls they will be building and the rest of the campus. There were a number of reasons, such as campus homogeneity and student safety, that were presented ably by Dr. Hindman, ASU's president. There was also considerable citizen opposition. They had persuaded the planning commission to recommend disapproval of the procedure, had sent in 21 letters of opposition to the street closing (none showed up in favor of the project), and showed up at the council meeting in strength. They presented a compelling case against the project. They pointed out that ASU's own study said there were 1,000 cars a day currently using that section of Rosemont. They find it hard to believe that a large percentage of that traffic will not end up on Shamrock drive and Jade drive. The residents of Jade drive were especially concerned because Jade is a narrow, 2 lane street that "T's" into Ave. N with no turning lanes and only a stop sign to control traffic. They were also concerned with the possibility of on street parking exacerbating the situation. With the likelihood of major increases in traffic, and no apparent plan to mitigate or control the increased traffic, the council in the end disapproved closing the street by a 4 to 3 vote. It was not an easy decision, but in the end it was probably the proper one for today.

Angelo State University has been a good neighbor in San Angelo. Realistically, they are more than that. They are family that lives next door. Not only do they employ lots of people and account for a significant amount of the local economy they are part of the lives of many people here. They have trained many, if not most, of the business and government leaders in this town. At the council today, the majority of the members were either graduates of ASU or had family members that were. Everyone that spoke today, including the opposition, had many great things to say about ASU and its contributions. Many of the opposition were graduates of ASU. Others had watched the growth of the campus for over 40 years. They all really love the university. So what went wrong?

ASU is now in the early stages of implementing its "Centennial Master Plan". This is a necessary and comprehensive plan to help ensure ASU's health and growth. It is a plan to grow enrollment 62% by 2028. They have been working on it for quite a while, and the current master document is 240 pages with another 113 pages addressing student housing. There was a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, tears and coffee poured into this plan. It is big, but in some areas it stopped too soon.

For most of ASU's existence they haven't had to have much input from their closest neighbors. Most of the construction has been on their current property, with little direct impact on those close to them except for a steadily increasing amount of traffic. The off campus changes have been gradual enough for relatively painless adjustments, when there was any negative impact at all. This plan is different. The projects that it will entail will cause rapid and disruptive changes to the surrounding area.

ASU's traffic studies identified the significant level of traffic currently on Rosemont, but did not identify where the traffic would go if not one block over onto Jade. I seriously doubt that 1,000 cars per day will suddenly stop going where they are going today. There was also no planning done on how to best mitigate the increased traffic caused by the plan. Adding 4,000 students per year to the campus, along with the increased faculty and staff necessary for such expansion, will also put a severe strain on the traffic network around the campus.

In the long run I think that it probably is a good idea to close Rosemont. There are other street closures and changes in the plan as well that make sense for the long term growth of ASU and the city as a whole. More planning is needed. ASU and the cities public works department need to work closely on the whole traffic flow around and through ASU. It is already bad. It needs to be a comprehensive plan focused on the future. It needs to be integrated into the cities other master planning documents. It needs to identify what needs to be done to mitigate the problems caused by what will hopefully be major growth. ASU must go to its neighbors and before the City Council with a plan that says "this is what we want to do, this is how it will affect our neighbors, and this is what should be done to minimize our neighbors pain." It doesn't matter if it's traffic signals, speed bumps, no parking zones, one way streets, etc.. Have a plan to reduce your neighbors pain while you are growing and fixing your own problems. A plan that you neighbors have helped you develop. That is a major part of what being a good neighbor is all about.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Crystal Ball Time again

It's the start of a new year - the time when writers traditionaly reflect on the past year and make predictions on the future. The reflection part is easy on this blog. All I have to do is point you to the side bar where our past is on display. So now I guess it's time to run CrystalBall v2.0 beta and see what comes out.

There will be changes in driving in San Angelo. Sherwood way will be widened, with the accompanying irritations as construction is underway. Traffic patterns around ASU will change. There will be major changes all around 29th street as the new super center is built, complete with additional traffic lights and road work. Maybe this will be the year when the city finally starts to properly synchronize their traffic signals.

An easy prediction is that the election season will provide more of the low theater we have come to expect. One area that could provide some drama is the new electronic voting machines that will be used here for the first time in the next elections. Looking at the history of these DRE machines, the county picked one of the better machines, but there have been major problems with all of them. If there is a close race that requires a recount such as we had last time, the result will not be as simple as last time. We will be posting more on this later.

Expect changes in water. Water rates are likely to stay the same. At the same time, the first steps in a long term solution based on using underground water will be started. It is also unlikely that we will have a third wet year, but we know how mother nature likes to keep us guessing.

Some economic predictions are now in order. Expect to see the retail building boom continue through 2006. Some of the building should happen around the new super center in the north part of town, but the building around sherwood way will keep going. This will help the construction industry here, but will really just move jobs from one business to the newer one. This is not a sign of economic growth. Primary jobs will come here, but not in the industries we had in the past. Call centers like Sitel and DCS will continue to grow because we have the resources they need: good communications infrastructure and people that love to talk on the phone. The next real business success story is more than likely going to come from a local, home grown business that finally gets its inovative and creative act into overdrive. It will not be a correction facility.

This is the point where my crystal ball program crashed. If I can get it going again I will add more. If your crystal ball is working, feel free to add its output in the comments.