Friday, March 31, 2006

Safety Communications

A public safety communications plan is on the agenda for the Tuesday City Council meeting. This subject is much more important than it appears at first glance. During Katrina communications failures and interoperability problems cost lives. Similar problems cost lives in the World Trade Center disaster and many natural disasters. (See a CRS report on public safety communications here.)

One thing I have noticed in looking a past disasters is that emergency communications must be capable of handling the full communications load. During most emergencies telephone networks and cell phone systems quickly become saturated to the point of being unusable. Cell towers, phone and power lines often get damaged or destroyed. An effective public safety communications system must be capable of operating with little or no outside help.

In the event of an emergency, the communications system needs to be able to interoperate with the equipment that help brings with them. This is currently a major problem. Work has been done and the DHS has released a Statement of Requirements for interoperability that will be a part of any plan, but that is just the beginning. The whole field of public safety and emergency communications is changing rapidly. It is no longer limited to the old style mobile radios we remember from the 50's TV programs. There are mobile data terminals which are basically portable computers in vehicles. There are trunking systems that allow automatic switching to empty channels or automatically sharing channels for a specific action. Digital technology is supplementing and sometimes replacing the old analog stuff. Acronyms and terms like WiMax, mesh networks, VOIP, are being added every day, and they affect all types of communications. New Orleans, for example, is currently using a wireless mesh network to provide a communications system that includes public safety, internet, and other communications. Originally developed to help with crime fighting (case study), this system survived Katrina and is now one of the back bones of rebuilding the downtown area (see this article.) An interesting part of this is the muliple uses beyond public safety this is being used for. Technologies such as this need to be looked at and integrated into the master plan.

The agenda item is really just the start of the planning for this system. I am starting this discussion here so that we can intelligently evaluate the plan and make the best decision for the future of San Angelo and our neighbors.

Monday, March 27, 2006


The recount is finally over and the results are official. Hughes and Roberts will be facing each other in the runoff. Having been involved from the start of the recount, I have some observations that I hope will be helpful for future elections.

This election had a number of firsts. It is the first time we have used the Hart-Intercivic machines. It is the first election that Mike benton has ran since becoming elections administrator. It is the first recount of the new system. It was the first time I was involved in a recount.

My first observation is that more training is needed. This was a major change for the election judges and other officials involved. Work needs to be done in some basic areas.

Everyone involved in the election needs training in how to handle special situations. For example, there is a slot on the side of the paper ballot scanner that is only to be used when the scanner isn't working (during a power outage for example). A number of voters stuck their ballots in that slot by mistake. Procedures for handling that situation had to be developed on election day because no one anticipated that voters new to the procedure might stick their ballot in the wrong slot. Those ballots required special handling. First, some of them were overlooked on election night, and weren't included in the machine count. Second, somewhere during the counting or recounting process it appears these ballots were mixed in with the machine counted ballots, which kept the recount from matching the machine count. The number was small (around 50 ballots), but every vote is important. When the margin of victory is only 14 votes, 50 ballots is enough to change the results.

There were problems with keeping track of the machines. One of the machines used in early voting was also sent out to one of the precincts, which caused some votes to be overlooked at first.

There were problems getting all the machine ballots printed out which could have been a machine problem, or lack of training and experience by the elections office staff. The recount system we started with had to be refined as we went along. The ballots printed out from the electronic machines were usable but made it easy to miss a vote or count a vote in the wrong precinct. It also became obvious that the new scanners for the paper ballots have problems. They are sensitive enough to detect a relatively light check mark in the box. One problem we found on a few ballots was that the voter made the check so big, part of it extended into another candidates box. It was obvious to a human counter who the vote was for, but the machine saw marks in the box for more than one candidate and recorded it as an over vote. There were a few ballots where it looked like the voter had rested his pen in one box before voting for a different candidate. That also caused an over vote. Better voter briefings and education would help eliminate this type of problem.

The recount itself was a model of how we would like things to work. Everyone involved agreed from the start that there was only one goal: Determine exactly who the voters had selected. There was no animosity or rancor. All sides worked together. The frustration level was high at times, but it never got personal. When problems were found, the emphasis was on fixing the problem, not blaming someone. I hate to think what this would have been like if the race had been a bitter one. Hopefully the lessons we learned from this election and recount will be useful if we ever need to do another recount. I will leave my thoughts on the machines for another day but I am starting a page on voting information and problems.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Count and Recount

The recount is still in progress. I am currently helping with the recount. I won't be saying much until the recount is complete. Don't want to make it any more painful or difficult than it already is.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Change of Habilitation

The Tom Green County Commissioners Court had a meeting today to hear about changes happening to Corrections Concepts, the company behind the prison project.

Two high profile players are no longer with the company. The founder of the company, Bill Robinson, resigned or was forced out. Jack Cowley, the former chief warden of Oklahoma has also disassociated himself from the company.

Bill Robinson has been the center of controversies surrounding this program since he started it over twenty years ago. He has been noted for his ability to alienate people, his lack of openness, inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to disclose much information. He did start the company, but the program in its current form is the work of many people. Add it all together and many people were turned off of CCI because of Mr. Robinson. His departure will probably help.

Jack Cowley is a different story. There are few people with more experience running a prison. He was also involved in the Inner Change faith based program here in Texas. His experience will be missed.

The new Chairman of the Board of CCI, Dr. Forrest Watson, gave a very interesting presentation to the court. He admitted that CCI had made many mistakes in the past. He agreed that the financials were not what they should be. He noted that the information on the project was incomplete. What he asked for was time to try and get the company and the project back on track. He asked for time, probably 2 months, to come back with an improved plan. He promised complete, easier to understand financials. He also promised that CCI would try to become the most open, transparent corporation in Texas.

There was a lot of discussion both for and against this project. Everyone agreed that the current prison and correction system isn't working. No one challenged the possible effectiveness of a faith based program (although the issue of constitutionality was raised.) The need for education and training, job skills, follow through after release, etc. were pointed out. We know if we just keep doing what we're doing, we'll keep getting what we're getting. There is no question something different needs to be done.

That leaves us with two questions. First can CCI really deliver a real solution? Is their business plan and management team going to be up to the challenge. A week ago, I doubt they could do it. The new direction is encouraging, but there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. We will have to wait and see what they can do.

The second question is if this is the right place and time for this project. I'm not convinced. I don't believe that taking in another states prisoners is a good idea. The logistics just don't work. We need to concentrate on the problems in our neighborhoods first.

In the end, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. Maybe the reorganized CCI will finally give us these answers. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Day at the Polls; Part Two

Always in past elections, the person in charge of a precinct would go to elections the day before and set up the polling place the afternoon or evening prior to the election. The physical layout was mostly up to the judges to best use space available. For example, we always placed the check-in table directly in front of the door, to draw the voters' attention there first, then the booths to the sides, with attention to both lighting and privacy. We always set up at least one booth at table level, for either wheelchair-bound or to allow voters using canes or walkers to sit while they voted. The ballot box itself sat by the door on the way out.

This time, the equipment was delivered and set up by elections staff the day (or night) before. We had one of our people meet them, but there were limitations we had not dealt with. The cable length between the JBC box and the E-Slate booths required that the booths be only a few feet to the side. While we received no voter complaints, had we at the JBC been so inclined, it would not have been difficult to look past a voter and track how he was voting. The concern with obesity notwithstanding, most voters aren't wide enough to block vision completely.

One of the E-Slates was set at table height, seated level, but since they are not easily adjustable, this was actually an inconvenience for standing voters, who had to lean over to work the machine. I did get complaints about this. We only had two E-Slates and several voters who might have tried the new system opted for paper to avoid a wait.

We had one voter who approached the E-Scan box with his completed ballot and slid it in the “emergency; power down” slot before an official could stop him. It took a couple of phone calls and a visit from elections staff to resolve how to deal with that ballot at end of day. It was resolved and I am sure that ballot was counted, but this could have been avoided if a snap-in cover for that slot had been provided, to be removed in the power-off circumstance if necessary. As it was, duct-tape to the rescue, it didn't happen twice in my precinct.

As was reported, several stations had problems at end of day with E-Scan machines not accepting the provided passwords. We had a frustrating time trying to figure out what we were doing wrong. Last election, we were provided three numbers to dial into elections for help. This time we had one # and it took us until 8:20 to get through. Their advice was that we were not doing it wrong, to unplug the machine.

We may have dodged a bullet when Dan Edwards elected not to ask for a recount on a 13 vote loss. By the way, additional ballots have been discovered and counted, reducing that margin to 12. It seems there are as yet uncounted military ballots which may or may not affect that very close race.

I was an observer during the Hoelscher/Cardenas recount. That process was tedious, but straight-forward. Bipartisan counting teams hand counted Op-Scan paper ballots, watched by bipartisan teams of observers, with the candidates themselves free to move about and watch any part of the process. At the court trial which affirmed Hoelscher's win, the judge pointedly asked, election night aside, had anyone raised any allegations of misconduct or mis-count during the recount. There were none from either side.

In the event of a recount of electronic votes, I am less certain what would be recounted by whom. While the Hart Intercivic machines used here are actually better than most, I have yet to hear of an electronic system that is error free, whether it is counting votes or how much I owe on the charge card. That is why most cautious consumers “recount” their billing statements every month, and inevitably, some of us spend varying amounts of time getting errors corrected. In a recount, I am told the individual E-Slate machines will generate a paper readout of each vote cast. Here I have a simple question of ballot security.

Judges were told to bring in the JBC with final tape still on, likewise the “head” on the E-Scan paper ballot station, along with the actual paper ballots, voted and unvoted. The E-Slate devices were to be left in their respective booths, where they could only be accessed by the elections staff sent to collect them or, of course, anyone else with a key to the church, hall, or other site chosen as a polling place. Ballot security is crucial to how satisfactory a contender will find a recount.

Overall, we didn't flunk our first time out, and I'm sure we will get better from the lessons we learned. I lobbied in behalf of Mike Benton as Molly Taylor's successor, he is an honest man doing his best. I strongly disagree with the Standard-Times' position that we should eliminate paper ballots. Their desire for quick results, let's all go home and to bed is understandable, but it does not trump the rights of voters. Many voters feel intimidated or simply unsure of the new machines and they have a right to cast a meaningful ballot.

As we know more about not only our problems, but those experienced around the state, we will have more information to guide us. We at Conchoinfo will be looking hard, and I am sure we will have more posts on this subject.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A Day at the Polls

I thought it might be useful to post a day at the polls hereon this Blog from someone who has been there. I have been a precinct chair and either election judge or alternate judge (depends on the last gubernatorial vote in a given precinct) in precinct 145 since 1994. I worked this election as alternate judge, like everyone, first time on the electronic voting system.

All election workers went through over five hours of training for this in two sessions. There were, and are, unanswered questions, some due to unanticipated problems, others seem inherent to the new process.

A voter in the March 7 primary initially checked in as usual at the table with the Combination Form, the printed list of registered voters which also indicates whether a voter took advantage of early voting. Assuming the clerk at that table approves the voter, (all but one in our precinct), that clerk gives the voter a color coded Republican or Democrat slip, which is presented to the person at the Judges Booth Controller (JBC) station. At that point, we ask again to be sure their Party affiliation, and once verified give them the option of using the E-Slate electronic method or the traditional paper ballot.

I was a bit surprised, my precinct is an older demographic, but a slight majority elected to try the E-Slate. We made a point of assuring the doubtful ones they could ask for help on the E-Slate and get it without compromising the privacy of their vote. Most voters willing to try it did not have much difficulty getting the machine to do what they wanted.

One premise of the demand for electronics under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was to facilitate the total privacy of handicapped voters and lessen or eliminate the need for other people to assist after signing an Oath of Assistance in which the assisting person, usually a relative or friend of the voter's choice, promises not to direct or influence the voter's selections. The system does have an option that will actually read the ballot to the blind, even a breath tube that would allow a quadraplegic person to vote unaided. Interestingly, the only curb-side voter we had was a gentleman who absolutely did not want the new-fangled device, paper ballot, if you please. We also had one voter whose hands shook from a recent stroke, insisted on the paper ballot, he did not see any electronic option being easier than the laborious process of steadying his own hand enough to mark his ballot.

Our precinct is traditionally a light turnout area, and this was no exception. We had one two hour stretch go by with two voters. I personally tried the E-Slate for my vote. I had no problem at all, having had practice in training, but neither can I say it took any less time. Actually, I could have voted paper slightly faster, as all the choices are there and can be marked with pen faster, no time spent “dialing and entering” from one race to the next.

One hang-up to these machines that only became evident after 5 when we got the usual after work rush. As the pre-qualified voter comes from the first table to the JBC to get his access code, we were required to make them wait until there was an open E-Slate. There is a thirty minute “lifetime” on any access code. It can be canceled and a new one issued, but to avoid that, the judges are instructed not to issue a code until there is a station open for the voter. Note here: once the voter has entered the access code, there is no time limit on that voter, but the voter must start within thirty minutes of being given the code.

We had two E-Slates, and any time they were both in use, the next voter always chose the paper option. At one point I had both E-Slates in use and four voters at the old booths using paper ballots. We are told the limited number of E-Slate booths was due to budget, understandable, these toys are not cheap.

There were other problems, mostly having to do with the election worker's side of the new system. I will get into those in my next post, right behind this one.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


There is an interesting report here on how cities compare in job creation and growth. We are in the list of 179 small cities. With a rank of 136, we are ahead of only Victoria (at 160) in Texas. Looks disappointing doesn't it.

If you look at the full report, (which is available as a pdf after you register) you will see that there is nothing the best performing cities are doing that we can't do. They weren't growing in those areas that require resources such as interstate highways and heavy transportation. We can grow in the business and professional services sectors. We are already growing our tourism industry. We are getting more comfortable with leading edge technology. We have been recognized as a great retirement center for a while. None of the growth areas require factors we don't have and we can improve based on what is in this and other reports.

One factor is how knowledge based our leading businesses and industries will need to become. High technology such as advanced communications systems and information technology is often a component of a knowledge based business, but the technology is really just a set of tools used to deliver our skills and expertise to the rest of the world. We already have companies that are servicing clients nationwide using the internet and our great communications infrastructure.

There is a lot of work to be done, but reports such as this one can help chart the direction we need to go. We need to at least get ahead of Abilene.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Issues in English: Water

Water has become one of the hot campaign issues, hardly surprising on the edge of the desert. San Angelo has gone through feast and famine so often, it is second nature for us to read rainfall totals and local lake levels the way Wall Street brokers read the stock ticker. Our troubles dealing with the problem have gained national attention, one famous episode being when O. C. Fisher lake “caught fire”, actually a brush fire in the then dry lakebed.

We really have come a long way since then, and it is to our credit that we are studying plans to secure adequate water for growth through at least 2060. The city has commissioned $4.5 million worth of studies of our most likely options. We have only preliminary reports on the city studies, but the final report of the Region F Water Study Group came out in January. This Study Group was created by Texas law and included Will Wilde and Stephen Brown among other locals as voting members.

One thing that became glaringly obvious during last year's water rate hike is that we are living under a new reality that many people are understandably slow to grasp. Conservation measures had resulted in a drop of Water Utility sales from 23,000 acre feet annually to about 12,000. Quite naturally, people became irate when our successful conservation effort resulted in a significant rate hike. One thing most people did not understand was the new situation resulting from the completion of the Ivie Pipeline and our contract with Ivie.

We have a contract to buy 15,000 acre feet annually from the Ivie pipeline. We do get to pump unsold water into O. C. Fisher, but we do get to pay for it. The new reality I referenced is that, at least right now, we are in a surplus position on water regardless of local lake levels, and that unsold inventory of 3,000 acre feet was a contributing factor in the rate hike.

Assuming even modest growth, that circumstance will not last forever and we are wisely looking ahead to expanding our future supplies while we have this unaccustomed luxury, for once acting before a crisis is upon us. For that the city is to be commended. We should be very cautious in the choosing, the options we are looking at range from a low ballpark of $50 million up to $150 million, future operating costs excluded. Once we commit to that kind of money, we won't get a second chance to get it right.

Desalination. The tech is nothing new, modern cruise ships and naval vessels no longer tote fresh water, they desalinate what they need. Seventy years of poking holes drilling for oil, during which process the water was an unavoidable nuisance, leave no doubt there are vast amounts of brackish groundwater west of San Angelo. This “brackish” water is less salty than sea water and part of the cost of desalinating will depend on the salinity of the raw product. Proximity and total supply favor this option. Downside is that the treatment cost will inevitably be higher per gallon at any given time than treating fresh surface or groundwater.

Groundwater has to mean Hickory Aquifer water. The distance would mean a price on pipeline alone of $70 to $100 million, and that just gets us in on the ground floor of a huge regulatory problem due to radium/radon nucleotides present due to decay of feldspar deposits through the region. A totally different regulatory problem arises if our withdrawal of water above recharge rate causes the aquifer level to drop.

An aside here. If I lived in McCulloch County and the EPA weenie came and told me my well had 40 pCi/L, as some do, my personal alarm level would be to yawn and get another glass of water. Two good studies by the State of Texas show zero health effects in people who have ingested this water all their lives. Unfortunately, these studies and my opinion mean exactly squat to the EPA or to Texas Environmental Quality Commission, which has adopted EPA rules by reference. They have a current allowable level of 5pCi/L, with a proposal on the table to reduce that by a factor of ten.

Not to burden this article with too much data, much more detail and my idea of a direction for regional water solutions is at this link. San Angelo does have a sufficiently large treatment plant with enough other water to blend down to current EPA standards. Of the available long-term options, Hickory has the highest price tag, the smallest gross water volume available, and the potential that nuclear-phobic regulators will change the rules and leave us with a horribly expensive “dry hole”. The Region F Study recommendation to smaller districts now using Hickory water, including Eden, is “bottled water” and that will require an EPA waiver. 'Nuff said on that option. The Region F Study is here. with pages 111-132 being the Hickory section.

Conservation is great, but limited. We are already closer than most of Texas to the state goal of 140 gal. per person per day. I'm all for brush control, chasing oil wells all over the country, I see big swaths of land cleared and being cleared. We may one day get back to what grandparents described as country where mesquite was much thinner, salt cedar a rarity, and the streams ran year round.

Finally, remember that any option will cost a sum of money visible from outer space. The new supply will however, be secondary, probably tertiary, as a back-up to cheaper, existing Ivie and local surface water. Water rates will likely increase as growth demands greater use of the new supply, by which time we will be glad we have it. In that regard especially, I have to favor a desalination option. It is more amenable to being scalable according to need. For something closer to a $50 million front end, we can have the initial wells and pipeline, and be able to add new supply wells and treatment units if and as expanding need requires them.

Hickory would require the bulk of the investment up front in pipeline cost before we get any water, with a much greater chance of becoming a limited, even non-existent source just as we need it worst, since its current users will most likely be needing more of it themselves, be that need growth or drought driven. There are no current users of Whitehorse brackish water.

Skinning the Poll Kat

During this election season, we are going to see a proliferation of polls. Take any issue out there, and you will likely find that all candidates are using poll results to justify and reinforce their position. It is amazing how adaptable and changeable the Poll can be. So it is very appropriate to do a quick overview of the characteristics of this popular political tool

First point to remember is that polls have nothing to do with the truth or validity of an issue. They are about peoples opinions.

At best, polls give a snapshot of how people feel and what they think they know about particular issue. They can be a valuable tool for communicating from voters to governments and companies. They can give a snapshot of the thoughts and feelings of those polled. Properly used, that information is extremely valuable.

At their worst, polls can be a thinly disguised sales tool. Carefully worded questions with highly emotional phrases are often used to push for the results that the pollster wants. These are then used to justify everything from raising taxes, massive spending projects, to going to war.

The whole field of the use and misuse of polls it too broad to cover here but this website is a good place to start. Read it carefully. Learn how to dig out the details and skin the Poll Kat.