Thursday, June 29, 2006

Systems, Antics, and Failure

There has been much in the news lately about systems that are failing. Our jail is over crowded. The school district needs $375,000,000 to fix and build new buildings. The list goes on and on. While reviewing this list, I remembered a book I read when I was younger. Systemantics (since updated to the Systems Bible) was a true underground classic. The introduction, by its author John Gall states

"Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. New problems are created by its very presence. Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches. It begins to do strange and wonderful things. Breaks down in ways you never thought possible. It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function. Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system. You become anxious and push on it to make it work. Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time. At that point encroachment has become complete... you have become absorbed... you are now a systems person!"

This goes a long way to describing the working (or not) of our government and most big businesses. For more detail start at the Wikipedia entry, and then try some of the links, especially this one.

We will be using this to describe some of the problems we find in later postings.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Crime, Jail and Justice

A bit of time has passed since it was revealed that Tom Green County has the 11th highest jail incarceration rate in Texas. For some perspective, the U.S.A. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. If you look at the numbers for Texas, you see that the states incarceration rate is 34.87% above the national average. It might be justifiable if it was reducing crime but the Texas crime rate is 23.41% higher than the national average.

There are some good sites out there with information on incarceration and jail overcrowding, and you can spend lots of hours reading and analyzing. A quick glance at this guide will help show that overcrowding is caused by the entire local justice system. It's not just the police or judges or lawyers.

At it's simplest, jail population is determined by two factors, the number of people admitted to the jail, and the length of their stay. Increase either one too far, and you have over crowding.

The quick response is "don't we need to be tough on crime?" As this report, among others, points out "Increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime." Incarceration should be a last resort, not a first.

We need to have a better educated poplulation. Education seems to be one of the most effective vaccinations against crime. Effective crime prevention needs to be a high priority. We also need programs that cut back on repeat offenders and recidivism. When we have more people incarcerated than China, a "repressive" country 6 times our size, it is time for us to take a step back and take a serious look at what we are doing.

Picnics Blaine and Fancy

Blaines picnic is still providing entertainment. We commented on the problems there earlier. At the Civic Events Board meeting last night they covered a list of problems and went over a list of changes for the council to consider.

Everyone agreed the trash needs to be picked up the next day. Everyone also agreed that furniture, such as thrift shop couches should not be allowed on the grounds as they get left there far too often.

The problems with alcohol and under age drinking were discussed at length. It was agreed that a highly visible wrist band should be required to identify those who can and can't drink. The proposal sent forward to the council recommended banning BYOB for all ticketed events. Even those questioning an outright ban recognized the need for changes such as banning hard liquor and limiting the amount of alcohol a person or group can bring in.

Changes such as these must be made. We were lucky this year. It's better to take appropriate action than to rely on our luck holding.

Monday, June 26, 2006

More Open & Public Meetings

At the last council meeting, there was discussion towards the end about the public meeting called by Mr. Cardenas, and how much notice should be given. Because of the short notice, most of the council couldn't be there. This is probably a good thing. They really need to careful about the open meetings and records acts.

The government code is very clear. Go to the Open Government Made Easy website and you will notice that "The Open Meetings Act (OMA) generally applies when a quorum of a governmental body is present and discusses public business." If a quorum (4) of the council had attended, it would have been an illegal meeting.

They really need to be very cautious. If a public meeting is called about an issue before the council such as pay or economic projects and it is likely that a quorum will attend, then all the requirements of the open meetings act need to be fulfilled. There used to be a provision for staff briefings, but that was removed about 5 years ago.

Dog Days

One of the issues brought up at the tail end of the last council meeting was the number of dogs one should be allowed to have in town. This all stems from a valid complaint from a Paulann resident.

It seems that one of the residents is breeding dogs on their property and selling them over the internet. Don't remember the breed, but we are talking registered dogs that sell for several hundred dollars. It seems that these dogs are a constant source of irritation to the neighbors with their constant barking and horrible smell. It is also obvious that the dog breeders are running a business from their home that is inappropriate for residential neighborhoods. There are likely other problems as well. The people that brought the complaint have been trying for two years to resolve the problem with little help from the city government and with the helpful hint from the breeders "If you don't like it, move."

So far we know they are violating at least two city ordinances: the noise ordinance, and health code on animal waste. It is also doubtful that all 30 dogs in the back yard have the required licenses and vaccinations. There are zoning ordinances about the types of businesses being run in an RS1 residential area. There are plenty of legal tools to use to stop these breeders from bothering their neighbors and creating a health hazard. This doesn't include other possible civil remedies that the neighbors and possibly the local home owners association could take.

The proposal presented to council was to limit the total number of dogs a resident could have. I heard numbers suggested from 2 to 6 but I remain skeptical that this is a good solution. For two years, these breeders have been reported for violating at least 3 city ordinances, yet it is only recently that the city attorney has started moving forward. If code enforcement and other city officials can't enforce 3 ordinances, can they enforce 4 any better? Next, I know people that can't responsibly own 1 or 2 dogs. They let their dogs run the neighbor hood knocking over trash cans, tearing up property, barking all night and pretty much acting like Osama Bin Pitbull. I also know people that have lots of dogs but you never know it because they don't cause trouble in the neighborhood. These people take care of their dogs well because they care about their neighbors and their pets.

This seems to be a case of Deja Vu. In January we had a similar issue about trash. We were told by code enforcement that there were scofflaws out there that just moved junk from one piece of property they owned to another, and code enforcement needed to have some mandatory escalating fines in order to force these people to comply. At the February 7th Council meeting, Judge Gilbert gave the actual numbers. Of the 38 cases of failure to comply with an abatement order, only 2 were repeat offenders. It was also noted that the ordinance and fines were against the property owner, and not the location as they had been led to believe. The need for the mandatory fines was seen to be unnecessary, and the issue was tabled indefinitely.

This seems to be a similar case. We have city officials that are feeling the heat because of a problem that has been ongoing for at least two years. They are complaining they don't have the tools they need to do the job when the plain evidence is that they have not really used the tools they have very well at all. We already have plenty of laws on the books to make and keep neighborhood clean and livable. Lets use them effectively instead of adding another one to be ignored as well.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Priorities and Jobs

I was unable to attend all of the last city council meeting (hate having to make a living.) I checked the video of the meeting (which wasn't available until saturday for some technical reasons) and saw a lively discussion on the whole issue of whether or not grants are an effective way to help our economy grow.

Economic development grants are used in many cities as a matter of defense. The argument goes something like this: "Every other city uses grants so we need to just to stay competitive." To paraphrase my mom "If every other city jumped off a cliff, should we do it just to be competitive?"

During my research for the Sales Tax campaign, I found case after case of companies doing serious incentive shopping. The auto industry, for example, has been notorious for moving to a new city that will give them a deal on a new plant when they need new equipment. Once that grant is gone, they move on. Direct grants tend to fuel short term jobs.

A better use for that money would be making the city more attractive to businesses that will stay and put down deep roots. Good infrastructure, lower taxes, low crime, sensible zoning, fast and fair planning and permitting. Good schools, continuing education and a quality workforce. A community that meets their business and personal needs. A community that can be an extension of their family. These are what attract and keep businesses in a community.

We can bribe companies in to being here for a short time, but a business with a serious community relationship can't be bought.

It is good to see this finally being discussed seriously by the Mayor and Council.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Beef or Candy

I have been slacking off a bit lately on some issues. Economic development is one of them. Time to catch up a bit.

The City Council just approved another grant to Lone Star Beef. This is a company that has been here a long time, is growing but is struggling against the realities of the local and world wide business climate. There is no question that they can use some help. There are still some question that need to be answered still.

First, why aren't we doing low or no interest loans to companies that need expansion money instead of giving them grants? Tyler, TX, for example, has a revolving loan fund that works well for attracting and growing business and allows them to have a very low tax rate.

Why is it that most of these grants seem to be to businesses in stagnant or declining industries?

Why do we spend so much time supporting and attracting businesses that are hurt by our poor transportation instead of going after more businesses that can use our strengths?

There are more questions, but these will do for a start.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Overcrowding Justice

Juvenile justice and the school system is still getting al lot of attention. Lets get back to basics. If you look in the Juvenile Justice Handbook from the Attorney Generals office the following goals were behind the statute passed in 1973

• to provide for the care and development of a child;
• to remove the stigma of criminality from the unlawful acts of a child;
• to separate a child from his or her parents only when necessary and to give the child needed
care; and
• to provide a simple judicial procedure to ensure a fair hearing and enforcement of
constitutional rights.

and in 1995 the following was added

• to strengthen public safety;
• to promote the concept of punishment for criminal acts;
• to remove, where appropriate, the taint of criminality from children committing certain
unlawful acts; and
• to provide treatment, training, and rehabilitation that emphasizes the accountability and
responsibility of both the parent and the child for the child’s conduct. (§51.01, F.C.)

The juvenile justice system is where we first teach our children what the justice system and the law is all about. We teach them the concepts of fairness and proportionality by how we treat one infraction vs. another. When we over react to a minor incident with a response that should be reserved for serious crimes, we confuse children about what is serious and what is minor. When we involve the police too early and too often, we teach them that problem solving is out of their hands and is best left to the government or at least some one else "in charge."

Then we have the problem of the Publications from SAISD. We have two handbooks totaling 100 pages. Just for fun, I ran them through the reading level feature in MS Word and a few other programs I have. They came out at high school graduate to college level. I am sure that most of the students that recently graduated Lake View and Central only looked at these publications when they were having trouble falling asleep. The lawyers are probably happy with these handbooks, but mere mortals will find them dificult to use. It seems they were written just to fulfill a mandate from the state.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Flag Day

It's flag day and I'm in San Antonio.

Time to remember what the flag really stands for. Time to honor all those that have defended and continue to defend it.

Time to ignore those that try to hide behind it and use it as an excuse to further their agenda.

More when I get back.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Juvenile Justice and Schools

There has been a lot of concerns raised lately about the SAISD Code of Conduct and the actions of peace officers on campus. In keeping with the Concho Info tradition, here are some of the references and facts we have found in looking into this issue.

Texas Family Code Title 3: Juvenile Justice is the law and sets the standards for the school district and law enforcement when dealing with children from 10 to 17 years of age (to 18 in some cases see FC 51.02(2).) Those under 10 can't be prosecuted for crimes. One of the first statements in the General Provisions is that the code is there to

"(6) to provide a simple judicial procedure through which the provisions of this title are executed and enforced and in which the parties are assured a fair hearing and their constitutional and other legal rights recognized and enforced."

Those include the rights of the children and their parents. Other necessary resources can be found at the Attorney Generals Publication Page. Pay particular attention to the School Crime and Discipline Handbook and the Juvenile Justice handbook. You also need to look at the Parent Handbook/Code of Conduct from SAISD although the code is being revised and the new version isn't online yet. Even a cursory reading makes some things clear.

First, children still have constitutional rights. Their protections against self incrimination do not include the familiar Miranda warning we may be familiar with. Part of that is because they have to be receive a warning from a magistrate (with no law enforcement officers or prosecutors present) before any statement or confession can be recorded or used. Children also have the right to an attorney, even a court appointed one, just like adults do.

Parents also have rights and must be involved. Officials must PROMPTLY NOTIFY the child's parent or guardian when a child is taken into custody (taking a child into custody is not legally the same as an arrest and should not show up as an arrest in their record.) Parents also have the right to personal, private communication with their child at the juvenile processing office.

It appears that the police have some leeway in handling minor offenses. They have the option of issuing a warning notice (basically the equivalent of a traffic ticket) and that notice is then sent to the parents and filed for further action. There is nothing that requires taking a child into custody for an offense that would normally be punished by only a fine.

From the basics I have covered here it seems that the school district and the local police probably need to do some work on their procedures and get better at communicating with parents.

Being Civil

During the campaign for an appointed chief, we pointed out some inconsistencies between the code of ordinances and the rules the civil service commission is using. These will be reviewed at the next council meeting.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a thorough review of the charter, ordinances and rules.