Monday, July 30, 2007

Cumulative Distraction

The storm over the cumulative voting idea coming out of Charter Committee is unfortunate. Now obviously, I thought the idea had merit, or I would not have passed it along. We really didn't go off and lose our minds entirely. Among the supporting documents were a thirty page article from Hispanic Law Review, another by Lani Guanier, both extolling the virtues of cumulative voting for minority voters and candidates. Having put that out there, if the resistance by Council and voter is as great as it appears to be, I will lose no sleep if the item fails. It was one of the last two items our Committee acted on, and far from the top of my agenda in importance

On other matters, we are being second guessed also as to putting the appointed police chief back up when it has been so recently defeated. We saw this coming, in fact at the Council meeting creating the Committee, long before I had any notion I would be on it, I addressed Council on just this, explaining that while I would not be the one to bring it before the Committee, someone doubtless would. I recall that led Councilman Morrison to comment, "That's twelve" (items that is).

When our Committee found itself listening to Chief Vasquez, his sole announced opponent and a petition representing both police organizations signed by a majority of serving officers, all declaring the election process was tearing apart the force, it was terrible for morale, that is no longer a possibility, it is a self-evident truth. Realistically, the vote of two years past doesn't strike me as compelling. The measure was put on ballot by Monte Mahon for reasons having nothing to do with the measure itself, if after putting it there, Mahon said a mumbling word in public supprt of it, I didn't hear it. Matt Lewis and Rudy Izzard jumped in and tried to support it, but too little, too late. When one has the people who do the job complaining that elections make the job harder, that is hard to ignore. It would have been like a doctor telling a patient, "No you don't have that headache, you just think you have a headache."

I wasn't eagar to revisit the topic this soon, but I wasn't willing to look these guys in the eye and tell them their headache was all in their head. At the same time we agreed to put their request before Council, we advised them that politically this was going to require a lot of educational effort on their part if it were to have a chance, they claimed to be willing to do the work. All I ask on this one, voters, if you hear the officers making their case, open your minds, be aware, these are the guys who would know telling you they have a problem. Not just management, as far as we could tell, top to bottom of the force, and we heard not one voice from the force supportive of electing the Chief.

One of my pets predicted to be controversial; compensation for Council. On this one, we hardly set the pay at a level which will tempt people to toss over lucrative careers, but it just might be the difference that makes it possible for a good working class guy to serve without breaking the family budget. As best we can tell, the current pay, to use the term loosely, was set in 1913. Come on voters, most of us have had a raise since then.

Mostly, I do not want any one item to taint the Committee's whole work. Most of what we did was overdue housekeeping. It makes for a lot of ballot items because election law insists we put every change out separately. Council will determine the final ballot content and language. In fact, Council is perfectly free to scrap us entirely and pass its own agenda, or none at all. We hope not, but I throw that in to remind, we are not some power-grabbing clique, we are not given that authority if we wanted to be.

We might ought to have done a more agressive job of keeping everybody up to speed, I did forward my sponsor meeting minutes as we went along. Unfortunately, our meetings got zero press, until the last meeting, and that was the meeting the cumulative voting hot potato came along.

Council will get this from us formally on Aug. 7, they will have until Sept. 5 to decide how much of it the voters get to look at. Between now and the actual election in Nov. there will be a lot of time to listen, learn, and decide. If it seems like a large plateful, we really didn't intend to get overly ambitious, but this job hadn't been done in 30 years.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Raising the Bar on Indecision

Last Monday I attended my first pre-agenda workshop of SAISD. Somewhere, there may be a better example of how to institutionalize inefficiency in a governing board of something, but I will have to be shown evidence of it before I believe it.

Mind you, this entire session was dedicated to discussing whether or not to discuss agenda items on the real agenda come next Tuesday. The handout I was given was titled, " Agenda of Pre-Agenda Workshop Meeting". I did not make this up. This format precludes any actual decisions on Agenda items beyond deciding to place or not place an item on the real Agenda. I am told this increases the probability of unanimous votes on items, but I must ask; when did Board unanimity become the over-arching goal of any representative body?

The actual effect is to render half of the Board's meetings useless. By rule, no decision on any topic will be made, Board merely decides whether or not it might try to decide, as opposed to table, an issue next time.

At least this exercize in sleep-avoidance was moving along briskly until we got to item "O", "Consider legal representation". Apparently, (and I use the term advisedly, very little was truly apparent), the firm currently representing SAISD had presented a new contract proposal. Now the logical things for a governing body to consider on such a question would be; overall cost, compared to last year's contract; payment schedule; if we decline this offer and the firm refuses to renew existing contract, do we renegotiate or look for new lawyers.

Here we commenced the first of the night's politically incorrect ethnic firedrills. It shortly became evident that neither staff or Board of our educational system had done the respective homeworks. No one seemed sure what was in the text of either contract, let alone what the implications of the new contract might be. The audience was treated to the sight of two assistant superintendents ($100,000+ salary each) dashing back and forth making copies of the contracts in question so that Board members could at least pretend to know what they were discussing whether or not to discuss next Tuesday.

The crowning moment in this exercize came on the final Agenda of the Pre-Agenda agenda, item X; "Consider construction method for various projects at Central High School". Now to set the stage, in case you have been sharing a cave with Osama Bin-Laden, SAISD just lost its first bond election ever. A large part of that vote was based on poor maintenance of existing facilities. The proposed projects at Central were designed to demonstrate that SAISD was at least going to try to accomplish some long overdue repairs while students were on summer break.

In order to expedite this process, administration elected to use a device called "job order contract". It is perfectly legal, it does get things done, but it put $500,000 into a Ft. Worth firm, avoiding the more time consuming process of requesting and approving bids for individual parts of the work from local firms.

Here member Tim Archer pointed out that under job-order contract the carpet, for instance, would cost nearly three times a locally available rate. Assuming his figures are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, this is Mr. Archer's business, that does seem a bit steep for timely performance. Then citizen Burk steps up and basically reads the board the riot act on why job-order contracting is a poor idea responding to to anything short of fire or tornado.

Friends and neighbors, what we have here is a failure to communicate. These contracts should have been put to bid locally, about the time Board put the bond on the ballot, if not before. Given the designed inefficiency of the trustees' process of deliberation, it seems to take at least six months to approve six weeks, and I am including generous beer breaks in the six weeks, worth of actual work.

JWT and I have met with Dr. Bonds. Our impression was of a very bright, dedicated lady who was hired into a situation not of her own making. For instance, she had no input on the bond we defeated, but as part of the job, had no choice but to support what had been decided already. I hesitate to get warm and fuzzy about anyone running anything, I am just saying, we did not detect from Dr. Bonds the all too familiar odor of smoke being blown up our backsides.

Someone, somewhere in highly paid administration dropped the ball on this. It might have been my first view of the pre-agenda format, but by now anyone knocking down six figures a year should have had the process down cold.

The summer vacation window of opportunity has already been missed. That is not to say the jobs cannot be done, just that it will take longer, inconvenience more people (students and teachers for instance) and not exactly persuade obviously reluctant voters that SAISD is ready for prime time.

I know Dr. Bonds is aware the school system needs a large sum of money, STEER accepted from the start of our bond opposition that SAISD needs a large sum of money. I think the Board members believe the system needs a large sum of money, I know some members do, but at the current turtle's progress, they will be lucky to have a viable bond designed in time for the May election, forget about November.

There is a world of blame to be passed around, this Board, former boards, current administration. What gets done now, their fault or not, lies with the serving Board. The deliberative process must be streamlined. The portion of blame I have not mentioned yet is ours, the voters.

If I were to tell someone from another locale that a school Board which just suffered the worst electoral bond defeat since McGovern, the first bond defeat here, ever, had also gone through the same election without a single member having opposition, they would cackle at me, thinking I was tugging their lower limb. Well, folks, that is just what we just did.

There are good members on this Board, but there is also a lot of, as Texas Monthly calls inactive legislators, furniture. The ball's in our court. There is no excuse for our ignoring school trustee elections anymore. It might be an electoral afterthought while things are going well, why fix it if it ain't broke. Problem is, our Board is obviously, glaringly, record-settingly broke.

Step up voters. Denying them money for grandiose schemes is one thing, at least it was a good wake-up call. Now we have to insist that something positive gets done. The amateur hour show last Monday would have been funny except the cover charge for the show ran into 9 figures.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Buying Jobs

Economic development is back in the news. There are actually two stories here. First, we have the same old story where we use "incentives" (i.e. tax money) trying to snare jobs from corporate herds that might pass our way. This type of economic hunting (where we try to steal jobs from other communities) is seldom very effective. The good news is that call centers have been successful here, so there is a strong likelihood that these jobs might outlast the incentive payments.

The second story is really more important. We now have a loan program, the Grow San Angelo Fund, targeted to small but growing businesses. We are talking about companies that have survived the initial start up pains and are ready to take on the pain of additional growth. These companies, often called gazelles, are where the real economic growth (somewhere around 70% of job creation) occurs. This section of our local economy is frequently overlooked and has historically been poorly served.

In my last post on ED, I talked about economic gardening. This fund, if used properly, can grow our own local economic garden. We must use it as fertilizer. We can grow the vast majority of the good jobs we want and need.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Renewable Renaissance

The lifeblood of our civilization today is energy. New innovations in energy technology are arising faster than we can keep up with them. Many of these developments have the potential to enhance our quality of life by dismantling the current infrastructure of corporate dependence that holds us as captives, contributing to a cleaner environment, and by creating high tech and green collar jobs that can’t be outsourced, while others will become obsolete and burdensome soon after being implemented. The city has been looking into waste gasification and nuclear power as potential revenue generating ventures and I think it is important to bear in mind that these are not clean, renewable resources and that there are many more options available that are safer, more equitable and beneficial to our local economy while also being more attractive to potential future residents.

There is an energy renaissance underway in this country, right now. Towns and cities are realizing that they can reap more of the profits and better insure accountability when local people take the initiative, work together to make solid long term investments, and start up these energy projects independently. Aggregate community owned and operated wind farms and biorefineries are up and running, there are models for compact and discrete rooftop turbines that can help power homes and commercial businesses relatively cheaply, municipalities are opting to utilize solar panels, designing new buildings with sustainability in mind and providing tax incentives for the public to do the same, and fuel is being created from landfill gas and grass and woodchips. With all the amazing potential we have right here dormant around us, is it really in our best interest to invite a Japanese company to come in and build a nuclear power plant or to haul in tons of garbage from other towns to be incinerated?

There is talk of plant to be built in San Angelo that will process mesquite to produce energy. I think that a project like this would be most beneficial if it did not simply use combustion to supply power for “the grid.” If we began to look at mesquite as a source of diverse products that would require companion enterprises, we could really begin to diversify employment options for locals and strengthen our local economy. Mesquite has the potential to produce liquid fuel that could be purchased in our community for automobiles, or fine lumber for floors and cabinets, or pellets for efficiently heating homes and schools and businesses, mesquite bean meal sells on the internet for $13 a pound and it is actually a quite delicious, nutritious and helps to regulate blood sugar. We are selling ourselves short to simply allow someone funded by the DOE to come in and harvest our resources so that they can sell it by the kilowatt to someone in Dallas or Ohio.

Around the country public libraries are being powered with solar energy, high school students are designing systems and installing solar arrays in their schools as science projects, small locally owned and operated cooperative wind farms are in operation using discrete designs, native prairie plant species are being harvested to produce energy while improving the soil, surface and groundwaters and sequestering carbon dioxide… This all barely scratches the surface.

I asked the city council on Tuesday to investigate all the options, let the public be involved in the renaissance, let us know what they are doing and planning so we can tell them what we think about it. There are so many changes happening in our world today, that it has never been more crucial that we pay attention and thoroughly research, and the more of us that are involved, the more effectively that can be accomplished.

There is no better way to market San Angelo in this day and time, than to become a real model for sustainability by implementing recycling programs, fostering conservation of land and energy, and by creating commerce from the renewable resources indigenous to this area. I can confidently say that the solutions to our energy needs in the future will be regional. Not large power plants, and massive transmission lines, but homes and offices and cities on closed loop systems producing their own power. There is not anyone in our community who will not benefit from initiating the creation of a whole new network of commerce in our community that raises awareness, increases capital expenditures, helps us to meet state and federal mandates, stimulates the local economy, fosters energy independence, and nurtures the environment, which is our true life blood.

The future of energy is promising and exciting. We are shedding paradigms of oppression disguised as Convenience. It's really just a matter how far ahead or behind we want our community to be.

Imagine... instead of investing $100,000,000 in a plant that will incinerate trash to sell power to the grid, we invest in mesquite ethanol plants, at $8,000,000 a pop. Each plant would create 30+ jobs, and we could support a dozen or more of these, because the plants must be small in order to make the transport of material feasible. We would be helping farmers and ranchers, creating lots of jobs, producing our own fuel locally, improving our existing water suppy, increasing our economic INDEPENDENCE, and... we could invest the money that is saved from diverting investment funds away from losers like gasification and nuclear power in urban rooftop verticle axis wind turbines and solar parking canopies, making rooftops and parking lots in San Angelo components of a collective renewable power plant where, potentially, we can all be shareholders.

For anyone interested in learning more, you can start here:

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Indecision As Art Form

I deeply regret I was unable to attend last Thursday's School Board meeting. Bearing in mind that Board trustees are unpaid, they seem to be dedicated to proving the old saying, “You get what you pay for.”

In particular, there was a list of summer projects to get done at Central presented by Asst. Superintendent Jeff Bright. It caught my eye because after the defeat of the bond, I had, in an online reply to a gosanangelo article, suggested nearly the exact list of obviously needed, and very doable tasks at Central as a possible demonstration that someone in SAISD understands the word “maintenance”. No rocket science here, things like fix some broken plumbing, chip rust and repaint, take care of a few ADA access problems. Basically the sort of projects Hi from the comics might find in Lois' Job Jar.

In truth, every project on the list should have been taken care of years ago. As has been mentioned here and elsewhere by many others, the fact that SAISD has been so poor a custodian of that which we have already bought them helped many voters decide not to give them another gob of money until we had some assurance they could take better care of the toys they already have. In truth, Bright's list of jobs should have been given a unanimous “go” the first meeting after the bond went down. By last meeting it really should have been a no-brainer, and instead it failed 6- 1. There was doubt expressed that local contractors might not have been given a fair shot, or there was not enough time to complete all the jobs by school opening. By putting off the possible start date until late July, Board has guaranteed the latter concern.

Quibbles, details, draffsack and havers! This was one time the need to get something done and possibly convince some voters that maintenance matters outweighed the ever-so-cautious dotting of “i's”. By failing to gather their collective courage and make so basic a decision, the Board has in essence made a decision, a decision to accomplish nothing this summer. That seems to be the thing they do best, that is dither until it is too late, then do the wrong thing for no better reason than an unavoidable deadline. The bond itself was a prime example, not until the final meeting before the legal deadline did Board approve placing the bond on the ballot, then publicly drove a stake through it by spending two hours wrangling over the Crockett site and alienating their own task force. Considering I have been told Board had really wanted the bond on the Nov. '06 ballot, that's not exactly warp speed.

Shortly after the May defeat of the bond I met with Superintendent Bonds. I came away well impressed, in fact she made the point that maintenance was high on her list of priorities. Dr. Bonds is not free to do anything she desires, by design, she is charged with implementing policy passed by the Board. So long as the Board insists on punting the ball on first down, Dr. Bonds' options are somewhat limited.

I cannot read minds, I do not know whether Board thinks some electoral miracle will pass the bond we recently thumped come November. Matters not, even if they are that delusional, under any circumstances the Central campus will be in use for several years to come if nothing else serving during new construction. The $500,000 in overdue projects would have directly improved the campus for student and teacher alike. Looking back at the last couple meetings the word “postponed” comes up on more agenda items than not. If this is the best this lot can do, we the voters need to start thinking of new faces to put in those seats.