Sunday, September 30, 2007

Random Thoughts

I confess JWT and I have shamelessly ignored this Blog of late. We'e been a bit pre-occupied with promoting the City Charter measures, not to mention the ever present reality of making a living and paying bills. We have a reprint of a Standard-Times article from Thursday posted this AM, and I will be posting a follow-up article on the appointed Chief measure later today.

Sunday seems a good day for reflection and less pressing matters. If you follow the S-T online edition with commentary, there have been a few of note this week. A local news story "Two teens arrested in drive-by shooting" has so far generated 134 comments. A cadre of posters using "325" in their screen names have posted comments that are astonishing in several respects. The 325 postings are raw street rage, obviously posted by people "up-close-and-personal" in their knowledge of events. Some have been deleted by S-T staff as over-the-top, but what is there is an insight into the "gangbanger" mentality. This is tribal ethics on display. By that, I mean an ethical outlook based on the notion that might makes right, private revenge for disrepect is acceptable, even admirable, and anything done to anyone outside the "tribe" is justifiable. Collateral damage to the innocent is unfortunate, but perfectly acceptable. It is a hard read for anyone accustomed to reasoned discourse, but it is illuminating as to the mindset of the people in that world.

I am one of the few posters on the site who self-identifies, most like the anonymity. I do not know if there is a connection, certainly could not prove it, but late Friday, while waiting a cab home from my local watering hole, a person I have never seen, never chatted with, never personally offended to my knowledge, came out of nowhere and punched me out. I still heal quick, but if you think grafitti is the worst symptom of the gang problem, you are dreaming. I am thankful he left his gun under the pillow.

In the "Cheers & Jeers" section, there was a short article about a truck which spilled waste oil for several blocks of Bryant Blvd. Just happens I was working that jobsite and was on the way to McDs for lunch when I saw that truck. By the time I got close to the trail of sludge, I was smelling "knock-a-buzzard-off-a-gut-wagon, and called 911. By the time I could get a fish sandwich, we had an officer directing traffic and two trucks of Fire Dept. personnel cleaning up. Less than five minutes, gold stars all around, great response guys.

Jeers section, I called last week to report the Bryant Blvd traffic lights had gone from fairly good sequencing to stop every two blocks mode. Bryant is a state highway, but the lights are controlled by city, both TXDOT and city confirmed that. So far, the best result is that I now get to stop even more often. I noticed a City Traffic pick-up sitting in the islands of S. Bryant Thursday, I guess they did attend to it, but so far, not well. Maybe they want to assure that the $180,000 worth of irrigated trees we are blocking lanes to put in, but are not yet there, are properly appreciated by the traveling public while we wait for the light to turn green. I mention that because the money for the water-sucking trees is about the amount necessary to sequence downtown lights. Which would you prefer, trees or good traffic flow? DUH!

Thursday, JWT and I met with WTOS, a local minority advocacy group that is well on the way to being a force to be reckoned with in San Angelo politics, speaking on the Charter Amendments. There was no vote taken, certainly no endorsement given either way, but we got a polite welcome and many thoughtful questions. Thank you, WTOS. By the way, if you have a civic group interested in the upcoming election, let us know. Most of the Charter Committee members are actively promoting the package, I'm fairly sure we could schedule a speaker for nearly any open date.

Vote, just vote

This posting was first published in the Standard-Times Thursday, Sept. 27, and is reprinted with their kind permission.

November has the potential to be a low turnout election with no Presidential or Congressional to vote against, and in reality, more voters get off their duffs to turn out to vote "agin" than "for" anything.

I remember my grandfather telling me how he liked the old Texas ballot where one marked through the rascals one was voting against rather than politely checking off the right fellow. It just seemed to be more fun.

The Legislature has given us little in the way of meat and potatoes to attract voters on state Constitutional Amendments, so the driver in this election is going to be the City Charter Amendment package.

It is going to look like a lot of items; state law requires each topic to be sequestered, but the bulk of this is overdue housekeeping. Of the 29 items on ballot, I count 20 as updates that change nothing about the way we actually do business, they only update Charter language to comply with existing law.

Duplicative bodies will be abolished and Charter provisions will be updated to comply with state law and so forth.

I got a surprising nomination to the Charter Review Committee, and I tell you, this was not some "ol' boy network" hangover. I know I got chewed on by my appointing Council member, but I was there, and promise you that each of us used our individual judgement on every issue.

The San Angelo City Council took our recommendations, amended some, dropped one and put in another. At the end of the day, our members agreed to form an SPAC in support of that which is on the ballot. {Note here that was not in the article: I have since heard that former Mayor Dick Funk has declined to be an SPAC member. My apologies in advance if I mis-state his position, but it seems he actively supports the package, he just does not choose to join PACs}

We want to hear from the voters. Texas makes it absurdly easy to vote- by mail absentee voting, two weeks of early voting, including five hours one Sunday, and under a unique provision of Texas Election code, if you are an astronaut detained on the space station that day, you STILL get to vote!

Speaking of voting rights, the single most controversial item on the ballot will be the question of elected/appointed Police Chief. Our committee took this up reluctantly, but we were given a petition signed by a majority of serving officers, and we heard not a single dissenting voice from the Dept., including current candidates for the office.

When we last saw this issue about two and a half years ago, I voted against it. It had been used as a parliamentary block against other Charter Amendments, (by state law, cities must separate Charter Amendments by at least two years) it was never supported by the people who put it on the ballot, and it never received a fair hearing.

This time, the appointive process has been spelled out, the entire Department is asking us for it, and I have to support it. Just imagine if your workplace elected the boss. Can you see a potential conflict of interest?

By the same logic used by the keep-our-right-to-vote side, the same voters who just elected a hypothetically defective City Council- which must approve any appointed Chief- are better informed to choose a Police Chief for a four year term than the Council members they just elected for staggered two year terms and are therefore never more than one year from our chance to turn at least half the rascals out.

I promise you, the hot breath of the electorate is more urgently felt down the back of Council's neck than that of a four year Chief. Do I hear a "DUH!" in the background?

Agree or disagree, it won't matter if you don't get out and vote. If I hear you beef and moan on Nov. 7, and you admit you failed to actually vote, I will hoot and howl and point out to anyone in earshot that you are a lazy hypocrite. Please, this is a really important vote. Take a few minutes and help make a difference, it's our future on the ballot.

If you care to help, CASA, Charter Amendments for San Angelo, will accept donations of time or money at P.O. Box 5002, 76902. For more info, (325) 234-0436 or (325) 340-7685.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chief Concerns

A recent comment on an earlier post brought up some questions that need answered about an elected vs. appointed chief.

Question 1: Who would appoint the police chief if we do appoint the chief?
  • That is spelled out in LG 143.013. The City Manager (CEO) would appoint the chief with confirmation by the City Council (governing body).

Question 2: What are the qualifications for an appointed or elected chief?
  • Appointed chiefs requirements from the above reference are "A person appointed as head of a police department must be eligible for certification by the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer standards and Education at the intermediate level or its equivalent as determined by that commission and must have served as a bona fide law enforcement officer for at least five years." The city manager, with input from the council and public could add other requirements. These requirements don't apply to an elected chief.
  • The qualifications for the elected chief start with section 61 of the City charter that says "The Chief of Police shall have been a resident of the City of San Angelo for a period of at least two years immediately prior to his election and shall possess the qualifications of electors in said city." The state adds some requirements in Occupation Code 1702.302. It says in part "in an elective office must obtain a license from the commission not later than the second anniversary of the date the officer takes office." It also states that if the elected officer (police chief in this case) fails to obtain or maintain the license within the 2 years he can be removed from office.
Question 3: Who has oversight of an appointed or elected chief?
  • In the case of an appointed chief, he would serve at the will of the City Manager, who would be also be his direct supervisor. As an appointed department head he would also be subject to investigation and inquiry by city council.
  • An elected chief has no real supervisor within the city government. The council can "adjust" the chiefs pay, and the council does control the police budget, but they have no real authority to remove or discipline the police chief. The voters can remove an appointed chief at the next regular election. In theory, the voters could petition for a recall election, but that requires a large number of signatures on petitions, and a full blown election with all the time and expense involved in that process. The council can't call a recall election. That has to start with a citizens petition with sufficient signatures.
  • Either chief can be removed for conviction of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude. Neither chief is subject to review or oversight by the civil service commission.
Hope that answers some of the basic questions on the mechanics of appointed and elected chiefs.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sunday Ramblings

Well, I got unexpectadly published in today's Standard-Times, something I submitted quite a while back on ethanol. Better late than never, but along with a lot of online contributors, I am a bit puzzled by the editorial policy.

Go to Standard-Times online and check into the "breaking news" icon. Friday's top of the page headline was an allegation of assault in a local nightclub against Chief Vasquez made by an unnamed female confidential narcotics informant recruited by Jeff Davis, one of Vasquez's opponents for the office. By the time I got off work Friday, I had gotten an earfull, wanted to follow up. More than making my own comment, I really wanted to read the 50 comments already posted. This is a story with implications on the November Charter measures and the next Chief election, assuming there is to be one. When Vasquez asked the city to investigate, Mindy Ward, for very good reason, told him essentially, you are a separate elected part of city gov't, no way am I stepping in this steaming pile of excrement. We end up with our Country Attorney reluctantly taking it up, and I do not envy him this job. Last time I smelled this, an 18 wheeler coming the other way had just run over a skunk. At least that stench dissipated before I got to Eden. I mean, really, I couldn't have scripted a better ad in support of losing the elected Chief idea.

Sorry, someone pulled the entire discussion and heavily edited Paul Anthony's original story, of which I fortunately have the print version. As someone on the trembling verge of old-fartdom, I am not so averse to electronics as our old pal Jack Cowan, but I still find my stack-of-newsprint archive useful from time to time.

Today's paper, top headline, a story on VA care, something I care a lot about. I can read about the First Lady's pinched nerve, but our failure to follow up on our commitment to veterans seems to have vanished from the online paper.

I can't even logically follow an idealogical bias in the sorting of what does and does not make it online. There does not seem to be a consistent liberal/conservative break so much as sheer sloppiness. One consistency, I do see, about the time a comment thread gets really hot, our moderator seems to incline to pulling the whole topic rather than the offensive individual posts. As I have pointed out to folks on the S-T site, conchoinfo has rarely pulled any comment, those only for blatant libel, and otherwise, we are fully archived, every post, every comment, every retraction from day one is available, no pricey subscription necessary.

Moving on, I violated my own bumper sticker yesterday, the one that says "yes this is my pickup, no I will not help you move". At least the young lady was cute. Barring a late season miracle, Algore notwithstanding, we have seen our first summer without a single 100 degree day in somerthing like 40 years. Where's my global warming Al? Just kidding folks, unlike a lot of vocal people on the topic, I do know the difference between climate and weather.

In support of the notion that I do not always beef and moan, a well deserved kudo to the oft-maligned city. For those of us who were around for the '95 storm and who recall the piles of tree limbs and debris along what is now the Houston-Harte freeway, one of the better bits of serendipity to come of that, instead of filling our landfill with brush, we bought an industrial strength chipper and set up a huge composting site out on City Farm Rd. Instead of filling the dump, that recyclable moves from one end to the other of a well-designed mulch plant, and comes out as high grade topsoil.

By day's end, I hope to have a post on SAISD. Upon review, as the NFL refs say, I seem to have been a bit harsh, verging on paranoid, in my last post on that topic. We still have high hopes that a well designed bond comes forth that we can support. We really do have a better than average school system that really does need serious money. Go to the "Voices" program on the S-T site, the interview with Superintendent Bonds is worth a listen.

I now break to take advantage of our unglobally warmed day and mow the grass that has come up due to a blessedly wet summer. For all that I speak of improvements that could be made, I would not choose to live anywhere other than San Angelo.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Sixty Years: Time for a Raise

There are two reasons I supported a pay raise for City Council: it is the right thing to do, justifiable on the grounds of the real cost of being a Council member; and it just might give us a more representative Council.

The Charter Amendment on the ballot will provide a modest raise, ($500 per month Mayor, $300 per month for Council members) which will increase in step with the average San Angelo median wage, as given annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for our area. As a Charter Amendment, it means this level cannot be further tampered with by future Councils without a supporting vote of the electorate. In fine, no future Council can expand on this by a 4-3 vote. This point also goes to the objection I hear a lot: "They knew what the job paid when they ran, they should accept it or resign". This is not an ordinance. The Council is not, cannot be, unilaterally giving itself a raise, as this only happens if the voters approve it.

I hold it is the right thing to do because I know the costs of the job. Between Council meetings and other duties, a Council member spends a minimum of 20 hours a week in constituent services and preparing for the upcoming agenda. This is time away from the real income earning job, time away from family, other hobbies or leisure time. Current compensation is laughable, far less than minimum wage. Some hold the salary was set in 1915, one source thinks it might have been set as late as 1943, but in either case, most jobs have seen a pay raise in the last 60 years.

The increase in this Amendment is still under minimum wage, assuming the 20 hour/week estimate, and frankly, I lobbied for a more generous level. No workman at any task should be denied fair compensation. I have come to personally know a few Council members over the years, and I know my 20 hour a week estimate is usually conservative.

My second point, the benefit to the city of an expanded pool of potential Council candidates is very real. As things stand, only an individual with both time and money to skip out of work at need can realistically run for office. Though I think Council low-balled the figure even with the increase, it is possible that a good, well-informed working class representative might find the additional money just enough to run for and perform the job without beggaring his family. I think we can agree that in most cases, having a credible opponent improves the voters' position. An opponent, even without winning, can force an incumbent to respond on record to issues that might otherwise be ignored.

Former Standard-Times editor Jack Cowan made the comparison recently between elections in the 90's with a herd of candidates and our current tendency to incumbency by lack of opponent. Now I happen to think some of the "old boy network" noise is a bit overblown for a Council whose two oldest members are only in their fifth year. I happen to believe current Council is catching the heat for some decisions that predate them, just because the public actually felt the inconveniences during current Council's term. One of my all-time favorite Council members (not my district) ran without opposition last term. Regardless, I strongly believe future Councils will be improved if a lively opposition holds each candidate's feet to the fire of public debate.

In the context of the total city budget, the full package of Council pay raise proposed is less than a pimple in an eight figure budget. Whatever your opinion of today's Council, I know and well remember worse. If we reject this nod to minimal fairness, we might find ourselves, God forbid, with a Council that demonstrates the old saying, "You get what you pay for".

Monday, September 03, 2007

Police Under Pressure

As the only Charter Amendment sent to the voters without unanimous vote of City Council, one has to assume the measure providing for appointing the police chief rather than electing him is the most controversial item facing voters this November. It has been pointed out, by among others my (I hope still) friend Councilman Morrison that the issue has been voted on numerous times, most recently only just over two years ago. It was for just that reason the Charter Review Committee decided early on we would not bring this issue up of our own accord.

Then, late in our deliberations, representatives of both major officers associations came to us requesting the issue be put out again. By the end of our meetings, we had been presented with a petition signed by a majority of serving officers, top to bottom ranks, insisting that the quadrennial election resulted in inevitable factions, with officers feeling pressured to sign on to one or another electoral candidate. While the petition was not unanimous, I have yet to hear from a single officer, current candidates included, who prefers the current elected system for the long run.

Speaking personally here, when this was put on ballot last time, though I support the concept, I opposed that measure, said so before City Council. Honestly, it had been used as a parliamentary blocking manuever to prevent, by state law, any other Charter Amendment for two years, and its sponsors never gave it any support, having acheived their goal by putting it on the ballot. A few minor details had been left unattended to, for instance; who makes the appointment by what process. That has been addressed in the current Amendment package, City Manager will make the appontment, with advice and consent of Council.

My top priority in urging the change rests on an all too possible hypothetical, and I hasten to add, this is hypothetical, no reflection on Chief Vasquez or any current candidate for the job. Suppose in some future election we find we have elected an amiable campaigner, very good at the grip&grin and baby-kissing of an election, but lost at sea as an administrator. Worst case, we elect someone who turns out to be ethically challenged and embroils the whole Department in scandal and suspicion. Under our elected system, we are stuck so long as that person avoids a felony conviction.

Taking this scenario a step further, should we be faced with a scandal-plagued department, we may find ourselves wanting to bring in a leader from outside, someone with no prior connections to any suspect faction in the situation, a new broom as it were, to clean house. That would be unimaginably difficult, realistically impossible under an elected system.

I would hope that an appointed system would continue to promote from within whenever possible, there is normally an inherent advantage, especially in police work, to having a Chief who knows the city and the department well. Had it been possible, I would have insisted on language to that effect in the Charter Amendment, but the Charter is not the appropriate place for non-binding, advisory wordage.

We all hope the scenario I hypothesize never comes to pass, but even a casual reading of the news tells us it is something that does happen in the real world. Should it come to pass, the intentionally cumbersome process of Charter Amendment would preclude a timely response to a critical situation.

I contend the voters will still have a strong, if less direct effect on selection. Council members only serve two year terms, and selecting the Police Chief is likely to be right at the top of the list of important votes cast by a given member when that Councilperson comes up for re-election. I doubt a Council is likely to commit political suicide by approving a Manager's appointment of a Chief completely out of synch with the voters' wishes. Should such a selection actually come to pass, with staggered terms, the voters will never have to wait more than a year for the chance to throw half the rascals out and send a strong corrective message.

Police work is a demanding, stressful job and the people who perform this critical function deserve our support. Through our committee and subsequently through Council, our officers have come to the voters asking that this change be made to improve the environment in which they work. Picture if your workplace elected or even took part in electing the boss. Can you see the potential for divisiveness?

If one discounts the validity of the most recent plebicite, and I for one do, it has been a long time since this issue was last given a thorough airing, with both sides making their best case. Much has changed in that time, but I contend the most important change relevant to this issue is the clear request from the personnel on the "thin blue line" for some relief. We owe them at least our open-minded consideration of this Charter Amendment.