Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Bonding" with the Community

As regular readers might recall, I was stridently opposed to last May's school bond, in point of fact, I registered as treasurer of an SPAC committee formed to defeat it. Then and now, I admitted that SAISD needs a bond issue, something in the range of $100-150 million for capital improvements. Where I and the voters, by nearly 2 to 1, fell out was where and how that sum would be spent.

At risk of dating myself, this bond is "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile". Some elements of it may sound familiar, but its direction is materially different from that which got thumped last May.

As to strategic direction, the last bond emphasized bulldozers, consolidation and new construction, both in primary and high school measures. For instance, last bond would have closed San Jacinto and Holiman, essentially sending every kid in north-east Angelo to an expanded Bradford campus. Crockett would have been moved from the Johnson St. site to one outside walking distance of its constituent students.

Prop One of this bond will dedicate $100 million to renovation/expansion and ADA compliance at 8 elementary campuses, $13 million at Lee Middle school, give Lakeview the $2 million "stolen" (we will return to this term later) from the fire insurance settlement, and do $40 million in overdue upgrades at the Central campus.

Let me say from jump street, I know several of the Facilities Committee members, I have respect for their effort, and I sincerely thank them for it. As me Irish forebears would say, the devil is in the details, and I fear the details might yet sink this new bond.

When the Facilities Committee put forth its original proposal, one of the first questions I heard was why a 1,200 square feet classroom was going to cost more than a new home twice that size. Asst. Superintendent Jeff Bright correctly pointed out that school construction is unavoidably more expensive than housing. That still leaves the voters mystified as to why one classroom at Reagan costs $375,000 while 4 classrooms at Goliad come in at $2.5 million, or about $520,000 each, a fine point that Mr Van Hoozer pointed out to Board before I could jump on it.

In fairness, the Committee took as a baseline the estimates of the Huckabee firm hired for the last bond. Those are not bad estimates at all, Huckabee was lusting after a $130 million contract, and had about 8.5 million reasons to be as thorough as possible. Unfortunately, in the construction business, estimates are just that, guesses. One can factor in inflation, but we might as well try to project the price of gas next January. If my notes are accurate, the Committee took the Huckabee numbers, factored in a 39% inflation and roughly went with that.

Unfortunately, this leaves them and SAISD looking silly on some particulars. I work for a dirt-work/paving business and without speaking out of turn, I imagine my boss would jump all over a $450,000 contract for a drop-off lane at Holiman and throw in the "additional parking" for all the driving students there for free.

There lies the "devil in the details". On the one hand, the Facilitory Advisory Committee Report of April 14 is still the actionable item. As an example, item 2, Bradford Elementary lists at $5,308,132. Are we sure that might not be $5, 308,136? Of course not, no figure past the first two digits is worth mentioning.

Now we come to Prop Two, the $30 million for a new big-block Central on the existing site. It would take the $39 million for Central upgrades in Prop One, add $30 million, and result in a spanking new Central. Mind that the notion of a three 4A high school plan was shot down because estimates for that ran close to $90 million according to Asst. Superintendent Jeff Bright, plus loss of economy of scale and life-cycle costs.

This is not as silly as it sounds. A new Central would preserve the main Gym and a really beautiful theater, not to mention a natatorium (swimming pool) that would cost $5 million to replace elsewhere.

School bonds in Texas are the capital improvement mechanism, and nearly 90% of them pass. The only one to fail in our area I know of lately is Abilene's last attempt, and it went down due to voters' suspicion a big chunk of the money was going to a sports complex rather than education.

The last successful bond here is nearly paid off, it passed because we trusted the SAISD board to use the money well. I was involved in that bond, and by and large, the money was spent well.

That is going to be THE key to passing this bond, trust. To get there, the Board will have to do some serious tinkering with the proposal before we get to ballot language. SAISD has done a lot towards correcting the maintenance downsizing of 2000, they ain't there yet, but they really are trying. As it stands, the bond proposal is saying "trust us, we will spend it well". The last bond election voters clearly said, "We don't trust you as far as we can throw you".

I have suggested to Board that they do some real polling; not the push-poll they did last May but some genuine sampling of public opinion. Every source I've seen advises polling as part of the bond design process. San Angelo is small enough that very little polling is done, and so we are sometimes surprised. In our most recent election for Police Chief, it was taken as a matter of faith that there would be a run-off, with Davis as the surviving contender. Surprise! In he context of a $130 million bond, $15K for a good poll is not irrational. It just might give us direction as to voter preferences.

The last thing we need is for a second bond to fail. On that, I agree with Dr. May, Superintendent Bonds and the SAISD Board. That said, I have serious problems with the bond as presented. For one thing, I am glad I have the original Facilities Committee Report in ink-on-dead-trees format, it takes quite an exercize to get it out of SAISD website. The justification for approval last Monday (sorry, I was in Midland) was to allow the Facilities Committee to form up in support, a good idea of itself. BUT, if we are serious about selling this bond, we need to be up-front and honest. The Bond should be a highly visible link on the SAISD homepage, not something it takes a computer geek a half day to find.

Now, back to the "stolen" term used in reference to Lakeview, you are going to need Lakeview voters to pass this bond. It is well remembered that the insurance money from the fire was $2 million more than was spent on the new campus. I will not argue here whether that was a justifiable decision; the fact the $2 million (pardon me, $2.085,000) in this proposal is supposed to "replace portables" argues for itself. Like it or not, the north/south electoral divide in Angelo is a reality this bond will have to deal with if it is to pass.

Board, Superintendent Bonds, Dr. May; I am honestly on your side. I know the district needs this much money and more. That said, spend some time talking to a used-car salesman. You are selling a product, (the bond) to a resistant buyer (voter) who has all too recently told you to pound sand. There is only one option available to you, the last resort of the used-car salesman as it were: tell the truth and convince the voter you are telling the truth. We must earn the voters' trust, we do not have it now.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A note on TIRZ

One of the most contentious issues at the last few City Council meetings was our Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone or TIRZ. Almost a half hour of public comment was devoted to problems with a decision on TIRZ at the last council meeting. We have been remiss in coverage of this issue, and hope to correct that starting now.

First off, what is a TIRZ? A TIRZ is an area where Tax Increment Financing or TIF can be used to attract development or redevelopment. I know, another acronym. Here is how it basically works. Say you have an area that needs some serious help, like our downtown and north Chadbourne areas. At one time they were thriving corridors of commerce. Now they have many run down and vacant buildings, and only a few thriving businesses are located there. TIF is a method of encouraging commercial development in such a zone. When you establish a TIRZ, you set a baseline for all the property values in that zone. Sometimes you do the same for sales taxes. Any property (and sometimes sales) taxes collected on that baseline go into the regular city budget. When property values and sales increase in the zone, a portion of that increase, an increment, is set aside in a special fund that can only be used for public improvements and infrastructure in that zone. This is to help guarantee that the tax growth in the targeted area is used to help that area instead of being siphoned away for projects in the high rent district. This encourages businesses to locate and invest in these areas because they know that as their property value and business increases, most of their extra tax money will go right back into the area they are investing in, which will help grow their business and investment. The TIRZ is overseen by a board that uses this extra tax money to establish programs that develop and diversify the economy of the zone, eliminate unemployment or underemployment in the zone, develop or expand transportation, business or commercial activity in the zone, make grants and loans, and stimulate business and commercial activity in the zone. Key component is that the benefit must be primarily for commercial development within the TIRZ zone.

San Angelo, after years of work, finally established a TIRZ. They could have established two TIRZ, but for reasons of politics and efficiency established a single zone with 2 halves, a north half and a south half. The fund would on paper be split into two funds, but the decisions for both halves would still be made by a single board. When the TIRZ and its board were approved, city council set down the condition that funds collected in each half would be spent in the half where they were collected. Everything was going fine until the April 15th council meeting. The TIRZ board forwarded a recommendation to the city council that $140,000 in TIRZ funds be used as matching funds for a grant for sidewalk and right of way improvements around the new library. This would have to come mostly from the north TIRZ fund because the south fund hadn't collected enough yet to cover the request. At that time, the council voted to send it back to the TIRZ board to consider borrowing the money from the north fund with some repayment plan as the south fund grew. At the May 6th meeting, the original proposal with no changes was resubmitted to the council. After some intense discussion, it was passed by a 4-3 vote. At the next meeting, on May 20th, the bulk of the public comments portion of the meeting was probably close to a dozen speakers, many from WTOS, calling the council to task for going back on a promise of how TIRZ would operate.

So why the controversy. During the discussions at the council meetings, it was stated that the library project was a once in a lifetime project that serves the entire community. It benefits both the north and south halve of the TIRZ, as well as the entire county. There are some problems with these arguments.

First off, this is not the only "once in a lifetime" project that will occur within the TIRZ as a whole. Prior to this another "once in a lifetime" project that will benefit both halves of the TIRZ and the entire community was given north fund money: the new transportation terminal that is going to be built soon just south of the loop on Chadbourne. There was never discussion of using south fund money for this project. It was in the north zone so the north paid for it. There are certain to be more "once in a lifetime" projects in the future. Should north fund be used to help remodel the City Auditorium/City Hall? That is far older than the current library we are moving from, and as a historic landmark improvements definitely qualify as "once in a lifetime." Where else? River walk? Convention center? Parks? The reality is that there are a large number of project that are "once in a lifetime" and "benefit the entire city", but that is not what TIRZ is supposed to do.

If you read the statutes and guidelines on TIRZ, they recognize that all TIRZ projects should benefit the entire community. They also explicitly state that any TIRZ funded project PRIMARILY benefits the TIRZ area. We split our fund in half so that south funds would primarily benefit the south, and the north funds primarily the north. TIRZ was not intended to fund projects just because they benefit the entire community. TIRZ is supposed to promote commercial growth and revitalization within the zone. Then the benefit to the whole community comes when the area is healthy and vital and no longer needs special treatment. That is the promise made to the community when you form a TIRZ. That was the promise the council made to the community when they split the TIRZ into two halves. At the May 20th meeting, a great many citizens said they thought the council broke that promise, and they don't want to see it happen again.

Most of this post I wish I had made after the April 15th meeting. Lots of excuses, but no good reasons. Will try to be more on top of issues like this in the future.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Free Speech: I've heard of that

Jim Ryan's recent BLOG article on the privacy SNAFU at the Standard Times covers the bases pretty well, but I think I need to add some of my own thoughts on this issue. This is about confidentiality and free speech.

Anonymous free speech has a very long connection with our country, going back to the pre-revolutionary days when anonymous pamphleteers risked everything to call for first tax resistance and then independence from England, the most powerful country in the world at the time. This tradition was carried further in debate on the constitution through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers - the 1700's version of the BLOG. Anonymous and confidential writing was essential to the abolitionist movement which helped end slavery. It has been found to be an essential part of free speech by the Supreme Court and deserving of diligent protection. When the Standard Times had the "privacy controls" reset, which exposed the identities of online posters to the world for a short time, they failed to provide that protection. Their explanation seems a bit simplistic and hollow.

The E.W. Scripps company lists 19 online newspapers. I visited most of them in the last couple days. All of them have a privacy policy essentially like this one, with only the name and/or web address of the paper being changed. In every one of them there is this key phrase: "We do not share personal identifying information with any third party without your permission." This is part of what all posters agreed to before they were allowed to post. This is the official privacy policy of every online newspaper that Scripps lists, not just the Standard Times. I regularly read and occasionally post to other Texas Scripps papers such as the Abilene Reporter News, the Wichita Falls Times Record News, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times. In no case do they display any personal information beyond the posters username. In some cases they are set up to where you can click on a poster, you will also get posting history for that username. Some of them have a way to contact a poster, but in that case they will forward the message for you, they don't display an email address or other personal information.

Like I said, I visited most of the Scripps online papers this weekend. In a few cases, commenting is not allowed. In every case where comments are allowed, no personal information beyond the user name is displayed. In some cases, a posting history is available, and in some a way of forwarding emails without providing email addresses is provided. In no case was personal identifying information revealed.

It is likely that they were trying to make the Standard Times look like this, and if you click on a username in a post you get something like this. That is much different the the detailed personal information that was reportedly presented to readers last week. That is not a slight reset of privacy controls, that is a major privacy breach. If it did happen across the Scripps line of papers it would have serious consequences. This is not some minor difference where the Standard Times is trying to keep data private that other papers make public. We are talking a wholesale breach of the privacy agreement that users are asked to trust to protect their anonymous speech online. That trust has been broken, and the response has not yet risen to the level needed. As noted in Jim Ryan's recent article, at least one of the remedies tried so far has been less than useless.

Free speech in San Angelo took a serious blow. It is likely some peoples livelihood and jobs will be affected. It is suspicious that the only usernames being mentioned are involved in the chief's campaign, when the damaging information was available on all issues. This includes contentious school issues and the FLDS allegations. Did this put some teachers jobs at risk? Did this affect the ongoing CPS or criminal investigations? We might never know.

My advice for people posting comments on the Standard Times is to either identify yourself, like Jim Ryan and I have and then post carefully, or get a throwaway Email address from Yahoo or Google or AOL, and register with fictitious information. It looks like it will take the Standard Times a while to figure out the whole internet and privacy thing. Protect your own freedom of speech. The First amendment isn't just to protect reporters and columnists. It is also supposed to protect anonymous writers no matter if they are an average Joe or even a political candidate.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Privacy; Not So Much

I quote here from the Standard-Times Privacy agreement offered to all posters on the gosanangelo online site, "III. We do not share personal information with any third party without your permission".

There is much more than that, but the rest is legalese ruffles and flourish, that sentence captures the promise the newspaper made to posters. That promise has been broken and the newspaper's reaction to the situation has been late and negligent at best. The print edition article in Sunday, May 4 edition is the first print acknowledgement the problem existed, and it was not only inadequate, it served to compound the error.

For those who do not follow the online version, a little background. The online edition has a feature that allows posters to register under a screen name and comment on articles or editorials in an ongoing forum. It has been a lively, close-to-real-time open comments back and forth, for the most part lightly moderated. Comments are subject to being removed for libel, obcenity, cuss words and such, many such comments have been pulled. A few posters have been outright banned for repetitive violations. In my case, the anonymity was never an item, I self-identified during the Charter Amendments debates as "barkeep". I posted often and enjoyed the free exchange beyond what deadlines and ink-on-dead-trees could possibly provide.

On April 25, I was told that lists of posters' real names were being bandied about in the Police Dept. and that officers who had posted for or against certain candidates were in fear of reprisal. Frankly, I knew that several officers from various candidates' camps had been posting under screen names, but I simply did not credit that the Standard-Times would give out a list, I blew it off as overly paranoid. That weekend, I heard from several sources the same story. Depending on which candidate a source supported, these people had varying ideas as to who had engineered this opening of user profiles, but the basic facts were congruent and stand without resort to conspiracy theories.

A change was made to the content management system that allowed, for about a day, any viewer, from any internet connected screen, to click on a screen name and get the registering user profile (real name, for those who didn't bother to lie when they registered) and complete posting history for that user. While my informants were concerned with Police Department posters, it worked for any poster, any topic, full history. One person expressed concern for teachers' privacy over a performance review topic that had been hot a few months ago. I wondered aloud had anyone bothered to check on true names of some of the FLDS posters. To be sure, blame notwithstanding, this leak was common knowledge by 4/24 PM. Personal note: by the time I heard of this, the barn door had been closed, I do not have the list so many people obviously do have.

Seeing nothing in the paper, I forwarded a heads up to Ty Meighan, along with some speculation, labelled as such, on Monday, 4/28, later acknowledged by e-mail. Late Wednesday, one WhiteHorseman "outed" 9 screen names, obviously taken from this leak. 1:15 AM 4/30, I posted as barkeep and made explicit for those who had not yet heard that which I outlined in the preceeding paragraph. This set off a flurry of "I know who you are; nyah, nyah, no you don't I lied" yadayada that continues to this day.

Finally, today, Sunday May 4, the Standard-Times publishes a story letting the rest of the world know that the privacy promised to posters had been breached 10 days before. As if the delay were not bad enough, the story in which this revelation is finally stated compounds the original breach. During that interim, nearly every correspondent to the online version has become aware the loss of privacy occured, but as in my case, not all of them had access to the full list. Readers of the ink-on-dead-trees paper were likely unaware this leak happened.

In the same edition where the Standard-Times endorses Tim Vasquez for re-election, the article announcing this violation of their privacy agreement leads off by blowing the apparent screen name of Vasquez' widely accepted as nearest contender, Jeff Davis. While not specifically naming them, the article goes on to say "At least four members of the officers' meet-and-confer team also have names attatched to comments...The city and its attorneys aren't likely to forget that when negotiations resume in the fall, and the ramifications go beyond that-the City Council could decide not to negotiate." Leave aside whether this effectively outs the meet-and-confer team, on what basis does the S-T allege the Council even can, let alone is likely to, refuse to negotiate? What part of meet and confer statute allows the city to unilaterally refuse to talk to the officers' duly elected representatives on the grounds of "we don't like what you said last spring"?

It appears Davis did handle this poorly, but, so long as The Standard-Times is "outing" posters, why not supporters of other candidates? I am unaware of any screen name directly tied to any other candidate specifically, but I have been keeping up with this race, and have probably read most of them. I can tell you this; advocates for, if not the actual candidates have played the "I know who you are" game and some made comments rude enough to rate removal. While I do not endorse, just to be honest, in the heat of this I had a first-time removal; after a poster wished I had been aborted, I responded with someting rude enough to get (justifiably) removed.

Critical to understanding this issue, for those not using the online forum, is the meaning of "user profile" the actual information revealed. When a poster registers, the one verifiable field is the e-mail address. Should one care to, one can fill in name as Mickey Mouse, address Disneyworld. At least one poster was revealed to be using three screen names, different e-mail links for each. The information that was revealed consisted of these self-proclaimed user profiles. Some people gave aliases there as a second layer of identity protection, in retrospect, not unreasonably. Those immediately revealed were those who were most trusting in the privacy agreement and didn't bother to lie, or the few, such as myself, who didn't care. I went with "barkeep" because I have used it for many years on many other forums, not for concealment.

I have sworn to protect confidential statements, not necessarily to believe everything I am told, but if I tell someone I will not say where this came from, I won't. People from different camps talk to me, and I stress here, candidate advocates, no candidate personally does. I have not and will not endorse a candidate, and I try to weigh the bias of sources who talk to me. That clear, there is a huge misunderstanding about this breach of the privacy agreement. I hear from different sides "so&so outed me, everybody knows so&so is a mouthpiece for Candidate X".

Please people, the party responsible for revealing user profiles, to the extent they are true names, that party is the Standard-Times. This person or that may have taken advantage of that information in ways I would find ethically questionable, but they could never have done so had the Standard-Times not made the information available in contravention of an explicitly stated privacy agreement.

That said we move to the handling of this breach by the Standard-Times. I think in legalistic terms, my Blog partner Mr. Turner thinks in computer geek terms, I came up with "negligent", he prefers "incompetence". I only diferrentiate because negligent has legal implications in tort law that incompetent doesn't necessarily encompass.

The explanation offered in today's Standard-Times article states this was, "not a hack into the Standard-Times' site by supporters of a certain candidate, as conspiracy-minded commenters have suggested". I may have missed a comment here or there, but no one I've talked to thought this was an outside hack. By accident or no, there are people who find it remarkably coincidental that this "open door" was coincidentally tripped over by people willing to take advantage of it. I won't say that didn't happen, but I'm a fairly successful gambler and I didn't get there drawing to inside straights.

The genesis of this information leak had to be in-house, and today's article says as much. To be perfectly clear, I do not mean, necessarily, in house as to the confines of the Standard-Times Harris St. building, but corporate in-house. After that, the explanation gets thin real quick. The mistake is attributed to "new employees in Knoxville" who were in a weekly process which "reset privacy controls for newspapers across the chain, not realizing the Standard-Times wanted to keep profile data away from the public". Excuse me, but which Scripps Howard newspapers DO intend to make user profile information public? Last time I looked in on the Abilene Reporter News, they didn't. Did they last Thursday? Scripps Howard has, I believe, 19 newspapers, not all have online comments, but those which do, have identical privacy agreements.

Why did the Standard-Times wait 10 days after they say their people were advised of this breach to make a public statement alerting users it had happened? If the reader is unfamiliar with the online edition and the comments section, it has been an open free-for-all with commenters from every side calling out their opposition advocates since WhiteHorseman ID'd 9 posters April 29th. Don't bother to look for WhiteHorseman's original posts that evening, they have vanished. In fine point of fact, their reporter inquired of me had I happened to print out those comments, he could not access them. As it happens, I had, I may have the only existing copy of those comments as they originally appeared. Don't even ask which rock that is buried under.

The article states that their online director Betty Brackin "is working individually with those wishing to reclaim their anonymity". Maybe so, but even that help is limited to those posters who are already aware they were outed and ask for help. For all anyone knows, posters on say the teacher evaluation subject may not have checked in lately, may have been utterly unaware that their personal information and comment history is open to any inquiring mind who knew about this "window of opportunity". This should have been as public as an automobile safety recall. In truth, I have been too patient. The Standard-Times article Sunday says they were aware of this Friday, April 25. Give some allowance for getting the full story, the Standard-Times should have had an alert in print sometime that weekend, before I sent them my heads-up letter.

That aside, how well has their remedy worked? One case I have tripped over, a poster did ask Ms. Brackin for help. Sho' nuff, poster X was given a new screen name, and the old posts were removed. Unfortunately, when I went back to posts put up a week before the leak, I see this: The post by X in support of candidate Y was removed; two responses to that post are still there, only now they read "response to (new screen name X)" then in the body of the text response, the old screen name is used. In short, this poster has been retroactively "outed" a second time, backdated to a week before the original leak happened!

Make no mistake; I appreciate the Standard-Times, in this case I have often complimented the reporter who wrote the story I have objections to. I enjoy the online trading of opinion. In this case, the story, the revelation of identity, the remedy for it and the explanation of it has been poorly done. It cannot escape attention that in the same edition where the paper's endorsement of incumbent Chief Vasquez includes this: "the incident eventually led to a Texas Ranger investigation after Vasquez disclosed to the Standard-Times that the woman was an informant for SAPD Sgt. Jeff Davis. Revealing such information is a felony...", the Standard-Times compounds its own violation of confidentiality by disclosing the identity of Vasquez' most threatening opponent to print edition readers who may have been completely unaware of this tempest. I have my own copy of the "AP Stylebook" 2007 edition and its guidelines to confidential sources. If ya'll need one Hastings has them in stock. I gave you the Palmer file for free, this you can buy.