Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fieldhouse Followup

After my last post on the Fieldhouse, I received two responses from Board members calling me down for my characterization of the executive session of Nov. 10 as a "snout-counting". Upon review, as they say in the NFL, they are quite right, and I owe the Board an apology.

For one thing, I was venturing an unsubstantiated opinion as to "appearances". I had not then, nor do I have now, any actual knowledge of what transpired in that meeting. By putting my unsubstantiated opinion out there, I unfairly put the members in a position of being unable to defend themselves without breaking oath as to keeping executive sessions private.

Aside from my unprofessional and unfair characterization of the executive session, I would take back that whole section of last week's article if I could because it was really irrelevant to my primary point. What's done is done, all I can do at this point is offer my sincere apology, and I do. SAISD trustees serve without pay, they mostly show up prepared, to be sure, we have seen worse Boards than we have today.

That out of the way, back to the fieldhouse funding. To the extent the two responses addressed that point, they pointed out that the existing fieldhouse is in terrible shape, no disagreement there, it is in sad shape. Then both put forth the idea it was a valid investment in "economic development".

Here is the first point we diverge on. We have a few entities dedicated to economic development, Chamber of Commerce, COSADC half cent sales tax Corp., the hotel occupancy tax, as well as private groups representing restaurants and retail stores. ASU has a vested interest in both the fieldhouse and economic development in general, a healthy economy adds to the luster Rallo needs to attract a 10,000 student body. The interest of these bodies in contributing to the fieldhouse fund has been somewhere between zip and diddly.

Sports-related "economic development" schemes are finally coming under close scrutiny nationwide, and it ought to here. Grant the best assumptions, and I don't in this economy, who gets these travelers' dollars? Hotels, restaurants, retail stores, maybe the hawkers selling Cokes and snacks in the stands. We really want to build our economic future on the strength of jobs as retail clerks, waiters and hotel housekeepers? Nothing wrong with those jobs, I've done two of them, but solid investment in a strong local economy? It is to laugh. To be fair, neither correspondent made economic devlopment the primary reason to support this expenditure.

As one of my Board respondents reminded me, this private fundraising effort actually goes back four years rather than two. Timing was bad, it butted heads with the Library effort, and a lot of philanthropic money went to books instead. Unfortunate, but perhaps people with money rank books above athletics. Whodathunkit in West Texas, but there it is.

As far as I can determine, this $6.5 million fieldhouse is the largest single infrastructure project SAISD has funded outside a bond subject to voter approval in, at least recent history. I think it would be the largest such ever. Compared to the items on the bond we approved, only two elementary schools received more money, Goliad and Crockett, and they were near total renovations/new construction.

The members talking to me expressed a) the need for repairs; and b) had this fieldhouse been on the ballot, the bond as a whole would have failed. I agree with both points. Prop Two failed by less than 600 votes, and it is taken as given that the "competition gym" component sank it. It is possible that everything, collapsed into one bond might have squeaked by, but had we further burdened it with a fieldhouse, I don't believe voters would have gone that stretch.

I know, because I hear from them, voters feel this fieldhouse appropriation is "inappropriate", if not a betrayal of their "yes" vote on the bond.

I sympathize with the urge to do this project before costs escalate further, cost has already doubled in 4 years. That does not mean there is not something on the spectrum between total, first-class rebuild and flat make-the-plumbing-work short-term repair.

I know Jeff Bright scrambled to come up with the funding SAISD is proposing. I might even be talked into the notion that long-term, purely economically, this expenditure now is the better route. It would take some tall talking, but possible. I also know that as a political reality, the voters will see it as breaking faith with them this soon after a close bond election, and that breach of faith, long-term, will come back to bite us next time we go to the bond issue well.

The proposed fundraising efforts are laudable, borrowing some from the Library effort. I promise to support that with a personal check and my support. As I said last week, this fieldhouse funding got lost in the noise of the bond items. SAISD needs to make a better effort at persuasion of donors before they undercut the expressed will of the voters.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fieldhouse Follies

Last Monday the SAISD Board had another "workshop" session. Everyone, myself included, took a deep breath of relief that the major portion of the bond passed, and the sentiment seemed clear to move forward with it so as to use the money while it was still worth something. On that topic, thank you voters. I did not support the bond and the tax levy it required lightly. This was money the district needs.

Now that we have had a week to bask in success, I have one word to discomfit all: Fieldhouse!

We've all watched as the new library progressed from a vague idea to a reality at little cost to taxpayers. Grants, bequests, donations, this is going to become a reality with the only significant public "expense" being the gift of the building itself. In that the city had discovered it had no real use for it, that cost us nothing.

Now compare this to the Bobcat Stadium Fieldhouse. Granted, the existing facility is in need of repair, BUT...

We were told this could be accomplished with a relatively minor contribution from SAISD, matching grants, donations, etc. Then the donations fell short, SAISD ponied up some more money to get the matching grant. Then the cost inflated, but keeping the eye on the ball, SAISD decided to pick up a little more of the tab, all for a good cause, of course.

Now I confess, I was concentrating on the bond, some of this slipped by me. Cut to the chase, SAISD is on the verge of deciding to spend something on the order of $5-6 million on a fieldhouse.

We are being told this has huge potential for "economic development", a shiny new fieldhouse will bring in so many sports events we will be hard put to count the money. Folks, I am a football fan from hell, I love the game, but I learned long ago to cast a gimlet eye on public finance of sports stadiums. Much as I am a Cowboys fan, had I lived in the Metroplex, I'd have fought public finance of their new facility tooth and nail.

If this project is really going to bring in all this money, where are the people who will directly benefit? Assuming all this fever dream comes to pass, the direct beneficiaries would be hotels, restaurants and retail stores. The contribution from the hotel occupancy tax? ZERO! The contribution from local retailers? ZERO! The voluntary donations from local sports fans? Not quite, but close enough to zero as to make no difference. The interest shown by our local half cent sales tax development corporation, decidedly ZERO!

ASU, which also uses our high school stadium, is in way better shape financially than SAISD. They currently get use of the facility for $25k a year. By any standard, this is a sweetheart deal for ASU. Their contribution to the fieldhouse fund? Not to overuse a trite term, but, ZERO!

Folks, I was happy to spend my time and effort in support of the bond. Virtually all of that money will be spent on projects necessary to good education. Much as I love the game, in times when people are sweating the next paycheck, I don't really care if high school football is played by the lights of the fans' car headlights on a cow pasture. If the fans want better, send Stormy Kimry a check. That's what library "fans" did.

This whole sloppy exercise brings to light some glaring deficiencies in SAISD process. First we have this idea of every other meeting being a "pre-agenda" workshop. One result is that we only have one meeting a month that actually "counts". Seems SAISD believes only the "real" meetings have to be recorded for the public access channel. They are wrong, but Conchoinfo will attempt to correct that, and offer our record online.

Had last Monday's "workshop" been available, the early call for an "executive session" would be available to the public. Early on the agenda was the purchase of a property on Cottonwood adjacent to Central. Now mind you, I support the decision to buy it, this is a good property at a reasonable price. After a motion had been made to approve it {Wait a minute; I thought this was a "pre-agenda workshop", why is real business being effectively moved?} Trustee Archer requested an executive session. President Layman was reluctant, the owners were in attendance, we don't want to keep them waiting. Archer insisted; he agreed, the purchase was a done deal, but he wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page. A brief executive session was called.

The intent of the legislation allowing executive sessions for carefully defined puposes was to allow a gov't body private negotiation room before bringing a final deal up to a public vote. The executive session exception to open meetings rules was NOT to have a private snout-counting session and avoid the possible embarrassment of a rogue member actually dissenting.

I have seen this pursuit of unanimity more often than I am comfortable with. Something close to this, a requirement for a second before a Trustee could put an item on the agenda, led to Terry Bader's resignation. Where is it written that an overriding concern of a governing body should be unanimity? City Council manages to rock along with 5/2, even 4/3 decisions, they are still decisions. It is almost as if SAISD has adopted a circle-the-wagons, us against them attitude. Why I don't know. The voters may have turned down the last bond issue, but the last Board election was cancelled due to lack of opposition.

I hold that a governing body's motivation should be transparency of process. It is easier to get the voter's consent when they are convinced everything is open and above board. Editing recordings and casual resort to closed sessions is not the best path to voter trust.

This digression into process aside, we deserve a better rationale for an athletic expenditure of this amount than has been provided. This is a larger sum than most individual campuses will receive from the bond. "Bobcat Pride" can take a back seat to economic reality in my never-to-be-humble opinion. If our economic development prospects from this are all that rosy, go sell stock in it to those who will benefit from it, don't dump another load on the taxpayers.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Walking around town

San Angelo has been shaken awake recently. There have been two pedestrian fatalities. This caused the issue of sidewalks to be brought back before the City Council with little notice or citizen input. This issue had been very much overwhelmed by issues such as the storm water mandates, and hadn't been looked at much for almost 2 years. The council and staff are quite open about how this happened.

At the last council meeting, the staff brought the council some ideas on a sidewalk ordinance for new developments. The discussion went on about sidewalks, and old neighborhoods, and commercial districts, etc. until someone finally reminded them that the real issue here is not just sidewalks. This is about transportation and safety.

For years (pretty much since WWII), transportation has been reduced to motorized transportation. Cars, truck, trains and planes: That was the only transportation that mattered. We were in love with our cars. Mom and the kids would hop into the station wagon and drive the half block to the neighborhood store. Neighborhood stores vanished from many neighborhoods, and by the 90's, the mall, an island of stores in a sea of parking spaces, was the new hunting ground for the SUV and the family. Entire neighborhoods were built where the front door was only used to get the mail or for special occasions. People drove out of their privacy fence protected garages onto alleys that were only usable as extended driveways. Neighbors had to make an effort to see each other outside of their cars. This is far different than the neighborhoods of the early 1900's, when towns were laid out so that everyone could walk to work, and sidewalks were a luxury to keep mud off shoppers feet. Many towns had sidewalks before paved streets, at least down town, because foot traffic was the major form of transportation.

Times are changing again. People are becoming health conscious, and realize that riding everywhere contributes to obesity. They have realized that using the SUV for a quick trip to the convenience store wastes a lot of money when gas prices are as high as they were (and will be again.) People are starting to think that polluting less by driving less might not be such a bad idea. Many neighborhoods actually like it that their kids can walk to school. Just look at the results of the last 2 bond elections for confirmation. And some people are actually discovering that when they walk through their neighborhood, they have time to actually meet and talk to their neighbors. They get to participate in that friendliness that west Texas is famous for.

With all this new found interest in non-motorized transportation, problems are showing up in many areas of the city. San Angelo is not a very walkable city. Ideally, you should be able to walk from any place in the city to any other place in the city safely. Throw in public transportation (buses primarily) and you should be able to shop and conduct most business without a car, provided you have enough time. This is currently not the case. Not even close. Just for fun, try to get to the CVCOG office (just off loop 306) or the SAISD administration building by walking and using the bus. It can be done, but it won't be an excellent adventure.

We need a new approach to transportation and transportation planning that includes non-motorized, non-vehicular transportation as a major component. When a plan for a new development is submitted, it should account for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as cars and trash and emergency vehicles. That may mean sidewalks or pedestrian lanes, crosswalks, tunnels, overpasses, etc.. New development plans should show more than just how cars leave the area. They should show foot paths to schools, shopping, parks, churches, etc.. When neighborhoods are revitalized, all forms of traffic need to be addressed. We need sidewalks on some streets, such as 19th and 29th, but we also need a plan so people can safely walk to those sidewalks. Sounds like one of the first challenges for our traffic engineer once he is on board.

Let me make one thing clear: the city hasn't been ignoring this problem. They have done a fairly comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan in the SAMPO. It is a good starting point. The problem is that it is currently not part of regular, day to day transportation planning. That is one of the goals of the plan, but the reality is that we're not close yet. One only had to listen to the discussion at the last council meeting to see that. It is obvious that we haven't brought developers on board yet. The city has also a number of projects competing for limited engineering resources so when the storm water wheel squeaked, it got the priority.

Transportation in our city is changing. We must become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, or at least less dangerous and hostile. We need a plan that in addition to pedistrian districts, includes pedestrian feeders, connectors, and arteries, just like we have for motor vehicle traffic. We need an integrated plan where pedestrians are not an afterthought or footnote. Sidewalks will be a part of any pedestrian planning, but they are just a tool like crosswalks and signs and lanes, etc.. Pedestrian safety won't be achieved until from start to finish, pedestrians are as much a part of any transportation and traffic planning as automobiles.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Election Day's Daze

This Blog does not endorse candidates. That does not exclude commentary on the election process. It is already evident this election will break records for voter turnout. Before I get into anything else, kudos to Vona McKerley for getting the election office up to speed. It hasn't been that long ago this office was an international joke of how NOT to conduct an election, or God forbid, a recount. Karnak predicts that there will be a storm of ill-prepared voting districts nationwide next Tuesday and they will be part of the reason political junkies stay up all night, BUT... if anything, Tom Green County will stand out as having dealt with a record turnout well. We have already, more early voters than recent "hot" local elections had as total.

This is of interest to me because I will be one of the people processing voters this Tuesday. I have been doing this for 14 years, my precinct will have veteran workers, but elections are always short of help. The job does pay, but most clerks are taking a cut in pay to be there. Please understand this as you wait to vote, if there is a delay, one reason is your precinct workers are trying hard to make sure all qualified voters get to vote.

A couple of things to remember. The polls are open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. If you are in line at 7:00 PM but have not gotten in, by law, you will be allowed to vote, however long it takes your precinct to process your vote. You don't have to be signed in, you don't have to be in the door by 7:00 PM, if you are on premise and in line by closing time, you are allowed to vote.

If there is a problem with your registration, change of address, whatever, at worst you can insist on a provisional ballot. I confess, as a pollworker, this is a real pain, I've been fortunate not to have had many, but we will do them. It involves a still secret ballot and a conditional vote envelope, but if it turns out you were qualified, your vote will count.

Texas law allows one thing others might not. The first box one comes to is "straight party", ie all Democrat or all Republican, top to bottom. Should you incline mostly to one party, but you have one little exception, say for dog-catcher, you are allowed to mark that exception. All your other votes will go to the Party you prefer, but the exception will be counted.

This Blog is far more interested in honest elections than partisan advice. We have a very good process in place in Tom Green County, better than most.

One reform we support, but for future elections: Add one candidate to each office, to wit "None of the Above". The old saying about voting for the lesser of two evils, well, there is truth in that, and personally I've done it more often than I care to admit. None of the Above is for those 'lesser of two evils ' races where not even the clothespin on the nose works, both candidates stink at skunk level.

Should NOTA actually win due to voter disgust (and I would expect such wins to be rare), the jurisdiction for that office applies whatever rules would apply in the event of the death of an incumbent. A caretaker either assumes office or is appointed, pending a special election to fill the office None of the Above has just won. Optional provision I advise; in that event, none of the candidates having lost to NOTA is eligible to run again in the special election.

Just a stray pre-election thought. If we are lucky, most races will go definitively one way or the other next week. I've done two recounts, I could die a happy man if I never do another, it's a tedious pain in the a**. Based on the polling going on, I may not get this wish, but I am allowed to hope.

Final point: Texas is one of the states that allows convicted felons to vote AFTER they have "paid their debt to society". A felon has to have completed any term and any probation/parole imposed by the court, but once that is done said person is allowed the franchise. I helped a lady who served a short prison term many years ago register for this election. She is so excited, I told her about early vote, but no, that wouldn't do. She insists on coming to her precinct, on election day and casting her ballot. I'm sure some of you disagree, I've heard the arguement, but I have to believe reintegrating people into the "real world" helps rehabilitate those who care to be helped.

If you have not already voted, please, VOTE! I am not going to tell you (here) how to vote, just vote. My trade name of "barkeep" is real, I did that for a while. When a patron would get noisy about politics, my standard question was "Did you vote?" Often as not they hadn't for one or another shabby excuse, at which point I would tell them "Shut up then. Voting is your license to bitch, and you ain't got a license". Go out Tuesday and if nothing else, get your "License to Bitch".