Saturday, May 30, 2009

Great Scott!

I risk going a bit astray from our local emphasis, but I think this matters locally.

Three stories I caught over the last couple days: Rick Scott; Dave and Mary Jones; and Liberty University. The common thread to my ear is; is this what the First Amendment has come to?

A little background on each. Liberty University is the Jerry Falwell founded institution of higher learning, privately owned and funded. They recently told the on campus "Young Democrats Club" they could no longer use school facilities for meetings. Now don't ask me why a Young Democrat would opt for a University that will teach them early man rode saddled dinosaurs. Point is, is the point of higher education to broaden the mind or to propagandize it? OK, private facility, if one is silly enough to enroll, one gets what they hand out. Keep toilet paper and handwipes handy.

The Jones case, far more troubling. Orange County tried to prevent them from holding Bible study sessions, about 15 people a session, in their home, seems they had not applied for a "major use permit". This bit of nonsense might have passed with little notice except the County had not come down on Tupperware parties, poker parties, or gatherings to watch sports events. It was especially surprising since San Diego is the most reliably conservative enclave in California. The County has backed down, issuing only a "warning" to the Jones household.

Now to Rick Scott. Scott is a paid lobbyist for groups who oppose nationalizing health care. I take no position on that issue here. I had barely heard of the man until yesterday. Seems the people behind him came up with the money to buy a 30 minute "infomercial" following NBCs Meet the Press program this Sunday.

Being the resident political junkie, I am one of maybe 2.5 million viewers of the Sunday morning news shows, most of you go to church or sleep in or go fishing.

No matter, the opposition is feeling its Wheaties, and coming out strong. The Daily Kos (read George Soros), and the Service Employees International Union are lobbying to have NBC pull the airtime, and threatening that the FCC will sanction the network if they don't pull it!

The justification is that Scott "has a record of deceit". I don't know, maybe he does. The very notion that a paid loobyist would "spin" an issue shocks me to my socks. And the people selling magic fat-burners and herbal Viagra don't? If you have the wit to read this, you probably react to infommercials the way I do; changing the channel. Jeez, I've only got 250 of them now.

My point is concern for the First Amendment. I truly don't care what a person is saying or selling, if we are to have a "marketplace of ideas" it has to allow all ideas access. If David Duke can pony up the money, let him spend it. I'll change the channel.

Friends, Freedom of Speech does not equal freedom of access. If you are out in the wings, you are free to stand on a soapbox on public property and pontificate (within normal hours of business of course. Try it at 2:00AM on my block, if you're lucky I'll call a cop). You are not free to make anyone passing by slow down and listen. The other side of this is, if you don't like what the man on the soapbaox is selling, you are free to walk on by, but you can't call the FCC (or County, or Virginia) cops to shut him up because you don't like the message.

This is a thorny issue that has engaged better minds than mine for two centuries. John Adams helped craft the First Amendment and then used the "Alien and Sedition" acts to toss dissenting publishers in jail during his Presidency. The Supreme Court of that day quite properly spanked him and released Peter Zengler and other bothersome noisy people.

I stir the pot from time to time, sort of a hobby of mine. I would hate to see the day that my point of view could be ruled to be "deceptive" by some bureaucrat and banned from distribution.

National Flood Insurance: a National Disaster

{This posting was published in the San Angelo Standard-Times Thursday, May 28. It was written some time before, but the S-T has first publication rights.}

Have you noticed that every hurricane/flood season sets new records for property damage? No, it is not due to global warming and stronger storms, nor are the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers rising higher than anticipated. The inevitable Law of Unintended Consequences has come home to roost. I recall Biblical advice that one should not “build thy house on shifting sand”. We now encourage and insure people to pursue precisely that activity at our neighbors' expense.

When I was a sprout living in east Carolina, the Outer Banks was a cheap&easy vacation. Surf casting
for flounder, the Wright Bros. Tower at Kitty Hawk, shell hunting at dawn, for a twelve-year old kid, it was heaven on earth. A few houses on stilts on the beach, but not many. Beachfront building was a toy for the wealthy, they built at their own risk

Mother Nature has no pity, she favors neither rich, poor, or ethnic concerns, the wind blows where it will and the rain falls where it does. I place in play the idea that the primary cause of ever- increasing property damage is the National Flood Insurance Program itself.

I go to a 2005 Congressional Research Service study. It runs 45 pages I will try to render readable. The CRS paper uses the term “actuarial” several times but then guts the word of anything meaningful. Page 14, “there is no individual risk analysis to determine the likelihood of a future loss, and individual loss experience is not used as a rating criterion. The sole criterion is that the insured property is located in a community that participates in NFIP”. If that bureaucratese escapes you, try this hypothetical from a car insurance company; “We will cheerfully insure a repeat DWI offender at the same rate as a person with a perfect driving record, so long as the state mandates all drivers be in the insurance pool”. I don't think we will hear that from the GEICO gekko anytime soon.

Under the original language from 1968, amended 4 times since, NFIP is authorized to borrow from the Treasury $1.5 Billion each year, but must repay that with interest. NFIP has lost money every year since its creation, that's why we keep amending it. NFIP does repay with interest, I've checked the financials. So the question arises, how can they do that when they routinely pay out more in losses than they take in as premiums?

Not a problem. Unlike free market insurers who have to attract customers of their free will, NFIP is legally empowered to tell you that you are a customer by designating your property as a “flood zone”. By roping in mandated “customers”, NFIP forces homeowners who haven't see flood water since Noah cruised by to contribute to the risk pool whether they are at any real risk or not.

Go to the city website, this is top of the home page. There are a multitude of maps, very confusing, but I commend to your attention the map 340. NFIP claims it uses hydrologic, and elevation based data to draw its lines. On map 340, one sees a line running along Cauley Ln to Grape Creek Rd, then angling 45 degrees northeast towards FM 2105. Just to be sure, I cruised that area this weekend. There is not a 10 foot high berm on the south side of Cauley, no elevation difference, no rational distinction between the northside homeowner and the one on the south side of the street except; NFIP wants income from the north side. I guess they are saving the southside for later.

I must emphasize, a genuine hydrologic map will have the same curving contours as any topographic map. If you see a straight line, such as Cauley Ln. or a county line, unless there is a man-made dam under that line, somebody is blowing smoke up your skirt.

The CRS study I mentioned addresses Repetitive Loss Problem. NFIP has 4.5 million policy payers. RLPs, people who really live in God's honest flood plains are 17% of policy holders. They account for over 30% of payouts. A real insurance company would have booted out a lot of RLPs, maybe suggested they should rebuild elsewhere on higher ground. Under the Substantial Damage rule of NFIP, theRLP property owner is not even required to upgrade to local code compliance unless the payout is over 50% of the property value We subsidize propertries that have been rebuilt four and five times on the same vulnerable site! Why should they learn from mistakes, we write the checks.

Insurance, properly run, performs two functions. The one we are all familiar with is pooling risk and paying claims when unfortunate events impact us. The second, equally important function is actuarially based risk avoidance. Go back to my early days on the Outer Banks.

If you had the money and wanted to build a house-on-stilts on the beach, fine it's a free world. No one is going to underwrite the mortgage without insuring the collateral, and since you are building where devastating storms can be anticipated every 15-20 years, no rational insurer will write you a policy for much less than the cost of the insured property. People with money to spare did build anyway, but they did so at their own risk, and took the loss when the inevitable hurricane came through.There were a lot fewer houses-on-stilts, today it's wall to wall, houses waiting to be knocked down by the next storm and paid for by me and thee.

Under the tender rules of NFIP, people can get insurance, subsidized by the premiums paid by the folk on Cauley Ln. who have virtually zero risk of damage. The Outer Banks, or Texas' own barrier islands, or river front property on the banks of the mighty Mississip are built up beyond anything rational because idiots can get insurance we help pay for to cover their foreseeable, inevitable losses.

Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do locally except pay up. I haven't heard our Congresscritter Conaway say anything on this topic. There is a “public comment” window, but given the history, I doubt it will accomplish much save “venting”. Thanks for allowing me to “vent”.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Selecting the next Mayor

The City Council held a special meeting today to discuss how to select a replacement for JW Lown who resigned unexpectedly last week. The city charter is clear and direct on the procedure we must go through to select his replacement. Add in the State constitution and election law, we are left with a two step process. First, the council is supposed to try to pick an replacement unanimously. If they can't do that within 30 days (which ends June 19th,) they are to call a special election. Recent changes to election law limit us to the next available regular election date, November 3rd, unless there is an emergency need or some other special circumstance applies, which seems unlikely at this time. Some council members seem to feel that no mayor appointed by the city council will be acceptable and we should immediately start planning for the November election.

We will be discussing this issue in more detail such as how our local problem compares to such situations as replacing a president who can no longer serve (we have done it 9 times so far) or what provisions other city make for this situation in later articles. For now I have a poll up on the side to get some feedback from you our readers. Please take a minute and let us know how you would prefer to have the next mayor selected. I will be ending this poll just before the City Council meeting on June 12th, and hope to bring them some good feedback based on the results and your comments. I have been having some problems with spam and trolls so all comments will be more tightly moderated, but unless the violate our rules to keep on topic, no advertising, and no personal or ad-hominum attacks they will make it up here as quickly as they can be cleared. Your comments are valued. Please be patient.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thoughts on JW and the city

This one of the most difficult stories I've ever written for ConchoInfo. In reality it is two stories. My friend J.W. Lown is at the center of both.

One story is about successful young politician. His win in his first run for mayor was a surprise to many people, especially his opponents. He ran on a platform of being a "full time mayor" and was probably the most active mayor anyone can remember. He was on the road to a long and successful political career when life intervened in the form of love. He had to make some hard decisions. He could have just walked away, accepted politics as his true love but he didn't. He could have also done what many politicians have done and tried to hide it. Instead he chose a path that is almost Shakespearean. He was honest with the public and did the honorable thing and resigned. Given the circumstances, I am not surprised by his decision. Still, his timing was terrible and the results will be felt for years.

This brings us to the second story. The story of a mayor that was at the forefront of the change from business as usual at city hall. He started his career as mayor wanting to make the office stronge than that of just another council member. He never succeeded in making the position stronger on paper. Instead, he showed that being the only city wide elected council member and being in charge and control of the city council meetings, when coupled with energy, ideas and leadership skills was all that was needed to be a strong mayor. He treated the mayors office as the active leadership position it truly is.

I am disappointed that this happened. It was an unwelcome surprise. On the one hand, relationships that heat up to the point of making major life altering decisions in a very short time tend to burn out very fast. They often play out like a Shakespearean tragedy. I hope that doesn't happen to J.W.. On the other hand, the city of San Angelo is left in a heck of a predicament. With the current council, I doubt we are in much danger of going back to the days of business as usual. Still, we need a mayor that will be in the lead, and not be just another council member and figurehead. There is a lot of work to be done, and we do need a full, effective council.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Scattershot

Well, another long election day come and gone. On the SMD 4 race, congratulations really, to both candidates. Mr. Adams prevailed by 18 votes out of nearly 500. A close race, well conducted, no negatives or ad hominem employed. As I stated after my interview, Conchoinfo does not endorse, but in this case, I thought SMD 4 would be well represented by either candidate. I look forward to Mr. Adams' representation and I hope Mr. Bart continues to be politically involved.

My usual polling place being folded in to pct 144, our crew was placed elsewhere. The new system worked well beyond my expectations. Outside of a few details in start-up, this was the easiest process I have dealt with since I started doing this. Once we got the hang of it, the VoteSafe system is the most user-friendly I have ever dealt with. I hope it was as trouble free from the voters' side of the table. If there is anything good to be said of a light turnout, this happened to be an ideal election for the introduction of a new system. Come next election, we've got it cold. Thanks Vona, Rudi, everybody at elections, you made our jobs easier.

In a stunning upset, Mayor Lown retained his position. OK, I get to have fun too. I have to say, I will be disappointed if we do not see young Mr. Bryan, and his teacher Lars Nyberg, again. Mr. Bryan still has time to make the record for youngest Mayor, and shows promise. Buena suerte, both of you.

It may not be a "hot" issue, but those of us who wake up to, and drive home on KUTX, the Angelo rebroadcast of KUT National Public Radio, are justifiably worried about the likely shift to KOHM, the Lubbock and Texas Tech affiliate. It would seem natural for the ASU station to follow the affiliation with Tech, BUT...

Are we going to see the same programming? Much of what we hear on KUT will be on KHOM, but I do not see "CarTalk" or "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me". So far, no one has asked us, you know, the local listeners what we think of the change. Is there room in this deal to dicker for a locally produced, ASU originated, local affairs program? Talk about a great chance for ASU students to get their "feet wet"; a local, forgiving audience, with real time at the board or behind the mike. Been there done that in acting, all the classroom in the world doesn't mean beans until you've been "onstage". I hope someone in this process bothers to inquire as to local sentiment, but given Rallo's concern as to street closings, I'm not counting on it.

I have recently viewed a "San Angelo" DVD put out by Mayor Lown and others. I commend it to your attention. It's good, it's short enough to be used in an economic development presentation, hits the high points and makes the city look as good as I believe it to be. OK, JW Lown is in every other shot, BUT, a) he is the Mayor; and b)he paid for it. If you haven't seen it, it is available at .
No kidding, it is a good production.

Now for the weekly quibble. Surely you didn't think I would get through a Sunday ramble without beefing about something!

San Angelo Standard-Times, Friday May 8: interview with candidates Adams and Bart.
Question 4 "Which should take precedent if these conflict; the opinion of your district's constituents, or what you feel is in the best interests of the city as a whole?"

Adams: "I represent the people, and am accountable to them".

Bart: "That question is easy. If you are an elected official, the will of the people takes precedence; they got you there. You are a representative of that body, not the leader".

I genuinely respected both candidates, not my precinct, but the snout-counting is done, I can speak freely.

This country, this "Miracle of Philadelphia", as recorded by Catherine Bower, did not come to "pure democracy". We have a representative republic. We do not sit as Athenians did and vote on every jot and tittle of local law, we elect (we hope) persons who will exercize good judgement on the myriad items on Council agenda, while we go about our daily lives.

Mr. Bart; if you are not the "leader" how exactly do you know the temper of your electorate on a paticular item on agenda? Have you done polling, have you had a privately funded election? Of course not. If you are going by the phone calls you get, that is a seriously skewed self-selecting poll with the winners/losers WAY overloading the true majority, whose opinion you are at best guessing at. It might accidentally represent the true value of your constituents, or more likely, represent the opinions of those with a, pardon the gig, "Dog in the hunt".

I have heard this "I defer to the wishes of my people" line all my voting life. Makes a good sound-bite, but it's physically impossible.

Hypothetical: Six months from election, a whole new issue comes up, very urgent, a lot of quick study just to get the details of the issue. Maybe a sewer main collapse or Sherwood Way falls into a sinkhole, whatever. Are you going to study the issue in its intricacies or ask the opinion of an electorate which may or may not even know it's out there? If you are unwilling to be the "leader", you should not run to be one.

On this point, Mr Adams was correct; "I represent the people, and am accountable to them". By that standard, he will use his judgement, one hopes accepting advice, for two years, and if we are dissatisfied, we get to vote him out in 24 months, that is the "accountable to them" part.

Almost forgot, happy Mother's Day. Mother's Day was formally estabilished by President Woodrow Wilson as a national holiday, possibly the most succssful item of his "I will keep us out of War" legacy. He also established the Federal Reserve System, the League of Nations, and the Federal Trade Commission. Were that my "legacy", I'd be proud of Mother's Day and hope the audience had forgotten the rest.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Another Sunday Ramble

First, let's all be grateful for the recent rains. It did force me to an additional lawn mowing today, but always be ready for serendipity. As I was working the alley behind my house, I actually scared up a Horned Toad! Fully mature, about 3 inches long by half that across, scooted a few feet and paused, giving me a clear look at it. I make a point of not poisoning red ant beds. I have always been fond of horny toads, so I leave their prey alone. I hope the presence of the one I saw today indicates a mate and breeding pair. No, I did not pick it up, let alone try to sex it, (frankly, not real sure how one would do that) but finding the critters in town is becoming rare.

On to less happy news, if you are feeling some discomfort in the nether regions, it could be that you are discovering that your credit card company is raping you with your pants on. Some of the "too-big-to-fail" financial institutions on the receving end of Billions of our money are expressing their undying gratitude for this taxpayer largesse by taking accounts (such as mine) and moving us into what used to be default interest rates. In my case, Chase bought out WAMU; I've never been late, consistently pay well above minimum, but I just got bumped to nearly 30% on balance. The reason: because they can; and Congress has let them know reform is 2010! In other words; get it while you can. The recent Presidential dressing-down of these economic pirates amounted to...a photo-op. Sound and fury signifying nothing, as a long dead scribbler from Stratford-on-Avon put it.

Take a closer look at your card statements. Not all of them are as opportunistic as Chase. I have been aggressively paying down debt; new job, I've halved my overall debt in 6 months, I should be paid up this time next year, but I am fortunate.

If you noticed, the city recently corrected an oversight on the new-style utility bill and went to 21 day billing. In short, if you are on two-week payroll cycle, you will not get a utility bill due before you get another paycheck. Some of the card companies are intentionally going to a 14 day cycle, it catches bill-payers between paychecks and generates additional late fees and another chance to bump those interest rates into usurious range. Or force debtors into payroll/car title short-term loans at up to 350% APR, and guess who owns those store-front companies?

Why one might ask, in a high unemployment economy, would the card companies make it harder for debtors to pay? Well, gee, credit cards are one of the few high profit ends of the financial business. I wouldn't care to be bundling sub-prime mortgages for resale as a living right now, let alone credit/default swaps. If you are able to pay (my circumstance) they are making tons of money on us. If you can't, they get to write off debt in about the only profitable line of trade going, and so sorry we had to wreck your credit score in the process, not that we really give a hoot about you anyway, but thanks for the Billions.

OK, that wasn't really local news, it's not something City Council can deal with, but this affects enough local people I thought it worth mentioning. I note for the record that neither national Party seems to be in nearly so big a sweat to protect US as they both were to fling our tax dollars at the companies that are raping us.

Back to local: we have an election next Saturday. Unless one is registered in SMD Council district 4, the election itself will not be as interesting as some of the process changes. SMD4 has two candidates seeking the seat now held by retiring member Emilio Perez-Martinez. It is not my district, I don't have a horse in this race, as I have said before, either candidate will be a good addition to Council.

I have worked polls since '92. I have seen the new system, and I have to say, Bravo! Instead of the old "Combination form" you the voter had to sign (upside down), the new style is computerized and will print out labels as we process you in. When I say computerized, no I don't mean you will have to vote electronic, you want a paper ballot, it will be available, I just mean the intake procedure. Also, on early voting we now have sites in each precinct, not just Edd Keyes Bldg. AND any voter in whatever precinct can vote at whichever is most convenient for them. We were not required to do this until we hit 120,000 by census, but we are not only ahead of the legal requirement, we are ahead of the rest of the state in the vote-anywhere part.

Right now, on election day, one will have to be at the correct precinct. I can say, we are looking at systems that will allow any registered voter to vote at any site on election day. That is doable now on the tech side, it would require substantial funding and training, but it can be done, if we want it done and are willing to pay for it

Now I get to swine/H1N1/Mexican flu. Unlike the H5N1 bird flu that was going to kill us all 18 months ago, this is a very real human to human virus. CDC is showing that it is still highly communicable, new cases coming in daily, but as new reports come in, the mortality rate is, if anything, lower than the normal spectrum of influenza. Remember, influenza and related infections regularly kill 36,000 Americans annually, a pretty steady number over the last three decades.

There are a lot of things we don't know yet. Why was the mortality higher in Mexico? First generation cases here, the private school in NYC, 28 initial cases, straight out of Cancun, it spead like wildfire in the school, very infectious, but no one even needed hospitalization, let alone critical care. I have advised in the past, be prepared to "turtle-up", or quarantine yourself and live on canned goods/no outside contact for a month or so if needed. San Angelo seems to have gotten away unscathed, hope that continues. On this one, the media has over-reacted moreso than the gov't. Sensible precautions are in order, but "head-for-the-hills-Justine" appears to be a bit premature.

Congratulations to the Standard-Times on the 125th anniversary. Good supplement today. It brought to mind something I have noticed over the years; anytime I have gone to the library records of a paper, any paper, in the process, I always trip over something more interesting than the topic I started looking for. Just for one, see the May 28, 1923 copy of S-T: Obviosly the big story was Santa Rita, the start of West Texas oil. BUT; bottom left, "Nebraska Now Has Eugenics Marriage Measure in Effect"; or column 5 bottom of the page; "Women Declared to be Chief Cause of Half World's Woes": Can one imagine either issue even getting print today? And how many people today would even understand the editorial cartoon top-of-the fold regarding Germany and reparations? That cartoon foretold WWII had anyone been paying attention. Thank you S-T; great history lessons, and a lot of them not the day's headline.

History is always worth reading; unless of couse, you would prefer to repeat it.