Ferguson, Staten Island, Jasper

I don’t really know how to describe it other than an epidemic. In two high profile incidents, white Police Officers have shot and killed unarmed African-American men. In Ferguson, in the case of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, Brown was shot six times by Wilson after the two got into some type of altercation. Wilson claimed that he fired in self defense against the allegedly aggressive Brown, and he had to use lethal force since Brown was apparently “charging” at him. The majority of witnesses claim that Brown had his hands up, was not resisting or some variation thereof. As I explained earlier in The Daily Texan, I think the evidence was insufficient for a conviction, but the very low bar to an indictment should have easily been cleared.

Then, there is the case of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Approached by NYPD on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes, a rather low-level citation offense, Garner began arguing with officers. After repeatedly, calmly and peacefully attempting to argue with the officers, he was placed in a chokehold and tackled to the ground, where he was quite literally strangled to death. This, despite the fact that NYPD has prohibited chokeholds for about 20 years. The entire sickening incident was caught on video. Still, a grand jury this past evening no-billed Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed lynched Garner.

Additionally, as the Texas Observer fills us in on (c/o the Beaumont Enterprise), a grand jury in Jasper County has opted to no-bill a white Police Officer who brutally beat up an unarmed African-American woman on video at the police station. Thankfully, unlike the other two incidents, this woman — who was accused of petty shoplifting — survived the encounter. Jasper, of course, has its own terrifying history of racism.

All this is to say there is, in fact, an epidemic of police brutality in this country. The vast majority of Police Officers are honest, hardworking people who put their lives on the line for the safety of the community; but some harbor prejudicial tendencies and must be dealt with appropriately. For some time now, I have endorsed body cameras for officers. Generally speaking, they have been supported in a bipartisan manner.

President Barack Obama has requested about $263 Million from congress to dole out these devices — which record officers’ interactions with the general public — to local departments. Similarly, District Attorney-elect Susan Hawk in Dallas County, a Republican, has announced a plan to use surplus funds to equip Dallas PD and other departments with the devices.

KHOU has even reported, just a few hours ago, that Mayor Annise Parker plans on buying body cameras for local police with or without federal funds. I’m still a rather vehement supporter of this technology, as it minimizes he said/cop said situations. However, the Garner case still proves that a video is not enough to ensure justice is carried out. The good news, however, is that it removes the ambiguity and doubt that surrounds these cases. For example, in the Michael Brown case, I am not sure if Wilson was justified in his response or not, so I think there should have been a trial but — given the evidence known for certain — I don’t know if I would have voted for a conviction. In Garner’s case, however, there is almost no doubt in my mind that the Officer committed cold-blooded second degree murder.

However, in order to truly fix the problem, the grand jury system needs to be reformed. State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County) has a long overdue idea in eliminating the venal key-man grand jury system, though it is worth noting that both the Ferguson and Staten Island no-billing occurred through random selection. I think the only way to solve this is to convert grand juries into far more temporary entities, operating on summons like petit juries, which may not be totally representative of the community but are still better than grand juries.

Additionally, I think states should change pertinent laws regarding the burden of proof for police officers accused of such crimes, clarifying that it is rather low. The reason we have such easy indictments in this country is that convictions are unusually hard — compared to the rest of the world — to achieve.

I realize these tweaks to state laws are quixotic, especially in Texas, but they appear to be the most effective way to resurrect some modicum of justice to our twisted world.

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Robinson to serve on Crime Lab board

The Houston Chronicle reports that Anthony Robinson, a former City Council candidate, has been appointed by Mayor Parker and confirmed by the City Council to serve on the city’s Crime Lab oversight board. Robinson, as some might recall, was falsely convicted of rape many years ago and spent over a decade in prison before proving his innocence and ultimately being exonerated and pardoned by then-Governor George W. Bush.

Parker said of Robinson, upon his confirmation, “He’s going to be an even better board member because he has skills as an attorney and his being very familiar with the criminal justice system. And community contacts and ties, as well.” He will specifically serve on the board of Houston Forensic Science LGC, Inc., a government-run corporation recently created independent of the Houston Police Department amidst charges of ineffectiveness and incompetence.

Click here to read more!

More on pensions

The Houston Chronicle continues to discuss the pensions issue that has arisen over public employees pensions throughout this municipal election season. As the astute may recall, I am somewhat dubious as to how big of an imminent crisis this all really is. I have written before that pension reform is often a way to needlessly cut government expenses. Anyways, Mike Morris at the Chronicle continues reporting on this topic.

The article does not introduce very much new information into the topic, briefly outlining the positions on the issue of both Mayor Parker and Ben Hall. Where Morris strikes new ground is in talking with City Councilmember Stephen Costello, who chairs the main fiscal committee. Costello told the Chronicle, on the pension issues, “It’s not the issue of ’30 years from now’. The issue is how we get from here to 30 years from now. That’s the problem we can’t afford.”

Costello then went on to discuss that an ideal solution would be a tax increase or benefit cut. It appears Costello, the moderate Republican, has no aspirations for partisan office with a comment like that…uttering the dreaded “T word.” Costello does mention, however, the possibility of layoffs if neither of the ideal solutions are adhered thereto.

What is most telling, however, is Costello (or Parker) failing to set any sort of timeline on the issue. I would think, then, their intent is to kick the can down the road for two more years, when both of them are out of City Hall. Pensions, it would seem, are just a flashpoint issue in this campaign in an attempt to assuage the concerns of fiscally conservative voters interest groups & donors.

In re Pensions

An editorial by the Houston Chronicle published over the weekend touched upon this topic, and a Mike Morris article on the front page of the Chronicle‘s City & State section on Sunday expanded upon the topic. Municipal pensions.

The argument is somewhat straight-forward. Our liabilities on the Municipal, Police & Fire (all distinct) pension funds all drastically outweigh our funds to cover them. However, there are some straight-forward goals that are easily attainable to solve these issues. All too often, though, the term “pension reform” is a clever euphemism for giving the shaft to public employers. Yet another way to pull a massive scam over the heads of the working person in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Parker’s ideas, which I mostly agree with, are to end the generous cost-of-living adjustments for the workers, as well as give the option to for employees convert to a “defined contribution” plan, which is a fancy euphemism for privatization, since George W. Bush ruined the reputation of that word vis-a-vis retirees. The “defined benefit” plan, or the status quo (actual) pension, would continue for all those who want it, albeit in less generous amounts, under Parker’s plan.

Hall, meanwhile, wants to force all employees hired after 2008 off the road and into the privatized 401k plans. What all this means for Hall’s cozy relationship with the Firefighter’s is somewhat unclear. The Fire pension is the best funded because of special State control that mandates extremely generous contributions from the City of Houston. It is the small bites of Parker’s that led to the exceedingly acrimonious relationship in the first place.

When asked about Hall’s plans, Todd Clark, representative of the Fire fund, dodged the question, but took immediate aim at the lesser demands of the Mayor. Clark went on to disparage both the end of cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA) and the mere option of the 401k plans. From the Chronicle article, Clark’s quote:

“Working as a Houston firefighter is a long-term career. We strongly believe (defined contribution) plans do not provide an adequate retirement after serving three-plus decades protecting the citizens of Houston. The defined benefit that is in place is in the best interest of the Houston firefighters.”

Parker seemed somewhat confident that the COLA could pass through the City Council, but was more ambivalent on the question of the partial privatizations.

Finally, Chalres Kuffner at Off the Kuff has some brilliant commentary on this topic. We largely agree on this issue, believing that pension reform is often a thinly-veiled euphemism for disparaging working people. Oh, and that’s the position of the Texas Observer as well. Back to Kuffner for the close:

Thank God, Bill King finally has a Mayoral candidate he can support. I just wonder if this is what the firefighters thought they were getting when they endorsed Hall. But like Mayor Parker, this is where I get off. Because let’s be clear on something, pension plans generate vastly superior returns than 401K plans. High income workers in the private sector may do better with 401Ks than they would with pension plans, but lower income workers and public employees do better with defined benefit plans. Employers may do better under 401Ks, but that’s because they get to contribute less. Of course, that comes out of the hides of the employees. Not a bad deal for the Bill Kings of the world, who somehow never call upon themselves to make sacrifices for the greater good, but not so good for the affected employees.

Finally, the conflation of the police and firefighters’ pension funds just serves to muddle what the issues actually are. The city’s complaint about the firefighters’ pension fund is that they don’t have any say over how much they have to contribute to it each year. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the firefighters’ pension fund is also one of the best funded in the state.) The city would also like to negotiate over and try to wring some concessions on things like the deferred retirement option (DROP) and automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs). The city has already gotten most if not all of the concession it sought from the police and municipal employees’ pensions, and if you listen to my interview with CM Costello, you’ll hear him say that the city has largely solved its long-term problems with these pension funds. There are issues in the short to medium term, resulting in no small part from the city’s underpayments to those funds in recent years, but once we’re past that the system is sustainable. Mayor Parker will tell you that if the city can negotiate changes to DROP and get some discretion on COLAs, it will have a handle on the firefighter’ pension fund. Whether you agree with that or you agree with the firefighters, the point is that replacing pensions with 401Ks is hardly necessary. Making bogus comparisons to Oakland or Detroit isn’t helpful.

 

HOPE endorses Parker

Ok, the “phony scandal” is officially dead.

The Houston Chronicle reports that HOPE, the Houston Organization of Public Employees (the municipal employee union covering all those city servants outside of HPD and HFD), has endorsed Annise Parker for re-election. This is a huge endorsement, as her main opponent, Ben Hall, had previously tried to make an issue out of her alleged tepid support for municipal workers.

Longtime followers of Municipal politics will remember that HOPE –which typically endorses exclusively Democratic candidates– supported Annise Parker in 2009. From what I understand, the union declined to endorse anyone in 2011, simply opting to make selections in City Council elections. I have left a message with HOPE to confirm this fact, however.

The union also endorsed other candidates this afternoon, including Ronald Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, Roland Chavez, C.O. Bradford, Jerry Davis, Ed Gonzalez, Mike Laster and Larry Green. Accordingly, they opted to not make selections in AL5, as well as Districts A, D, F, G and I. Ellen Cohen and Dave Martin were specifically snubbed from getting a nod, despite running unopposed.

The endorsement is –and I will say this multiple times– is a huge blow for Hall’s campaign. Hall had been walking a fine line, attempting to run simultaneously to the left and to the right of Parker. While he espoused many somewhat fiscally conservative ideas that made him a big hit at the Pachyderm Club, the real prize would be going after those on the left –specifically the unions– by cozying up to the Firefighter’s Union, followed by HOPE. That is why Hall’s response to the ‘phony scandal’ could have mattered so much more.

Without the monolithic support of the unions, Hall is left in a delicate, dangerous position. At this point, he is getting perilously close to his core supporters: Establishment Republicans, prominent African-Americans and the Firefighters. That doesn’t really make up more than about a quarter of the electorate, especially once you factor in how many African-Americans will vote for Parker. I tend to believe that number has been underestimated thus far. Any move to go further right (and therefore snatch votes from Dick) would alienate his African-American base even more.

Hall now faces a daunting task, while Parker’s job keeps getting easier. No longer will Hall be able to bring up “the 747” [laid off workers], for the Mayor has atoned, and been forgiven, for the move. The Mayor’s opponent will need to find another card to bring to the table.

‘Phony Scandal’ picked up by Chronicle

Ok, perhaps I should stop calling it that.

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle wrote the cover story this morning about the Mayor’s allegedly unethical pay raises given to senior staffers in her first few years of office. As the astute will recall, KRIV had been drumming up this issue about three weeks ago, as I noted on three occasions.

The KRIV story alleged that these pay hikes occurred between 2009 and 2011. Of course, Annise Parker did not become Mayor until January 2010. I attempted to bring this to the attention of KRIV, thinking they may have made an honest mistake, but was rebuffed as they doubled down on the story. At that point, I dismissed the “phony scandal” as being untrue, because if the only two years compared were 2009 and 2011, it is comparison of salaries in the City Controller’s office and Mayor’s office, respectively.

However, Morris’ articles notes this, as the Chronicle does the due diligence required, and notes the differences between 2010 and the present. Raises still occurred, but they were far less severe than KRIV had insinuated.

For example, KRIV alleges that Parker’s Communications Director received a 68% raise, while the Chronicle places the number at 31%. Similarly, KRIV alleges a whopping 147% raise for Parker’s Finance Director, while Morris thinks 29% is a more accurate salary bump.

In fact, besides Waynette Chan, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, who both KRIV and the Chronicle place the alleged pay hike at 46% for, the Chronicle notes that most of these hikes were not all that extravagant, especially for senior staff.

Further, Morris goes on to note how, as Houston left the recession, most City workers received modest, but noteworthy, pay raises. It is also worth noting that the furloughs have long since ended, and that many –if not most– of the laid off workers have been rehired by the City. As Morris goes on:

City payroll data show that during Parker’s tenure, 22,357 city workers got at least one contractual raise. Those raises averaged 5 percent, with the amounts varying between the municipal, fire and police unions. For the 12,993 employees who also received a salary adjustment, promotion or merit raise – or some combination of those – the average overall raise was 11 percent.

Morris then goes on to note that both Ben Hall and the Firefighter’s Union, both with a vested interest to take down Parker by any means necessary, harshly criticized the Mayor for this issue. However, as the Chronicle continued in its pattern of due diligence for the day, Morris talks to all the other stakeholders in the matter, including the HPD Union, HOPE, the local AFL-CIO, as well as both prominent Democratic and Republican consultants:

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, which has endorsed Parker, said the mayor’s staff salaries give him no heartburn.

“Anybody who got laid off during that year, I’m sure they’re very, very upset about it, and understandably so, but when you have a downturn in the economy and you’re trying to turn things around, you better keep your key people in those positions and you’re going to have to compensate them what you believe they’re worth,” Hunt said. “I personally am not concerned about the salaries of the top administrators in the city of Houston. I don’t think any of them are out of line with the private sector.”

Melvin Hughes, head of the municipal employees union, declined comment.

Richard Shaw, of the Harris County AFL-CIO, said the raises do not disturb him because the mayor now negotiates pay agreements with all three unions.

“As far as I’m concerned, she bargains in good faith with all employee groups and, from a labor standpoint, that’s what we ask for,” Shaw said. “The firefighters need to quit whining. They didn’t take any hits on layoffs. They negotiated that pay agreement with the mayor.”

GOP communications consultant Jim McGrath said the issue will be little more than water-cooler fodder at City Hall unless Hall can show a pattern of such decisions.

“Taxpayers and voters care about their well-being and their future and if the mayor has failed in some regard as it relates to that, that’s something you can get traction with,” McGrath said. “This inside baseball stuff will not fundamentally alter the dynamics of a race that isn’t looking good for Mr. Hall at present.”

Democratic political consultant Mustafa Tameez agreed: “This is not going to be seen well by the public, but something like this doesn’t make or break the election.”

As far as I’m concerned, I agree with them. I worked at City Hall amid all of the layoffs and the furloughs, and probably would be legitimately angered if the Mayor was indeed awarding these extravagant raises, but she wasn’t.

The average City Employee took in about an 11% raise. Of the 11 members of Parker’s ‘senior staff’ mentioned by Morris, five receive pay hikes over 11%, while six receive hikes equal or below 11%. There really isn’t a scandal here, and Morris & the Chronicle did a really good job at explaining why–right down to the headline.

Now that a reputable source has repudiated KRIV’s story, I wonder what Greg Groogan’s –the “journalist” who published this nonsense at KRIV to begin with– next move will be. I wonder if he’ll keep doubling down on it.

Phony Scandal Won’t Go Away

Both KRIV and KIAH (Channel 5, not the Airport) have doubled down on this phony scandal about unethical pay increases. Like I said when I first responded to this story yesterday, until more information has come out (it hasn’t), this is a pretty phony scandal because Annise Parker wasn’t even the Mayor when they start measuring the salaries:

2009 is a year that keeps popping up. While Annise Parker was elected Mayor in 2009, she did not take office until two days into 2010. Accordingly, any salary received during any part of 2009 occurred before Annise Parker was the Mayor of Houston. If these individuals were employed by the City of Houston, they either worked for a completely different department or for Parker in the Controller’s office.

Now, KRIV has expanded this issue even more, fishing statements out of the Municipal Employees’ Union (HOPE) as well as the HPD Union. Melvin Hughes, the president of HOPE, criticized Parker harshly in an interview, calling the raises “heartbreaking.” The HPD Union was somewhat nonchalant about the non-revelation revelation, though KRIV could not help but to editorialize HPD Union President Ray Hunt, by adding in that HPD has received salary increases as well throughout Parker’s term.

KIAH, also known as Channel 5, also known as Channel 39, also known as CW, also known as NewFix, also picked up the phony scandal. They were able to get a statement out of Ben Hall in person. Hall, in the interview, simply stated that:

“They lost the paycheck that they needed to support their families, deserved equal opportunities and equal treatment to those who might have worked closely around the Mayor who were already in the six-figure range.”

KRIV also got a press release (thanks for the update, Dr Hall) out of his campaign, that denigrated Parker for “rewarding her buddies.” I find it somewhat humorous that none of the big three networks has picked up the story even as Fox continues to double down on it. Even EyeWitness News (KTRK) isn’t touching this with a ten-foot pole.

If there is one thing politics has taught me, it is that Fox is the only station carrying a story, do more than take it with a grain of salt: disregard it completely. The stories have all given the audience the impression that the initial salaries mentioned, in 2009, took place into Parker’s administration even though that is simply not the case.