Friday, June 24, 2016

Notes on Yesterday's #ATXCouncil Meeting....


"There are many plans in a man’s heart,
Nevertheless the Lord’s counsel—that will stand."
Proverbs 19:21

[Author's Note: The full agenda for the meeting can be viewed here.]

We attended a substantial chunk of yesterday's uber-marathon Council meeting (14 hours and counting when we left at midnight; ultimately 16 hours).  Our thoughts are in the order events occurred.  For those only interested in the transportation bond, that discussion is at the end:
  • Item 79: They actually approved approximately $275k per year to build 2 luxury public bathrooms on street corners downtown.  This despite the fact that every downtown hotel already has bathrooms that any member of the public can use as long as they don't make a scene while doing so.  Kathie Tovo justified this project on the grounds that the homeless would relieve themselves on the street if the city didn't provide facilities.  Passed 8-2-1 with Zimmerman and Troxclair voting Nay and Gallo abstaining.  We can't prove it at this point, but we strongly suspect someone's getting paid.

    In addition, during later public testimony over the bond package, a female firefigher testified that there are numerous fire stations around Austin that don't even have male and female bathrooms despite the fact that a previous council moved seventeen years ago to provide them; for council to move forward with taxpayer funded luxury bathrooms at a time when city owned firestations have been waiting almost two decades for sufficient facilities seems...odd.
  • Item 56: The ball appears to be slowly moving forward on APD's plan to buy license plate readers to scan citizens' vehicles.  We're not a lawyer, and we haven't reviewed the relevant jurisprudence, but this strikes us as one of the most blatant violations of the fourth amendment we've ever seen.  Making matters worse, the vendor will be allowed to keep data from license plate scans as long as it "has commercial value."  So it's both unconstitutional and a special interest boondoggle.  In addition, one of the members of the public who testified in opposition raised concerns over whether such a proposal would turn APD into "mobile debt collectors" for things like traffic tickets.  Thankfully, they at least dropped the civil asset forfeiture component.  Council voted 6-5 (Zimmerman, Troxclair, Casar, Houston, Garza, and Kitchen voting AYE) in favor of Zimmerman's amendment to restrict APD from "executing" the contract and merely allow them to negotiate it.  This will be back in front of council in August.
  • Items 57/58: Unfortunately, council went ahead with their poorly conceived APD body camera policy and contract.  First things first, between the cameras and iphones being purchased to play the footage, we're talking about $17 MILLION.  Council went forward with using Taser (yes, THAT Taser) for the cameras at a cost of $12 million despite the fact that another vendor (Utility) was offering a technically superior product at a fraction of the price (Author's Note: We apologize, but we didn't write down the number of their asking price).

    Leslie Pool initially moved to postpone consideration of the contract to August, but she later pulled the motion after asking questions of APD.  Kathie Tovo called now a "time for action" following a "deliberative" process.  Keep in mind, they tried to ambush us with this contract 6 weeks ago.

    More troubling is the incomplete policy council pushed forward related to body camera footage.  While Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice coalition cited "incremental progress" in terms of allowing public greater access to body camera footage, there are still numerous hurdles to public access.  A representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged caution because whatever policy adopted by council would subsequently become subject to typical governmental inertia; specifically, "we should be very careful about a cobbled together system."  Everybody supports police bodycameras, but there's no reason council couldn't have taken another month or two to get the policy right.  Council will rue this day whenever the inevitable dispute between an officer and a citizen provokes outrage that this policy proves insufficient to quell.

    Item 57 ($12 million for body cameras) passed 9-1-1 (Zimmerman voting Nay, Houston abstaining); Item 58 ($5 million for iphones) 7-3-1 (Zimmerman, Houston, and Pool voting Nay; Troxclair abstaining).
  • "Special Called Meeting" -- Council also considered Ellen Troxclair's proposal to expand the city of Austin's homestead exemption to 14% from the current 6%.  For obscure legal reasons, this had to be considered as part of a "special called meeting" instead the regular agenda.  Council watered Troxclair's proposed 8% expansion (to 14%) all the way down to 2% (to 8%). We had actually left the meeting at this point so we missed the discussion, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out why the current council would water down a tax relief package.

    [Author's Note: Community Impact has more here.]
  • Item 83: This was the discussion of the Transportation bond.  We left following public testimony, so we didn't see much of the discussion between council members.  Something eventually passed 8-3, but we aren't familiar with the details and will refrain from commenting further until we digest said details.

    That being said, we are going to re-iterate the concern we expressed in our public testimony and in our open letter to the mayor: Does the city bureaucracy have the capability to execute this plan in anything resembling a competent or timely manner?!?  $720 million is a lot of money, and this package has a lot of moving parts.  As the female firefighter testified, the city still hasn't been able to produce male and female bathrooms in fire-stations despite having promised to do so seventeen years ago.  If they can't deliver bathrooms, are they really capable of successfully executing a major transportation project?!?

    [Author's Note: The firefigher's testimony is at the 17:35 mark; our testimony is at 23:30.]

Notes on Yesterday's #ATXCouncil Meeting....


"There are many plans in a man’s heart,
Nevertheless the Lord’s counsel—that will stand."
Proverbs 19:21

[Author's Note: The full agenda for the meeting can be viewed here.]

We attended a substantial chuck of yesterday's uber-marathon Council meeting (14 hours and counting when we left at midnight; ultimately 16 hours).  Our thoughts are in the order events occurred.  For those only interested in the transportation bond, that discussion is at the end:

  • Item 79: They actually approved approximately $275k per year to build 2 luxury public bathrooms on street corners downtown.  This despite the fact that every downtown hotel already has bathrooms that any member of the public can use as long as they don't make a scene while doing so.  Kathie Tovo justified this project on the grounds that the homeless would relieve themselves on the street if the city didn't provide facilities.  Passed 8-2-1 with Zimmerman and Troxclair voting Nay and Gallo abstaining.  We can't prove it at this point, but we strongly suspect someone's getting paid.

    In addition, during later public testimony over the bond package, a female firefigher testified that there are numerous fire stations around Austin that don't even have male and female bathrooms despite the fact that a previous council moved seventeen years ago to provide them; for council to move forward with taxpayer funded luxury bathrooms at a time when city owned firestations have been waiting almost two decades for sufficient facilities seems...odd.
  • Item 56: The ball appears to be slowly moving forward on APD's plan to buy license plate readers to scan citizens' vehicles.  We're not a lawyer, and we haven't reviewed the relevant jurisprudence, but this strikes us as one of the most blatant violations of the fourth amendment we've ever seen.  Making matters worse, the vendor will be allowed to keep data from license plate scans as long as it "has commercial value."  So it's both unconstitutional and a special interest boondoggle.  In addition, one of the members of the public who testified in opposition raised concerns over whether such a proposal would turn APD into "mobile debt collectors" for things like traffic tickets.  Thankfully, they at least dropped the civil asset forfeiture component.  Council voted 6-5 (Zimmerman, Troxclair, Casar, Houston, Garza, and Kitchen voting AYE) in favor of Zimmerman's amendment to restrict APD from "executing" the contract and merely allow them to negotiate it.  This will be back in front of council in August.
  • Items 57/58: Unfortunately, council went ahead with their poorly conceived APD body camera policy and contract.  First things first, between the cameras and iphones being purchased to play the footage, we're talking about $17 MILLION.  Council went forward with using Taser (yes, THAT Taser) for the cameras at a cost of $12 million despite the fact that another vendor (Utility) was offering a technically superior product at a fraction of the price (Author's Note: We apologize, but we didn't write down the number of their asking price).

    Leslie Pool initially moved to postpone consideration of the contract to August, but she later pulled the motion after asking questions of APD.  Kathie Tovo called now a "time for action" following a "deliberative" process.  Keep in mind, they tried to ambush us with this contract 6 weeks ago.

    More troubling is the incomplete policy council pushed forward related to body camera footage.  While Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice coalition cited "incremental progress" in terms of allowing public greater access to body camera footage, there are still numerous hurdles to public access.  A representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged caution because whatever policy adopted by council would subsequently become subject to typical governmental inertia; specifically, "we should be very careful about a cobbled together system."  Everybody supports police bodycameras, but there's no reason council couldn't have taken another month or two to get the policy right.  Council will rue this day whenever the inevitable dispute between an officer and a citizen provokes outrage that this policy proves insufficient to quell.

    Item 57 ($12 million for body cameras) passed 9-1-1 (Zimmerman voting Nay, Houston abstaining); Item 58 ($5 million for iphones) 7-3-1 (Zimmerman, Houston, and Pool voting Nay; Troxclair abstaining).
  • "Special Called Meeting" -- Council also considered Ellen Troxclair's proposal to expand the city of Austin's homestead exemption to 14% from the current 6%.  For obscure legal reasons, this had to be considered as part of a "special called meeting" instead the regular agenda.  Council watered Troxclair's proposed 8% expansion (to 14%) all the way down to 2% (to 8%). We had actually left the meeting at this point so we missed the discussion, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out why the current council would water down a tax relief package.

    [Author's Note: Community Impact has more here.]
  • Item 83: This was the discussion of the Transportation bond.  We left following public testimony, so we didn't see much of the discussion between council members.  Something eventually passed 8-3, but we aren't familiar with the details and will refrain from commenting further until we digest said details.

    That being said, we are going to re-iterate the concern we expressed in our public testimony and in our open letter to the mayor: Does the city bureaucracy have the capability to execute this plan in anything resembling a competent or timely manner?!?  $720 million is a lot of money, and this package has a lot of moving parts.  As the female firefighter testified, the city still hasn't been able to produce male and female bathrooms in fire-stations despite having promised to do so seventeen years ago.  If they can't deliver bathrooms, are they really capable of successfully executing a major transportation project?!?

    [Author's Note: The firefigher's testimony is at the 17:35 mark; our testimony is at 23:30]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rindaldi pushes envelope on Local Government Accountability!!!


And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke 20:25

Lookin' good Rinaldi:
AUSTIN, TEXAS – On Tuesday, Rep. Rinaldi, joined by 19 House and Senate Republicans, filed an amicus curiae brief in a lawsuit challenging Laredo’s bag ban ordinance. In the brief, Rep. Rinaldi supports the argument that the City of Laredo’s plastic bag ban ordinance is void because it contradicts § 361.0961 of the Texas Health and Safety Code.

The Laredo Merchants Association brought suit against the City of Laredo in March of 2015, challenging Laredo’s city ordinance that prohibits retailers from providing or selling plastic bags to customers. The 341st Judicial District Court ruled that the ordinance does not violate state statute. Oral arguments will be made in the Texas Fourth District Court of Appeals on June 28th. The Court will then determine if the lower court’s decision will be overturned or upheld.

“Cities need to understand that the Legislature can and will step in when authority delegated to them by the sovereign state of Texas has been abused to restrict liberty and constrain the free flow of commerce,” Rinaldi said. “In this instance, the Legislature anticipated these types of power grabs by local municipalities and passed a peremptory state statute that trumps Laredo’s bag ban ordinance.”

Paxton secures victory for Rule of Law/Separation of Powers


And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke 20:25

This morning, the United States Supreme Court sided with Texas over the Obama administration in the lawsuit related to the President's unilateral alteration of immigration policy in 2014.  We don't particularly care about the policy or political implications, but the legal and constitutional ramifications are huge.  This is the biggest restraint upon the executive branch, at least on the domestic side, we've seen in a long time (possibly in our lifetime).

The crux of the matter is that the president cannot make unilateral changes to any aspect of domestic policy without the approval of congress.  This is a universal principle, regardless of the identify of the President or the members of Congress at any particular moment.  And Ken Paxton's Attorney General's office was the one to secure the ruling!

As Paxton explained in an e-mail to supporters:
I want to let you know that within the past hour, we have won a major victory for the rule of law. In April, my team and I were at the U.S. Supreme Court leading a 26-state coalition to fight President Obama's unconstitutional push for amnesty — an unlawful act which defies the rule of law and bypasses our elected officials in Congress. I’m pleased to report that our efforts were successful.
 
As the Washington Post reports in the story below, “The action deals Obama perhaps the biggest legal loss of his presidency…..”.
 
Today’s decision keeps in place what we have maintained from the very start: one person, even a president, cannot unilaterally change the law. This is a major setback to President Obama’s attempts to expand executive power, and a victory for those who believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law.
Bottom Line: There's a reason why, in both the Texas and U.S. constitution, the legislative branch appears before the executive; kudos to Ken Paxton for securing this ruling.

-----

Now that we think about it, there actually is one political point worth making: There's no way in heck this happens if Dan Branch is Attorney General.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Yet ANOTHER Infuriating Budget from Austin ISD....


"There is desirable treasure,
And oil in the dwelling of the wise,
But a foolish man squanders it."
Proverbs 21:20

We can't even, from the Austin Monitor:
Trustees with the Austin Independent School District approved a $1.3 billion operating budget for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year in an 8-0-1 vote Monday night, with District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon abstaining. It is the largest budget AISD has ever considered, yet board members continued to call out the state’s public education system for its unfairness.

....

The district approved approximately $1.2 billion in general fund expenditures, which is a $162.7 million increase compared to last year’s general fund revenue. The largest voluntary budget increase stems from a 4 percent raise for all full- and part-time employees, which equates to about a $20 million spending increase.

....

Other notable expenditures included AISD’s decision to raise the minimum wage of its employees to $13 per hour — an additional $1.2 million expenditure — and put in place a new teacher compensation program. The new program, Professional Pathways for Teacher Compensation, allows teachers to qualify for salary increases through continual education and performance-based measures, among other means. Board members put aside an additional $3 million for the program.

[Author's Note: Emphasis added.]
Keep in mind, this is in a district where enrollment has now declined four years in a row.

That being said, for those of us who successfully opposed their bond three years ago, there was this one modest piece of good news:
Due to debt-related savings, AISD is lowering its tax rate by 1 cent this year, to $1.19 per $100 of assessed property value.
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Quorum Report projects their mendacity onto Paxton


"The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian."
Genesis 39:2

Quorum Report is a corrupt, low-circulation, publication that acts as glorified stenographers for Team Straus and their lobbyist cronies.  We don't read them often, but occasionally they provide unintentionally revealing glimpses into how the business as usual crowd thinks.  Yesterday was one such occasion.

First, some background: Last week, Byron Cook requested an Attorney General opinion related to eminent domain in his district.  We didn't read anything into it because incumbent legislators ask the TXAG's office for opinions related to any number of subjects all the time (and, silly us, we actually thought Byron Cook might have renewed interest in representing his district after only winning his last election by 225 votes).  Nevertheless, yesterday Quorum Report used Cook's request to conjure up palace intrigue where none exists:
June 20, 2016      4:45 PM

SB: Cook request for AG opinion on eminent domain puts Paxton in a difficult situation

Some Capitol observers wonder if the AG will help Chairman Cook block eminent domain powers in similar fashion to how he helped Gov. Abbott wrest more power from appropriators – especially given that Cook was a complainant in the criminal case against Paxton
Texas House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook last week looked to the Attorney General’s Office for help in shoring up the rights of property owners as a company prepares to build a bullet train from Houston to Dallas – with the proposed corridor cutting through Cook’s rural district.
“It would be problematic if a company that does not have the power of eminent domain was entering or directing others to enter upon property it did not have the right to condemn,” Cook wrote to Ken Paxton’s office. “Thus, this issue is of great importance to Texans, especially rural Texans, whose property is already being entered upon in preparation for the initiation of eminent domain proceedings.”
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether the rail line would be good for the state and its thousands of “super commuters,” Cook’s request raises another topic of discussion at the Texas Capitol: Will Paxton issue an opinion helpful to the very member of The Legislature who was a complainant in the felony case against Paxton on securities fraud?
By Scott Braddock
We will detail the multiple levels on which this is asinine below, but first one obvious point: The Attorney General's office, under Ken Paxton just like it would have done under Greg Abbott, will issue an opinion related to Cook's request that is consistent with whatever the law says as the law is currently written.

Returning to Paxton: Ken Paxton is going to continue to do the job for which the voters hired him for as long as it remains his responsibility to do so.  That's just who he is and that's what he's been doing since these charges emerged.  The fact that Byron Cook is the guy requesting the opinion isn't relevant.

Furthermore, it's not a secret that Ken Paxton is a Christian, and there's a Bible verse that's relevant:
Vengeance is Mine [God's], and recompense;
Their foot shall slip in due time;
For the day of their calamity is at hand,
And the things to come hasten upon them.’
Deuteronomy 32:35
In other words, from Ken Paxton's perspective, vengeance belongs to God; vengeance doesn't belong to Ken Paxton.

Finally, if you really want to look at this from a political perspective, is the completely obvious fact that being magnanimous to Cook only helps Paxton.  There's a thing in life called being the bigger man and Byron Cook just handed Ken Paxton a golden opportunity to do that.  This isn't even politics, it's human psychology.

We didn't think about it until we started working on this post, but one final bible verse:
On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."
Romans 12:20
Bottom Line: That Ken Paxton's antagonists could misread Ken Paxton's professional, spiritual, and political interests this spectacularly tells us far more about them than it does about Ken Paxton.

Monday, June 20, 2016

TPPF helps STR users DEFEND THEMSELVES from City of Austin!!!


"A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor,
But he who hates covetousness will prolong his days."
Proverbs 28:16

Last winter, the Austin City Council banned a popular type of vacation residency ("Type 2" Short Term Rentals or "STR's"; aka. the anti-AirBnb Ordinance) within city limits. In so doing, they violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, but they didn't expect anyone to fight back. This morning four STR owners, with assistance from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, fought back.

The lawsuit, Zaatari et. al vs City of Austin et. al, challenges the constitutionality of the city's regulation.  Specifically, by giving the Austin code department (yeah, THAT Austin code department) unlimited jurisdiction to perform warrantless searches on private residences to enforce the ordinance, the city violated the fourth amendment's provision against unreasonable searches.  In addition, by drawing an arbitrary distinction between residential leases under 30 days ("short-term") and leases over 30 days ("long-term"), the city violated the fourteenth amendment's equal protection clause.

The anti-AirBnb ordinance was part of council's bizarre campaign against innovation and the sharing economy.  Not that it's relevant to the underlying privacy and property rights issues, but fewer than 10% of all complaints ever filed against STR's have been related to noise or other 'bad neighbor' issues and there have been literally zero citations against STR's for those issues.  Readers are welcome to speculate about council's underlying motivation, but doing so is beyond the scope of this report.


In addition to a media conference call this morning, TPPF also helped arrange a media availability at an STR property owned by one of the plaintiffs this afternoon.  The property, located in Ann Kitchen's (yeah, we know) district, is owned by Ahmed Zaatari.  Zaatari, who immigrated from Lebanon in the late 1990's, converted the property to an STR about a year ago after he was laid off from an energy industry related job following the downturn in oil prices.  Zaatari typically rents the property in increments of two to four days.  In addition, Zaatari pays both property taxes and the City of Austin's 15% hotel occupancy tax.  To illustrate to absurdity of the ordinance, consider this: at the peak, between three media camera crews, this author, Zaatari, and four TPPF staffers, at one point there were 13 people on-site, which actually violated the ordinance (*).  Look at the picture above: Does it look like the property was overcrowded in any way, shape or form?!?

Most chillingly, Zaatari pointed out how the ordinance is "reminiscent of the system in Lebanon" where economic opportunity is doled out by political connections instead of merit.  In Lebanon, "what matters is who you know" and "you had to put yourself in servitude to some political boss."  Speaking of political bosses, Zaatari described a meeting he had with Ann Kitchen where she promised that council wouldn't attack "the good actors" (ie. the ones who actually follow the law and pay the city's taxes); we can see where that led.

We realized one final absurdity while we were at the property.  The city of Austin has more restrictions on STR properties than it has on frat houses.  Considering that the whole justification for this ordinance was cracking down on "party houses," that seems odd.

The city of Austin does not have authority to restrict private property rights in this manner.  Doing so violates, at least, the fourth and fourteenth amendments.  They weren't expecting anyone to fight back; they were wrong.

-----

* - It wasn't planned that way, and there were 13 people on-site for less than ten minutes, but the fact that accidentally violated the ordinance during the media availability illustrates the silliness of the whole thing.