Friday, March 31, 2017

April Sikes NOT running for DA!

I don't have much time, so I'll keep this brief and simple.  Was taking a little Facebook stroll yesterday and spotted this on April Sikes' Facebook page:
I have been asked many times over the past few weeks whether I would be filing for the office of Smith County Criminal District Attorney in November. My family and I have taken a lot of time to prayerfully consider the decision, and I wanted to publicly let people know that I will not be running for office. Through the remainder of Mr. Bingham's term, I will continue to work hard in my role as the First Asst. D.A. I thank you for your support of my decision, and I look forward to where God will send me next!!
What does this mean?  My original thought was, yay!  Maybe the AD Clark/Jack Skeen/Matt Bingham dynasty is coming to an end.  Next I felt a little disappointed because I'm sure any battle waged by an opponent against Sikes would be a fight to the death--and very entertaining, considering the, uh, rumors that have been going around.  Did Sikes just lose her nerve?  But...
Now I'm getting a little nervous.  This comes just a few days after Judge Jack Skeen announced he has decided to run again.  I thought that maybe Bingham was banking on Skeen retiring during this term so he could get appointed to the 241st without having to go through the inconvenience of an actual election!  So now it looks like that is not going to happen, at least this year.
You think next we're going to find out that Bingham is going to change his mind and try to stay on as DA?  Bad news for Smith County, maybe.  But, then again, if someone runs against him he might have to face some of the anxiety-provoking issues that Sikes would have faced.
Game on.  We're watching, Mr. Bingham. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Texas' worst judge, Jack Skeen Jr. wants another term

Texas' Worst Judge is trying to stay in office

For the visitors and those new to Smith County, let me introduce Judge Jack Skeen Jr. of the 241st District Court:

AKA "Jack-ass Skeen"
AKA "Fat Jack"
AKA "The Frankenskeen Monster"
AKA "Junior"

Jack Skeen, arguably Texas' worst judge, is unfortunately still quite popular in Smith County.  He's known for being "tough on crime."  And many hapless sheeple who have had the honor of serving on one of his juries talk of how "respectful" and "fair" he seems.  But behind that genteel façade lurks a vicious monster: the Frankenskeen Monster!

Scuttlebutt downtown was that Skeen was going to retire during his current term.  I postulated that his partner-in-crime D.A. Matt Bingham had announced that he would not serve another term as D.A., expecting to be appointed to Skeen's empty seat.  But Skeen apparently threw a wrench into all of that this week:

Well this whole transition of power thing could still happen, just a couple of years later than I expected.  Wonder what Bingham is going to do until then?  Change his mind and try to go for another term as DA?  Take a sabbatical?

But I digress.  Back to Skeen.


Why you should say NO to Judge Jack Skeen

To get a window into Skeen's sense of legal ethics, go back to 1992 when Skeen was the District Attorney.  He and his underling, prosecutor David Dobbs prosecuted Kerry Max Cook, whose first murder conviction had been overturned three more times.  Cook's second trial in 1992 ended in a mistrial.  Fourteen months later, Skeen and Dobbs succeeded in railroading Cook and got a conviction.  How?  Well, after that conviction was overturned in 1996, the state's highest criminal  appellate court offered an explanation :

In November 1996 the [Criminal Court of Appeals] threw out the verdict, decrying the state’s role in the case with unusually harsh language, proclaiming that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.” Though most of the misconduct singled out was from the first trial, the court noted other disquieting behavior from the second and third, including Dobbs’s visit to Cook at the jail. In a concurring opinion, a judge found the misconduct so bad that he thought a fair trial was no longer possible and that in his view Smith County should not be allowed to continue prosecuting Cook: “The State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense.”

Cook was granted another trial in 1999.  Skeen and Dobbs knew damn well that newly-available DNA evidence was on the way--evidence that might have exonerated Cook.  Did they do the right thing and wait for the results to come back?  NO! They offered the terrified Cook a plea deal in which he was sentenced to the time he already served.  Cook went free, but thanks to Skeen and Dobbs, he was branded a convicted murderer until he was granted a final hearing in June, 2016 in which Skeen's protégé, Matt Bingham finally agreed to drop the murder charge against Cook in a deal that protected Skeen and Dobbs from scrutiny that might have led to uncovering their previous misconduct!

Did Skeen learn from his errors?  Nope.  Getting appointed to the vacant bench of the 241st just gave Skeen free reign as a judge to play fast and loose with procedural rules and let prosecutors run rough-shod over defendants' rights.  No case is more illustrative of Skeen's disregard for the Constitution than the ill-fated  "Mineola Swingers' Club" debacle, which further disgraced Smith County's dysfunctional criminal justice system and was eventually overturned.  The conservative 14th Court of Appeals returned its ruling with a scathing rebuke of Skeen's conduct in the case.  The appellate court found that Skeen committed "numerous evidentiary errors" when he excluded evidence and testimony that certainly would have hurt the prosecution's case.  It went on to say that Skeen "adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the state in proving its case, while impeding appellant’s ability to defend himself."
Must have had the flu for a few days in law school when they
went over stuff like that.

As a conservative Republican, why should I care, Joorie, you might be asking.  For one thing, this kind of thing could happen to anyone.  Get accused of a crime you didn't commit, get strapped to Smith County's conviction locomotive, spend your life savings defending yourself, and still go to prison.  But think about this:  If you believe in fiscal restraint, lower taxes, limited government...Do you really think Skeen's notoriously harsh sentences for victimless crimes really help us achieve those aims?  And what about the concept of justice in general, and a respect for the law of the land--the Constitution?  As "conservatives, aren't we supposed to be for all of that?


What can be done?

Well, maybe nothing.  If no one runs against Skeen, he will stay in office for at least another four years no matter what--unless some big piece of fat finally comes loose and lodges itself in one of the major arteries of Skeen's cold, hard heart.  But if he DOES have an opponent...

You will need to vote in the Republican primary in March, 2018.  There will not be a viable Democrat running for that office, so the Republican primary will determine who is the judge for the 241st.  You can vote in the Republican primary even if you consider yourself a Democrat.  (You just won't be able to also vote in the Democrat primary that year.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Taking our freedoms away, one Amendment at a time

When local governments attack

What if I told you about a NATO-member nation that claims to be a champion of human rights;  that also receives huge amounts of funding from American taxpayers, in which the following types of injustices were happening?

  1. An author who disputes the government's official version of how a political leader was assassinated gets harassed by police for years and repeatedly arrested, even though he has committed no crimes.     

  2. A government official orders a police raid on the home of a blogger who has been exposing government corruption and accuses the blogger of violating a law that no longer exists.

  3. A political watchdog is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit.

  4. Government officials abuse their power and the authority of a court to track down and harass an anonymous blogger who has been critical of them.

You'd be thinking, tell us what nation this is, Joorie, so we can write letters to the Trumpster and to Mr. Gohmert and demand that we cut off ALL foreign aid to that country!  Problem is, faithful readers is that that country is the good ole U.S. of A.  That's right, 'Murrcah. Hell-yeah!

I grew up fearing the "jack-booted thugs" in the federal government, thinking that if my rights were going to be taken away, they would be the ones to do so.  But if I've learned anything in the past few years, it's that we need to fear governments at ALL levels.  Local governments, closest to the people, are also the ones that tend to abuse their powers in subtle ways.

Let's look at a few recent examples.

Dallas, Texas:  Robert Groden is an author and self-proclaimed expert on the JFK assassination.  He's been arrested or ticketed by the city of Dallas 82 times for trying to sell his books at a table he set up on weekends in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was assassinated.  All 82 times, he's been acquitted, because, well, selling books in Dealey Plaza is not illegal!  On one occasion, Groden, who was pushing 70 and in poor health, was held overnight in jail and was not given his medications.

So what was the beef city officials had with this guy?  Well, after 54 years, the JFK assassination is apparently still a touchy subject in Dallas.  Groden does not accept the "official" narrative of the assassination that is approved Dallas' Powers That Be:  that a single madman with a mail-order Italian rifle shot Kennedy from the School Book Depository building.  (It's the explanation that makes the most sense to me, but that's beside the point.)  So, when a guy like Groden starts hanging around, talking to tourists, babbling about the grassy knoll and the picket fence and "magic bullets" and stuff--well, we just can't have any of that, can we?

Houma, Louisiana:  In August, 2016, Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Larry Larpenter raided the home of Houma police officer Wayne Anderson and seized his computer.  The warrant was based on the accusation that Anderson had violated an obsolete anti-defamation law in Louisiana that had been ruled unconstitutional.  The sheriff believed that Anderson was the author of an anonymous blog that accused the sheriff and other parish officials of corruption.  (Damn, I'm thinking, that kind of thing could happen to me!)

Brownwood, TexasIn 2009 community activist and local government watchdog Joe Cooksey was arrested and charged with violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. He was prosecuted and convicted for allegedly illegally releasing the transcript of a lawfully closed meeting of the Brown County Commissioners Court.  Cooksey's  conviction was eventually overturned because the appellate court found that the meeting in question was not lawful after all.  So Ironically, it was his accusers who had violated TOMA in the first place!  Why was Cooksey targeted?  Probably because for years he had been openly critical of a number of local officials, including the county judge and had exposed their corruption online on a Facebook page titled "Brown County Watchdog." (Dang, this could happen to me, too!)

Oh, but these kinds of things would never happen here in Smith County, you might be thinking.  After all, this county is run by good 'conservative Republicans' who watch baseball, eat apply pie, love Jesus, and above all, respect the Constitution!

Tyler, Texas:  (This one actually did happen to me.)  It's not really a big deal, because nothing really bad happened to me, but it is still worth mentioning.  In 2015 and 2016 County Judge Joel Baker and members of the Smith County Commissioners Court were investigated by the Texas attorney general for alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.  During the investigation, they illegally  authorized the expenditure of around $46,000 from the county's coffers for their defense.*  One of the attorneys working for the commissioners court was tasked with trying to identify an anonymous blogger, "Joorie Doodie," who had been openly critical of the county judge and the commissioners for over two years.  The attorney erroneously associated the blogger with a "network of radicalism" and called Joorie Doodie's blog a "hate website."

After County Judge Joel Baker was indicted for the TOMA violations, he successfully petitioned the criminal trial court to order the county to release to the defense any e-mails containing the keywords "Joorie Doodie" or that were received by or sent to the blogger using county e-mail accounts.  Fortunately, I had been very careful to conceal my identity by using a virtual private network for all of my blogging activity.  Had this ruse been successful, Baker would have been able to identify the blogger without having to go through the legally arduous and expensive process of showing a civil court in a defamation suit that the material on the blog passed the "Cahill" test .

I can think of no compelling legitimate reason that public funds should have been spent by the commissioners court to uncover my identity.  And I think it is very unlikely that Baker's defense attorney thought that putting the intrepid blogger "Joorie Doodie" on the stand would help Baker's defense.  The only possible explanation about their motives that makes sense is that they hoped to be able to harass or intimidate me.

Okay students, what do all of the above cases have in common?  Answer:  Petty local government officials abusing their power to deprive citizens of their Constitutional right of free speech!

Smith County vs. the First Amendment

On March 14, 2017, KLTV aired a shocking, well researched report titled "Judge accused of sexting while sitting on judicial conduct board."  It was revealed that County Judge Joel Baker had exchanged over a thousand sexually-explicit messages--including partially-nude photos--with a woman he had never met, but had "friended" on Facebook. (KLTV won and Emmy for the report, by the way.)  Baker had sent and received some of the obscene messages while he was attending hearings of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.  He also sent and received such messages when he was supposed to be attending an educational conference at taxpayer expense.

Needless to say, the next few commissioners court meetings were quite tense, and citizens lined up to speak out against Baker and call for his resignation.  But a number of speakers were cut short by Baker when they criticized him.  Baker even ordered a deputy to escort one woman out of the room after she referenced a 2011 incident** in which Baker was investigated on suspicion that he had tried to make a video recording of a young woman while she was in her bedroom.

So how did Baker justify his actions?  He referenced some "Rules of Decorum" for commissioners court sessions that he wrote himself in 2007 and had the commissioners sign.  He had the current set of commissioners sign an identical document in 2012.  One of His Excellence's decrees was that no speaker could "question the integrity of the Court or its members."

So, let's stop right there and review this confusing thing called the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [emphasis mine]

Okay, your disHonor, what if my "grievance" is that I believe an elected official lacks integrity?  Is there another amendment to the Constitution that says that I have free speech and stuff as long as I don't questions someone's "integrity?"  I think not.  So why wouldn't the First Amendment apply in commissioners court?  Well, Baker's assertion had been based on Texas' arcane form of county government, defined in Article V of the Texas Constitution, in which the chief elected official is, in fact, a "judge" and the commissioners "court" is therefore a real "court."  If you've ever been in a Texas courtroom, you know that the judge is God, and you defy him or her at your peril. possibly facing arrest and prosecution for contempt of court.  But I really don't think that argument would hold up in a federal or even a state court.  Sure, the county judge assumes a "judicial" role at other times, when he presides over mental health and probate hearings.  But when a county commissioners court is in session, it is functioning as a legislative body over which the county judge presides in a legislative role, much like the Speaker of the House presides over the House of Representatives.  Another way to put this is that your uncle may wear a dress sometimes, but that doesn't necessarily make him your aunt.

The Consti-WHAT-shun?

If you follow my argument, you might assert that the Constitution would not prevent the commissioners from prohibiting any public comment during their weekly meetings.  After all, I can't march into the Capitol, fill out a form and speak before Congress.  But it is well established that at times and places (such as state university campuses) where speech is allowed on public property, the First Amendment applies.  So it's all or none, commissioners.  Do you see what they are doing here?  By allowing some speech and censoring anything that is derogatory about themselves, the promote the impression that their constituents think everything is hunky-dory and they are doing a great job.

To be honest, I don't really care about going down there and speaking my mind.  When people go to that podium and speak, the clownishioners usually zone out and look at their computers.  There are probably more effective ways to communicate with them than in a 3-minute rant.  But think about the implications of this.  If the commissioners court chamber is a "courtroom," that means that the commissioners are also subject to the "Rules of Decorum."  Imagine the following scenario:  An important item like, say, the county budget is up for a vote.  Three of the commissioners oppose the budget, and the county judge and one of the commissioners support it.  The county judge could simply claim that two of the opposing commissioners questioned someone's "integrity" during a heated debate and expel them, leaving a majority of those left in favor of the budget.  Then call for the vote and, badda-bing, badda-boom!  The budget passes even thought three of the duly-elected commissioners (a majority) opposed it!

Why I'm still angry

So what did the commissioners--Cary Nix, JoAnn Hampton, Jeff Warr, and Terry Phillips--do when Baker shot these people down, one by one?  They did what they usually do, which was to sit there in silence with dumfounded looks an their faces.  But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe procedural rules prevented them from blurting out a protest during the meeting.  But what about after the meeting?  TV cameras were rolling and every journalist from within 50 miles was present.  I would have raised nine kinds of hell at that point.  But our commissioners?  Nothing.  But if you've followed this story without paying much attention you might say, but Joorie, they took action within a week.  That's true if by "taking action" you mean that they formed a toothless committed chaired by their own employee to "study" and "discuss" the problem.  Why does this require a "committee" and "further study" clownishioners?  All you had to do was to take out the part about not questioning whoever's integrity and be done with it.

Smith County make Kim proud!

And what's really an outrage is that a year later, nothing has been done.  Click on the county website and there sits Joel Baker's "Rules of Decorum," in all its glory.  That bogus committee met a few times and the clownishioners have "discussed" it.   The last reference I could find to the matter was in the September 6 commissioners court meeting .  They talked about giving the clownishioners the option of overriding the county judge if he wanted to terminate a speaker's time, but were not too keen on taking out verbiage that prohibited speakers from criticizing them.  Ah, but they took 'decisive action' again on the matter--that is if by 'decisive action' you mean turning it back over to the attorney for 'further study.'

So what can be done?

I'd love for someone to challenge this in court.  I'd do it myself if I could:  I'd pound my fist on the podium and call them a bunch of jackasses, refuse to step down, get arrested, and come back and sue their asses.  But I don't have the time, financial means, or social status to pull something like that off.  And frankly, from a pragmatic standpoint, speaking at those meetings accomplishes little.  After all, there are about 25 people present, and virtually NOBODY takes the time to watch the recordings of the clownishioners court meetings online.'

Ah, but we have a new weapon that is a great equalizer, faithful readers--the internet!  There's nothing they can legally do about my blog.  Not into blogging?  Well you always have e-mail.  Back in the day when televisions had vacuum tubes and kids played with lawn darts, you had to fire up the old Underwood typewriter, angrily peck out a letter to an elected official, scrounge around to find an envelope, lick a stamp...Now you just sit at your desk during lunch break and fire off an angry e-mail--or dozens of angry e-mails--to whoever you want.  Sure, you can use the telephone, if that suits your fancy.  But I prefer to compose my thoughts instead of just ranting free-form over the phone.

Don't think it would have an effect?  Probably not if only a few people did it.  But consider this: These people want to stay in office, meaning they care about being reelected.  One e-mail from the blogger Joorie Doodie is just another rant from a member of the "tinfoil hat" crowd.  Ten e-mails tightens the sphincter a little, and a hundred emails is a veritable friggin' insurrection!

So let 'em have it:

County Judge Nathaniel Moran:  903-590-4600
Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Warr: 903-590-4601
Precinct 2 Commissioner Cary Nix: 903-590-4602
Precinct 3 Commissioner Terry Phillips: 903-590-4603
Precinct 4 Commissioner JoAnn Hampton: 903-590-4604

*Since none of the commissioners was charged with a crime, it would have been legal for the county to pay for their legal defense, as long as, a. each commissioner's expenses would have been approved individually, and b. the commissioner whose reimbursement was being approved abstained from the vote for his or her reimbursement.

**The lady was out of line in that she accused Baker of making "child pornography" and insinuated that the person Baker was allegedly attempting to videotape was sixteen years old.  The police report reflects that the young woman was an adult.  That said, who gets to decide in public debate what is truthful or not?  Hell, if you apply that standard, most of anything politicians say would be censored!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Celebrating Sunshine Week: A look back at "Cameragate"

Sunshine Week?

This is the first I'm hearing of it.  Didn't spend much time researching it.  But apparently March 12-18 will mark the 12th annual celebration of this event that is about transparency in government.  Sounds like much of the discussions and events will be about the Freedom of Information Act and other issues related to journalists' access to government information.  But I'm going to expand this a little bit and talk a little about transparency in government in general.

What was Cameragate?

"Cameragate" was a local scandal that exemplifies what kinds of things happen when local governments work in secret.  It would lead to the criminal conviction of Joel Baker for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.  In January, 2015, then Smith County Judge Joel Baker signed a 10-year contract with an outfit in Arizona called "American Traffic Solutions," or ATS.  The arrangement was something like this:  ATS would supply the county with 10-20 mobile automated camera units that would catch drivers speeding in school zones.  Speeders would be assessed a fine (termed a "civil penalty") of $150.  After the county paid an initial set-up fee of $8,700 per camera, ATS would keep half of the revenue, and the rest would go to the county.  And by calling the fine a "civil penalty," the county could bypass such Sixth Amendment-guaranteed legal machinations like allowing the accused to appear in court before guilt was determined and a punishment assessed!  Everyone wins, right?
Well, the deal was bad for the county for so many reasons.  Among them was the fact that the county could still be on the hook for as much as $2.4 MILLION for cancelling the contract early!  And that was exactly what happened.  When the plan was announced later that spring, the public and just about every elected official in the county cried foul, and the commissioners scrapped the program.  But what got Joel Baker and the commissioners in hot water was that the scheme was hammered out and approved during three meetings--two closed sessions and one open meeting--in the summer of 2014 that were in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, or TOMA.

Ah, the old gang:  Former Smith County Judge Joel Baker, Commissioners
Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, JoAnn Hampton, and Terry Phillips

It's complicated and I won't go into too much detail here.  But TOMA is Texas' "sunshine law" that, but for a few exceptions, forbids elected officials from doing government business in secret.  And, when matters are to be voted on in open sessions, the public has to be given advance notice about such items in a way that would allow the average person to understand what was being decided.  It is a crime for an elected official to even be present at an  illegal meeting. (An official is expected to walk out as soon as he or she determines that a meeting is in violation.)  Commissioners Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, and JoAnn Hampton were all present at all three of the sessions.  Commissioner Terry Phillips, who opposed the contract, was present at the last open session when the contract was approved.

Why I'm not letting this die

As far as the local news people are concerned, "Cameragate" died when the case against Joel Baker ended in a plea bargain in December, 2016.  But I'm disturbed that the other county commissioners--JoAnn Hampton, Jeff Warr, Cary Nix, and Terry Phillips--are still in office and were never prosecuted for their own apparent violations of TOMA.
You see, laws like TOMA and FOIA only work if officials who violate those laws are prosecuted for their offenses.  That does not happen nearly enough, which is probably why Baker and his clownishioners thought they could get away with this.  Baker got off with a slap on the wrist:  a $200 fine and a month of "deferred adjudication."  The fine is ironic because it is less than what would normally be assessed for speeding in a school zone!  Ha!  Why weren't the other commissioners prosecuted?  I can only guess.  But my theory is this:  The Republican Attorney General, whose office pursued this case, understood that if he took down a whole county government involving several Republican officials, it would look like a local infestation of corruption in the Republican Party.  Just prosecuting Joel Baker made it look like there was just one "bad apple," which isn't too bad for the Party.  (I'm a Republican, by the way.)  And maybe Baker got off easy because, had he gone to trial, the defense would have paraded three other Republicans in front of the public, under oath to testify.  They would have had to either perjure themselves or admit that they too had violated TOMA.  So, they just offered Baker a sweet deal he couldn't refuse and assistant AG Dan Brody was able to brush of his hands and ride back to Austin with another "conviction" under his belt.
And think about this:  There is a saying about corruption that goes something like, "If you see a rat, there are probably ten that you don't see."  Who knows what else has been hidden from us?  Hell, nobody ever even looked into what motivated Baker, Warr, and the rest of these idiots to risk political suicide by supporting this stupid plan in first place!

What can we do now?

Well, the criminal case is a done deal, as the statute of limitations has expired.  But we can still get rid of these people--and we need to for many other reasons.  We still have the vote.  Jeff Warr says he won't run again, so we'll see about that.  But Cary Nix and JoAnn Hampton come up for reelection in 2018, which will be here sooner than you think.  We need opposition candidates, then we need to get out the vote.
Vote the bums out in 2018!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

More on City of Tyler tax abatements

What this is about is a decision made yesterday by the Tyler City Council to extend a tax abatement to Hood Packaging.  I don't really like these tax abatements because I think they are "crony capitalism" and they also force other taxpayers in the community to pick up the tab.  But I'm not really ranting about the city's decision to do this, because it is done all of the time, all over the country.  I'm mainly irritated with the reporting on this that has left me confused.  I think there are some concerns and questions that remain unanswered.

First of all, what is Hood Packaging getting out of this, again?

Faith Harper's  article in the Telegraph suggests the company has been getting a free ride from the city for the past three years and will continue to get the same in this new deal.  But today's  article on KLTV's website states that Hood will only get a tax break on the new part of their operation.  Which is it?

Did the city really need to give the company this deal?

The Tyler Economic Development Council (TEDC) and Hood are claiming that if Hood doesn't get a sweet deal from Tyler, they might expand a plant in Canada instead.  Canada?  Has anyone at TEDC or the city council researched what the Canadians are offering, if anything?  Do we know the company would get a better deal elsewhere?

And, finally, you've shown us the numbers, but...

What do they mean, and where did they come from?  Since news articles don't usually contain footnotes and references, I don't know what kind of research they did.  But it appears on the surface that these reporters did what most American journalists usually do, which is to interview some people and print what they said.

There are several numbers here that should have been checked.  The first few numbers are from the Tylerpaper article:

Employment increased from 78 in 2012 to 140 in 2016, according to the EDC. The average hourly rate is $20.11 before benefits and $26.55 with benefits.

I'm not too worried about those, because they are easy to verify.  It just would have been nice to know where those figures came from.  Both articles go on to say that this new addition to the company will retain four jobs, add four new jobs, and will involve investing an additional $4.5 million in the operation.  Okay, good, as long as city leaders follow up on that, I'm okay with it.

On the same thread, here's another one:

According to the EDC it has invested more than $38 million in major capital projects in Tyler, and more than $15 million was made in the last two years.

Hmm..."according to the EDC..."  I'm assuming they mean the Tyler Economic Development Council (TEDC).  So do you see where I'm going with this yet?  Again, easily verified.  Did you do that, Ms. Harper? (Telegraph)  Mr. Murray?(KLTV)

Okay, but here's the one that really made me nervous. Faith Harper from the Telegraph stated the following as fact, without attribution:

Hood Packaging annually contributes $6.8 million to the local economy through its net payroll, local purchases and tax payments.

But pay close attention, faithful readers, 'cuz here's what KLTV said:

Tom Mullins says the company puts $6.8 million into the local economy every year. [emphasis mine]

See the difference?  Tom Mullins (TEDC) said it, so it must be true, right?  This is TEDC's raison d'être--to broker these kinds of deals between businesses and local governments--so of course Mullins is going to vomit some impressive-sounding number in the millions of dollars to support his cause.  Did anyone think to investigate where that number came from?  Somebody at TEDC working from a spread-sheet on the old lap-top?  From Hood Packaging?  From an independent consulting firm or some neutral economist on faculty at a university?

Oh, and get this...

Smith County may jump on this bandwagon, too.

And now that the city has authorized the tax break, the company will go to Smith County and TJC with the same request. All in all, Tom Mullins says the company would be relieved of about $100,000 in taxes, in exchange for their $4.5 million investment.

Great.  So when election time rolls around, the Three Stooges--Commissioners Jeff Warr, Cary Nix, and JoAnn Hampton--can talk about how they "partnered" with the city to "bring in X number of millions of dollars in economic development, blah, blah, blah..."

I'd better stop there before my blood pressure starts going up.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

City of Tyler tax abatements: Good policy or crony capitalism?

Just what's going on here?

Wow.  Two posts about the city of Tyler in two days.  Hope this doesn't become a trend.  Anyhoo, an article in the Telegraph yesterday caught my eye:
To sum it up, the city council is considering extending a 100% tax abatement to Hood Flexible Packaging, a company that makes "heavy duty shipping sacks."  For those of you who don't know, this means that the company will not have to pay any property tax to the city during the term of the agreement.  To continue to qualify for the abatement, the company will have to invest $4.5 million in it's local operation, add four new jobs, and retain four positions it already has.
But what is the city's objective here?  I thought that the main purpose of local tax abatements was to lure new businesses into the area.  Hood, like many other local companies has already been given a tax abatement that started in 2013.  Now the company is threatening to upgrade one of it's other plants in Canada instead of investing in the Tyler location if the city doesn't give them a free ride on property taxes.  Anybody see a problem with this?  I do.  All a growing company has to do to avoid local taxes is to threaten to invest in another location every few years if they don't get their way.
Another argument that local leaders also repeat about offering tax abatements is that it brings in jobs.  But my question to leaders in Tyler and Smith County has always been this:  Why does it seem that the jobs that are brought in are usually relatively low-paying manufacturing and distribution jobs?  Don't get me wrong--there is nothing wrong with those kinds of jobs.  But what about jobs for college graduates?  This city has three medical centers, two colleges, one regional university, and is bursting at the seams with upper middle class families whose children go off to college in Austin or College Station or Waco and never return.  Thousands graduate from local colleges annually, and where do they go?  Isn't it time to try to plug up the "brain drain" that we have going on here?  Is anybody looking at ways to bring in high-tech jobs?

Is it effective in growing the local economy?

I'm cynical enough that if I knew tax abatements were really good for the community, I might turn a blind eye to other considerations such as fairness.  This is apparently done all over the U.S.  But many pundits argue that there is little evidence that this practice actually benefits local economies in the long run.  The main government practices that most conservatives believe promote economic growth are low taxes in general and limiting government regulation.  Would it make more sense to make everyone pay their fair share and try to keep taxes low across the board?  I'm just saying show me the data.  I hope Tyler's city council members are saying the same.

But isn't it crony capitalism?

Yes it is.  Crony capitalism is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, or other forms of state interventionism.

Is it fair?

Not really.  Then again, nothing in this life is fair.  But when certain businesses get a free ride, the rest of us--homeowners and other businesses--pick up the tab.  And don't forget that Tylerites were just informed that, because of budget shortfalls, city services are going to be cut!  So in that context, city leaders are considering just letting this company--as they do many others--avoid paying property taxes?

What about transparency?

That's what bothers me most about this--there is none.  What many of you don't know (I didn't until recently.) is that matters involving "economic development" are exempted from the Texas Open Meetings Act.  Therefore these deals between businesses and local governments can be hammered out in secret, away from the prying eyes of journalists, watchdogs, and, most importantly the public.  And if we've learned anything recently from local scandals it's that bad things can happen when government is allowed to operate in secret!
There have been failed attempts in the legislature over the years to change this.  Business interests have argued that to disclose deliberations between a local government and a business could give that company's competitors and unfair advantage.  Huh?  Wouldn't it be more fair for everyone (including taxpayers) if such matters were kept above-board, so businesses would have to compete fairly?  Taxpayers would almost certainly benefit, because companies would be forced to offer favorable deals to local governments or risk getting displaced by their competitors.

So what do you want us to do, Joorie?

I want you, faithful readers to write your state legislator and demand transparency when it comes to local tax abatements and other deals between private businesses and government.  And if you're on the Tyler City Council, I want you to consider carefully what you are doing here.  Mostly, don't forget...
We are watching.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Tyler's Rose Garden, Harvey Hall, and fairgrounds to get a major makeover

I've gone pretty easy on local municipal government officials, except for maybe a little discussion about that hoopla down in Whitehouse involving the city manager and chief of police.  And, to my politically naïve eye, it seems that the city of Tyler usually has its stuff together.  But a little article in the Tylerpaper last week caught my eye:

I'm not really ready to pass judgment on this yet, as I don't fully understand what is going on.  But I have a few anxiety-provoking questions.

First, is this about the $%**@!# Rose Festival?

Please tell us now, Mayor Heines and Mr. Broussard if it is, so I can just get my tirade over with.  You can bet your bottom dollar that last year when the city started talking about building a new conference/convention center in south Tyler, the Harvey Hall people (e.g. the Rose Festival crowd) started wringing their hands and fretting about what would happen to Harvey Hall.  Well, now we have an answer:  City leaders plan to bulldoze it to the ground and build a newer, better Harvey hall!

Why do you keep ragging on the Rose Festival, Joorie, you might be asking.  After all is part of our heritage, our history, our culture.  And think about the economic impact!

Well let me address the "economic impact" first.  I couldn't find the 2015 0r 2016 figures published anywhere.  Were they embarrassed by the numbers?  The "economic impact" of the "Rose Festival season" in 2014 was estimated to be about $2.53 million.  Notice they used the term "season," meaning that figure represented not only the 3-day Rose Festival, but about a dozen other events.  $2.5 million and some change sounds like a lot of money, but it's really just a drop in the pond when it comes to the local economy.  The average convenience store probably has more economic impact annually that the Rose Festival.  But I don't see local politicians bending over backwards to take care of some guy named Mahmoud who is working his butt of trying to eek out a living at his Kwik-E-Mart!

Yeah, the RF is part of your "heritage" if you are white, rich, and your family has lived here since the Civil War.  Go over to Willowbrook Country Club (If they'd let you in!) and look at the portraits of the 80-some-odd rose queens.  See one who isn't lily-white?  If I were more left-leaning, I'd assert that the RF harkens back to segregation and that it is symbolic of the wide racial and economic divides that characterize Tyler.  Therefore, the Rose Festival needs to go the way of the Rebel flag and schools named after Confederate generals.  (Oh, I forgot--we still have that here!)  But I'm not that way, so I won't go there.
From 2014 Texas Rose Festival:  Doesn't EVERY little girl grow up
dreaming of being the "Popcorn-Box-Head Princess" some day?

As for "history," the Rose Festival was started as a marketing gimmick to promote the local rose growing industry during the Great Depression.  It has nothing to do with the early settlers in the area or the community's founders, or for that matter, the Native-Americans who lived here for centuries before that.  It's a tradition that has about as much cultural significance as the high school homecoming parade.  As an event, I rank it up there with Comic-Con or a truck and tractor pull--fun (for a few) and frivolous, but harmless.*  The taxpayer's shouldn't have to support it in any way.

So, I hope that it is projected that the tear-down and rebuild of Harvey Hall will pay for itself in terms of increased revenue from events that are held there year-round.  Mr. Mayor and members of the city council, I'm going to have to trust you on that.

So with that out of the way, I can move on to my next question...

So why are we thinking about building stuff for the fairgrounds?

I really don't have anything against the East Texas State Fair (ETSF).  I've been to it a couple of times.  Saw some free concerts, ate some corny-dogs, looked at some hogs, and went home.  It was entertaining in a provincial, chawbacon sort of way.  But again the fair needs to support itself.

Well, apparently this plan for the Rose Garden/Harvey Hall/fairgrounds complex includes tearing down several of the buildings that the fair uses and replacing them with a single "multi-use" facility.  Oh and the planners threw in a stable and arena for the FFA (Future Farmers of America) folks.  Fine, but the ETSF people are grumbling that they've "outgrown" the current fairgrounds and plan to relocate at some point. (Link to article)  So why would we build fairgrounds-type facilities there?

You see, the fair is operated by a non-profit corporation called the "Park of East Texas" (POET) that also operates the Science Place and the Children's Park.  Currently POET leases the fairgrounds property from the city for $1 per year and maintains the property. The city gets a cut of the proceeds from the fair.   As of 2015, POET had a little over $830,000 in cash on hand and it currently owns a property in west Tyler that they paid about $1.5 million for.  Will POET pay for the upgrades to the current fairgrounds?  Or will the city of Tyler foot the bill?  If so, will the city get its money back by increasing the rent on the property or from proceeds from the fair?

A couple of things make me a little nervous about this.  First, POET president John Sykes has been talking about a "public-private" partnership.  I say whenever corporate types (even if they are non-profit) start taking about public-private partnerships, it's often doublespeak for wanting public funds.  But also--and this may just be some tinfoil-hat type suspicion on my part--a look at POET's  executives and directors revealed a few names that are familiar in Smith County's dysfunctional political scene.  So, if I were on the city council, I'd want a full disclosure of POET's financial situation (including who's being paid by them) before I would be willing to commit to anything.

A museum?

Oh, this little detail almost escaped me:
Plans also include space for a proposed Tyler sports museum between Harvey and the Mayfair.
Whuh....a "sports museum?"  What, like a shrine to Earl Campbell or something?  Who the #%&@ is going to cruise down Front Street, park at the Rose-Whatever Complex, get out and to a museum?  NO, Tyler city council members.   Just...NO!

So to bring it home, the final question is...


How will this benefit the community?

Of course there are "intangible" benefits here, such as civic pride.  But the problem I have with this is that Tylerites are being told this year that because of budget shortfalls, services are going to be cut.  Summer programs for poor children were the first to go.  The city won't be able to maintain its existing youth sports fields.  Tyler can't even afford to pay traffic engineers to tweak the timing on its traffic lights to improve traffic flow.  Think about THAT the next time you sit a little too long at a red light!  At this point Tyler can't really afford to spend money just for "civic pride" or to make the Rose Festival prettier.

So, as with any other civil construction project, the following test must be applied:  From a fiscal standpoint, is the city going to at least "break even" on the deal?  Yeah I understand that it is a complicated analysis because things like economic impact and sales tax revenue have to be taken into account.  Hopefully you're reading this, Mayor Heines and members of the Tyler City Council.  When it comes to taxpayer money, don't behave foolishly.  Just remember, a county judge recently behaved foolishly and...

I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Well, not that.  But a few other individuals and I exposed his misdeeds.  And now entering his name renders some of the most toxic search engine results I've ever seen.   Don't let that happen to you.  Don't let that be the legacy you leave for your children.

We are watching.

*I had this glass-of-wine-fueled flight of fantasy while I was composing this article:  It occurred to me that, if only for fiscal reasons, marijuana will probably be legalized in most states, including Texas.  (I don't advocate marijuana use, but I think it's what this country is coming to.)  When that happens, East Texas--with its mild weather, abundant sunshine, and plentiful water--will be in a position to become a cannabis-producing powerhouse for the region, if not the whole country.  So will there be a "Texas Marijuana Festival" some day?  Seventy-five years from now will some angry cyborg blogger sit ranting online via her direct neural uplink about the ridiculousness of the TMF with its "Cannabis Queen" and "Hemp Duchess?"