Friday, July 30, 2010

Difficulties of governing

Government is basically the same everywhere except maybe here. You can't please everyone, especially here. In The Woodlands Texas, we have some unique issues. History drives our dilemma. We started as a development company and gradually transitioned into an association. Then we developed Town Center independently but in parallel with the residential villages using totally different concepts, but retaining similar processes and community values. Village residents were not necessarily in agreement with the development plans of Town Center but few contested the vision of a suburban downtown in the middle of the forest, governing itself. From the beginning, Town Center has been a place for visitors. Now it is also a place for a unique urbanized class of residents. With the merger of Town Center and association governments into a township government, some of the conflicts have not yet been adequately addressed. Some big issues remain and the task to effectively govern this community is difficult.  

Newer residents have embraced the ideas of urbanization more than old timers. This has caused somewhat of a conflict between naturalists and city dwellers, a concrete/steel society vs a natural setting. This subject is rarely discussed because it just lies in the background, like a shadow, going unnoticed and being misinterpreted as the same as a business vs residential conflict. Villagers do not want to hear noise or see concrete and steel in their communities. That is the basis of conflict between the two paradigms. Commercializing The Woodlands must be done with care and consideration for the reverse side of the coin.  

The line between commercialism and naturalism could be drawn at budget time. Residents should not have to pay for commercialism, yet investments in commercialism can save taxpayers real money. Now the question is constantly asked, should government be in business, with capital investments and profiteering? This is one ongoing debate that is currently occurring within the government of The Woodlands. It is a conflict, because there continues to be vestiges of the old Town Center in the way the directors think and act. After all, we have a number of old town center directors remaining on the current board.

Many people here ask pertinent and pointed questions, but they rarely take any action. Last night I attended a town hall meeting specifically convened to review the 2011 budget. Outside of the normal crowd, there were very few residents, maybe only two who stood up and made what I would call "normal resident" comments. I made comments too, but I have been commenting regularly ever since our governing question came to the table a few years ago. The township directors were all ears with pen and paper in hand, but with so few voices speaking, they should not feel comfortable in receiving the feedback they sought. They get what they can and will discuss what to do before finalizing the budget. Last year, the public produced more comments than this year and had significant impact on the outcome. This year, the election generated significant focus on the issues, but the public did not come out and vote. It was no surprise to me to see so few people attending the town hall meeting and so few comments made.

It is no surprise to see the same issues at the town hall meeting as the election. Are the issues real? Is policing really an issue? If it is, why didn't the public vote out the incumbents and let new ideas be brought forward? Status quo does not produce change. It sustains the old. It is interpreted as "everything is OK". Just keep the taxes the same and we will be happy.  Yet the public said something different in the residents' survey. There are problems to be solved, especially in law enforcement.

The board has therefore made a small change to the budget to reduce Alpha Omega mounted patrols and put the money towards policing. $300,000 was knocked off of the $1.5 million contract, yet we will continue to see the mounted patrols in the parking lot of Walmart at I-45 and SH-242. The idea is that they are charged with patrolling all of Town Center. We will increase policing in 2011 through more overtime and three more hires. Each hire will require a full sized police car, compatible with the Sheriff's fleet for high speed chases on highways. These automobiles must be replaced every four years. We are not county roads. We are a urban community of neighborhood streets. Our policing requirements are different than the county. Every officer is trained in the county processes and skills are developed in the same way. Sheriff policies must be retained in the deployment of the officers. Isn't it time to change?

Hand it to the board however. The proposed budget has a plan to study policing again. Yes, get consultants and see what is needed in the community. It is difficult to govern a community, especially when there are no skills within the board to manage the policing of our community. This study may be the right thing to do now, but it must be done carefully. Representatives from the village associations are being given the job of giving feedback on the future of our policing. Maybe the feedback should also be given to a committee of knowledgeable people in the community. There is an abundance of issues associated with the direction we are headed, but someone has to lead the effort and get it done.

Fortunately, we have seven residents who volunteer their time to make these decisions. I hope they take to heart the comments made last night in their thoughts as they reconsider some of the decisions in the budget. For one, I hope we move off of the old idea that there is any law enforcement benefit in the deployment of horseback patrols. That is purely a tourist expense, hid under the umbrella of law enforcement. Much of it could be used as a general homestead for residents. If in 2011 it would be trimmed from $1.2 million to $500,000, then we would have enough money to fund a homestead discount in 2012. I have heard of no plan to reduce this budget item in the five year plan, so this would apply for five years out as well as today. With $500,000 we should have plenty of visible mounted patrols in pretty red jackets to give the township its "personality". Just put them in the right places - where people walk (but not parking lots). Put them in places for physical presence at events where people gather and along paths in Town Center, strictly for visibility. Put them under the jurisdiction and management of tourism, not law enforcement. They are patrolling to attract visitors. Let's find out if they really do that.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Development Standards Committee of The Woodlands Township

Recently, I attended a Development Standards Committee (DSC) meeting to observe what transpires these days in a regular meeting.  Resident attendance was abnormally high at this meeting.  There were one or two unusual resident issues to handle on the agenda available at the front desk, apparently creating a higher-than-normal interest. I picked this month for two reasons – (1) the Woodlands Board of Directors has been receiving applications for positions on this committee and are currently determining who will be appointed to the board for the coming year.  Next week, the board selects the new members. I was observing behaviors and interactions among the committee members and between residents and committee. (2) One resident has been telling his story publicly. I wanted to see what happened first hand on this particular issue.
I bring my observations for your consideration and interest. Walking in the door of the township service center, I found a number of residents and contractors waiting in the lobby. I signed the guest register for the meeting and proceeded to the conference room. I discovered that the protocol is to wait in the lobby until called, a bit different than other meetings where you just walk in. The committee was having a light dinner, so I returned to the lobby. A staff member announced the meeting was ready to commence, so we all walked to the main conference room.
Similar to a RDRC meeting, the committee sits in a U-shaped configuration facing each other and the overhead projection screen, with some visitors sitting on the side and others behind the chairperson. I understand in normal months, when there are fewer visitors, everyone sits to the side so that each can see more of the board member faces and the chairperson.     
On this occasion as others, in advance of the meeting it was recommended by staff to place a number of agenda items on the Summary List. That is, variances that had been reviewed and were considered to be OK as submitted or needed some modifications as recommended by an RDRC and the homeowners were present to acknowledge agreement. Also included was an application change of a property for Fire Station #8 on Gosling Rd.  These were all read to those attending and approved by one vote of the committee. The other requests were considered individually by the committee.
Several items on the agenda confused me. I either missed them or they were not considered at all. All were characterized as “consideration and action on legal action, regarding failure to comply with the Covenants and Standards for outstanding violations on the home”. But there was one of these that did make it to discussion that drew considerable attention. This one revealed a power struggle between a resident and the committee.  He was given 3 minutes to state his case and he did. The resident in his mind was repairing a fence that had been damaged by a hurricane. One of the fences encloses a dog area in his backyard. He also has an adjoining pool area enclosed by a fence, but that fence did not incur damage from the storm. Due to a change in height of the fence of the dog enclosure, within the limits of the covenants, he was asked to replace the fence pool area fence as well, based on consistency and appearance for the entire fence. Additionally, he was required to obtain a fence permit for his pool. He had volunteered to replace the fence for appearance but verbally refused to obtain a permit. Another resident came as a witness and also testified on his behalf. He was given 3 minutes. That gentleman was interrupted as he spoke because one member of the board and the chairman interrupted him and stated that what he was saying was irrelevant. I found that to be insulting, and am sure he did also. The proper way to handle the issue was to allow the resident to speak, receive the arguments he had and then tell the resident that the argument was irrelevant and could not be used to support the case. There is no reason to be disrespectful. I was uncertain at the end if the argument was or was not relevant, due to the way it was handled. The motion was made and passed requiring him to change the fence and get the permit. He walked out saying he would not comply with the permit request, because he already had a permit for a pool fence. His modifications would obviously exceed the safety criteria provided by the original permitted fence. Here was a case of an apparent power struggle. The human aspect of the situation did not seem to be handled very well. This could end up to be a high cost legal action for the township for a relatively minor issue.
In my view, residents generally managed to present their proposals easily enough with the assistance of staff, but it seemed that many were in a position of compromise. They wanted their application variance to be approved but looked to the committee for ideas to get it approved. For this reason, it appeared that much more information than necessary was discussed. In some cases, the resident was drilled on specifications of the materials being used, when in my opinion, those questions were simply irrelevant to the case. 
A desired outcome of a committee meeting should be consensus between resident and committee. There should be no feeling of superiority by the committee or a feeling of abused power upon a resident.  There should not be a feeling of injustice. All should be logical, guided by the covenants and common sense. Thinking beyond the box in this case, I think we may be a little short in due process. If there is a feeling of injustice, we should have a means for arbitration, if only to provide a means to hear a case of injustice, not on the technicalities of the covenants themselves.
Some of the case decisions considered by this committee can have significant financial impact. One application had a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  For this reason, some serious attention to skills must be given to the process of appointing a committee, especially the chairperson, who must make decisions on order and psychological impact. In fact, Experience is important but more important are the philosophies and attitudes embraced by the candidate. A candidate must embrace the covenants as his bible; he must possess excellent interpersonal skills; he must embrace objectivity in decisions; he must be able to distinguish between right and wrong ethically; he must know and understand the value system of The Woodlands; he must be respectful to peers and residents alike. This is a demanding job that should not be filled with a person unable to put himself in the shoes of a resident that is making the application and at the same time put himself in the shoes of his neighbors. The integrity and general quality of our neighborhoods depend on the decisions of this committee.
I can see that individuals on the committee should have certain roles to fulfill the needs of this job. Within the committee, some knowledge of architecture is required in some roles, but I do not see the need to have “experts”. We do need experience in The Woodlands for every single member. Each one should be a resident. We need at least one member able to communicate well, one who is efficient oriented, one who has neighborhood vision, one who will defend a resident, one who is technically competent  and one who has legal skills. The idea is to have a good effective team; we have to fill roles and skill needs on this committee for it to work as we would like it to work.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Attending a MUD Meeting in The Woodlands

As clear as Woodlands Texas MUD?  Attending a MUD (Municipal Utility District) meeting isn’t that bad! Yes, there are some technical parts of the discussions and yes, there are financial parts of the discussions, and yes, it is not the most exciting thing a person could do.  I can say there were very few things I did not understand, but then again I have a background in drilling wells and finance.
Anyone can attend a MUD meeting. It is healthy to experience one, for both the board of directors and you.  Showing interest connects the board to its customers and its customers to the district. I sure don’t advocate going to every meeting, but I do recommend that every resident attends at least one, preferably for the district providing water service to their home.
The MUD #60 meeting I attended this month addressed a resident’s issue with soil erosion and received reports from the various agencies affecting MUD business. Of high interest to us, is the implementation of the San Jacinto River Authority Groundwater Reduction Fee. This will be fully communicated to all Woodlands residents by Jim Stinson and staff in the JPA. Residents will likely incur an additional fee of $0.50/1000 gallons of water used, starting with their October bill. Concurrently, all the MUDs need to develop a higher well contingency fund for replacing a well, should that be needed. The cost of a well has increased substantially since the last raise of contingency fund collections.
An hour spent at a meeting can be an eye opener. Minutes for a Woodlands MUD are not as accessible as those for the county or the township. They are available per the Texas Open Records Act. A copy can be acquired at a meeting or from the district’s secretary. Current agenda is posted at the utility district office near Grogan’s Mill and Lake Robins.
Operations of a MUD
Each MUD has its own budget to manage.  Each has its own assets to manage. Each district has authority over a defined geographic area. Here in The Woodlands, for efficiency purposes, maintenance and financial services are aggregated and shared among the districts. This practice helps them to keep operating costs down. Each MUD is responsible for its entire service process. All MUDs here have an interlocal contract for those shared services to the Joint Powers Agency (JPA), a nonprofit created for this purpose. The district scope of authority is limited to the reclamation, drainage, acquisition, and distribution of water.  It includes the streams and ditches associated with water runoff, as well as the infrastructure required to provide those services.  A MUD has no limit on capital investment. The Board of Directors consist of five elected residents of the district. Every even year (e.g., 2000, 2002, … 2010), there can be an election on the first Saturday of May. If there are no challenging candidates, incumbents are automatically elected and there is no election. Each board elects representatives to serve on the Joint Powers board. Taxation is by the MUD. Those elected represent the tax dollars paid by residents in the MUD district. Taxation is driven by capital expenses, i.e., sewage facilities and wells. Bi-monthly water bills are for sewage, water and cost of operation. Now we head into a new era, where surface water will begin to play an increasing role in our potable water supplies, raising the cost of water to the district. For many people, watering lawns likely will eventually be cost prohibitive.     
Some but not all resident issues with drainage or water supply can be addressed by the board. Sometimes, residents work directly with the JPA to resolve problems. For example, I recently assisted a resident, to resolve a long standing serious problem with sewage flooding in her home. The JPA came up with a solution that should fix that problem.
In 2010, there were no challengers to the board in this district. To challenge an incumbent, one must follow a procedure outlined in the charter. Contact your local MUD representative for timing detail and procedure.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Township Board Workshop Meeting - June 17

The Woodlands Township Board of Directors will conduct its first Board of Directors Workshop on Thursday, June 17, 2010. This is not intended to be a voting meeting, but can be. Looking at the agenda, this will have a single vote, since there is a consent list for approval. This will be one of two meetings this month for the new seven member board to manage the affairs of the township. This meeting will be held at 9am at The Woodlands Township Board Chambers, 10001 Woodloch Forest Drive, Suite 600, The Woodlands, Texas 77380. About one week afterward, a second meeting for the month will be in the evening at 6pm at the township service center on Lake Woodlands, across the street from the United Methodist Church. The intent of that meeting is to make decisions in the presence of interested residents. We all hope that residents take more of an interest in what occurs. I plan to be at both meetings. Do you? Link to Agenda

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Mounted Police Contract - Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end

Most people are aware of the mounted police in the Town Center of The Woodlands, Texas. Alpha and Omega is the company providing this service by horseback for us.  You can hardly miss their red uniforms that sort of resemble the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That image generates a small town atmosphere, so the township concept is boosted by their presence, so it is believed. We have them deployed in various zones within the Town Center as a tourist attraction. Just like the transportation system, however, we tend to lead people to believe these mounted patrols serve another function, that is to supplement the policing of the community. They are not policemen at all and, in fact, cannot secure your safety. They serve no useful purpose at all in regard to law enforcement. Some people will say they are useful in spotting crime and reporting it. In reality, they are no more effective in doing that than any resident who has a cell phone, and almost all residents have cell phones.

The other day I was at Walmart at FM 242 and I-45. I noticed two mounted police patrols in the parking lot there. Then I wondered. Why are they here? Walmart certainly does not present the image we need for a tourist, and the likelihood for a tourist to be present at Walmart sure seems to be small! I have no reason to contract these mounted people at all. If I would see them only at the parks, I would be more apt to support their presence, but why do we have them in the parking lot of the mall, Walmart, and other large commercial locations? These large commercial enterprises have their own way of protecting their businesses and managing security. Perhaps in isolated circumstances, we have a need for them in events and certain hours of the evening to help promote our community. Yet why are taxpayers bearing the burden for this extra amenity? The cost of it is atrocious! Some close to the checkbook say that the visitors are paying for them and this is what attracts them here. The horses are, after all, sort of a mobile petting zoo and children like to talk to these colorfully outfitted  people on top of horses. Even adults find conversation with the riders interesting. We find that the primary functional reason we have them is to dispense information and to help people find their cars in the parking lots. 

Let's take a look at the contract. Budget time is coming up very shortly. Don't you want to know what agreements we have and the alternatives the Woodlands Township Board of Directors should be considering? There will be seven directors charged with making a decision to continue this program, cut it back or replace with a new one. I will give you their email addresses soon, although you can find those addresses on the township website. You will be able to copy and paste those addresses from this site onto an email to correspond with them.

So I want to bring this contract to the attention of residents in The Woodlands. We pay Alpha and Omega company $39.10 for each patrol hour. That is about double what we pay for a Sheriff deputy officer according to one of my sources. Behind the scenes we are also paying for support personnel at the tune of $10.53 per hour. A patrol person is called a Trooper. Troopers provide a courtesy to visitors of Town Center. They are charged with providing information to patrons of the commercial area, but if they see some crime, they are charged to report it immediately, just like a resident would be expected to do. They are to help people find their cars in parking lots as well. The contract provides for a maximum of 700 total Trooper hours per week.  Clerical support is a 40-hour maximum week.  This three year contract ending in 2012 may be canceled with a 30 day notice. If both parties agree to change the contract, the contract can be modified.

Value of the contract is $1,514,920 for 2010. Alpha and Omega was selected based on government staff criteria from two bids. The competing company bid was $1,361,370.

Alternatives have never been defined that I can find. Back in TCID days, there may have been alternatives to the original concept, but we don't seem to have a Board of Directors these days trying to conserve on spending.

What alternatives can I envision?

1. Smaller presence - For this alternative, I suggest Town Green Park, the pavilion, down on the waterway and  the conference center. That makes four locations, 6 days a week. As a rough simple cost estimate, let's say it takes 1/2 support person and 4 Troopers to provide that service. And let's say each patrol would be 50 hours. Per year, it would cost 52* ((20*10.52)+(50*$39.10))= $417,581. That would be almost $1,100,000 savings in 2011, more if we can cut this contract this year. I don't see any reason to continue spending so much for the remainder of this year. This is called "reduced services" by the directors but not in my book. I call it "service by need", not "service by want".  

2. Removal of service altogether - Forget the image. People do not come here for the horses. They come for the waterway, the fountains, the other amenities and attractions. Save an additional $471,581.

3. Drop the contract and solicit new bids for reduced presence. That would likely lead to a smaller rate since we do not have to contract such a large company to provide the services and we can go out for bids again. That might save an additional $50,000.

4. Replace the entire mounted horse service with cameras. I cannot price this, but it would necessitate monitoring personnel and a station. This is a common practice and enables visual contact with law lawbreakers from high strategic points using technology and monitoring staff to add additional security for all critical areas in the Town Center. This would require a capital outlay for a communication infrastructure but probably could share some of the county's  resources.

5. Replace the entire mounted police with bike police patrols. No cars would be required. They could operate out of the existing Sheriff building near Town Center or Constable police office nearby. A deputy should cost us about half the amount of a mounted Trooper. 12 policemen patrolling on bikes would cost approximately $639,600 per year, a savings of more than $900,000. We could probably shift some of the township patrols and thereby increase police manpower in the villages for increased security services. One option would be to take perhaps three existing patrolmen with cruisers, shift them to the villages and then put six patrolmen by bike in the town center. There would be no cost for cruisers. True, they would not be wearing red uniforms and they would not be on horses, but maybe they could ride horses. I don't know the answer to that question, but I believe the bike provides a faster and more effective response to crime or call.  

We could mix and match these alternatives. There are likely many more scenarios. If you can think of any, please let me know through the comment section. During the budget process, you should demand your board of directors to give you the alternatives considered, why they selected one (hopefully the best that fits the community) and say exactly why they rejected the others. That is their responsibility in managing your money and communicating back to you their stewardship of it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Election 2010 Apathy and Politics - Randy's opinion

I have heard various accounts of what happened on May 8th. Each one has its merits. However, most skirt the real issues by just calling the turnout “apathy”. One person characterized the 92% no-show as the "shame of America". From what I observed, the lack of turnout has numerous reasons that could collectively be called apathy. Many residents here believe the local government is complicated and beyond their available time and effort. Why vote on something that you don’t really understand, especially when things seem to be OK? We have had this problem ever since I moved here and long before. Apathy is just “leave it to the others to determine”.  If anything has changed since we became a township, we have a much better voting turnout than we did before, but the quality of the turnout may not have been so great. The turnout in my precinct was probably the highest ever, but not good enough to make a difference.

I’ve heard this question - "who knows what is right anyway?" And in some cases - "I don't even know what directors do! Do they have job descriptions?" Then there is the other simple perspective - "I go vote for someone I know, but I have no idea what the issues are. I trust the person, not the words." Personally, I understand both viewpoints. As a voter, I have been in both places. Circumstances around an election can create a feeling of ignorance to many and discourage people from coming to the polls, but that does not adequately describe what happened.

There were basic politics not too difficult to understand in this election. One candidate sought his position through one issue, thinking that issue was significant enough to get attention, and his solution would get him a position on the board. Nope. That does not generally work. The public was leery. Crime and policing seemed overstated anyway. There were other candidates who did not clearly set themselves apart from the incumbents; change is usually needed to take a position away from an incumbent. My team thought we had a good shot at Robb, because of his attendance and voting history, along with a solid issue platform which would have retained the waterway strategies of TCID for tourism and commercial expansion, but at a much lower cost. None of that seemed to matter, as it turned out, due to apathy and personal loyalty. Then there was a third person who entered the contest the same day as I did. She was endorsed by what I call the “anti” group of people. I am not an anti-establishment type of person; I am just a resident who wants to have an affordable quality lifestyle. I know how to get it done and why one needs to do it. The fourth candidate was not seriously running, so he was not on our radar.

It is tough for the working resident to sort out the issues and be able to make an informed decision on them. In this election, the voter had significant information provided by The Villager and the League of Women Voters, in addition to candidate websites and literature paid for by candidates, but many residents were not even aware of them. Unfortunate to challengers, the safe position for many voters is to vote for incumbents. After all, they have the "insights" into how things are run and have a great deal of knowledge and contacts, right?  Actually - wrong! Can you blame the voters? Yet there could be significant consequences from that attitude. Status quo through incumbent support eventually leads to a decay of living quality and lost opportunities for improvement. In this case, leaving it to others holds fast to the commercial-centric doctrine in lieu of residential needs. Consequences of this doctrine are not seen for the moment, but when the time comes, they will become evident. Then it is too late. Remember the stock market? Despite all the communication attempts, our residents generally remain an uninformed public.

Leaders of the community have a job to do in order to get more voters to participate, but that would not serve them well. They need to educate the public in a way that is clear and short, not in the terms of those seeking deep understanding, but that is not going to happen. Many of us question the status quo, but many also defend it as a safety net. A candidate's challenge is to gain voter confidence, so that the voter will truly listen. I understand that. I dealt with it daily when I was trying to describe my position on issues during the election. The more depth one wants to know, the more difficult it becomes to get the point across. The bottom line is that the public wants to elect candidates it can trust to make the right decisions for it, never mind the issues. That becomes the psychology of endorsements. What I call "limelight advertising" is reality in the eyes of many. Focus on the people around the candidate instead of the person. That hides the candidate's capabilities and presents an image rather than a person. It is also a social issue, blinding to the eyes of those who are not interested in local issues. It takes the common resident to vote in order to make a difference.

I felt most issues were simple rather than the reverse. Spending too much, wasteful spending, the need to have better alternative and contract selection criteria, the need to measure better, and last but perhaps more important than anything else, the absolute need for a director to tend to the business of the township instead of being absent from decision discussions and voting. Some people argued that work conducted behind the scenes of the township board meetings was more important than attendance at board meetings. I strongly disagree. Government should be transparent and arguments visible to the public. Otherwise those working in the invisible background should not claim any responsibility for successes. The evidence of performance is at the board meeting when one discusses a proposal and casts a vote. That participation could also be evident in open discussions with the public, but that is rarely seen in local politics. We do have town hall meetings for this purpose, but they are not sufficiently leveraged to affect many projects. Hot resident issues can be heard at these meetings, but they are not very frequently discussed with residents. I conclude that the Board of Directors remains a closed door operation to most of us, with political influence constantly used to gain support for individual ideas and perspectives behind the scenes. As long as that happens, we lack diversity in decision making, and our money is inadvertently channeled into pet projects. That was evident in the strategic planning exercise. Residents were not invited to participate in those proceedings, but the budget is justified on the outcome of that process.

So what happened out there on the 8th? I witnessed three groups of residents. (1) Those who feel like they don't have sufficient exposure to the government in The Woodlands or have no interest in local issues. These folks normally do not vote in local elections. This group constitutes at least 50% of the registered voters. (2) Family life comes first - hey it was Saturday. During the early voting there were homework assignments, getting home late, leaving early, and the old 50+-hour work week. No time for voting. This group is also very large and comprises most of the remaining 92% no-shows. (3) The voters – 8% of the registered voters who are oftentimes die-hard Americans, involved in local issues, appreciating the opportunity to speak out, and selecting the candidates who they deem best to serve the community. They are exercising their American privilege to choose.

In the 8% who did vote, I can think of six categories. (1) Status quo - give me an incumbent. I am afraid to change; (2) First on the ballot; (3) Loyalty: I know the person, have organizational ties, or I am from the candidate’s village; (4) Name recognition: I have heard of the person; (5) Issue-centric: based on ideals, desire for change, or values; and (6) Duty:  I am supposed to vote. Research often occurs at the polling location for these people. I believe the majority of the 8% group did their homework and were prepared to cast their ballot on arrival at the polls, but most of them voted personal loyalty for at least one candidate. If one looks at the voting demographics, I suspect the median age of voters was very high relative to the median age of the registered voter community.

What did the candidates do to get voters to the polls and vote for them? Money buys votes. There is no doubt about it. With money, you can also claim about anything you want. You have name broadcasting power. You can buy the biggest, the most, and the labor to get your message to the population. If you are an incumbent, you can claim virtually anything that went right when you occupied the position, to be your personal accomplishment. If you did not vote against it in an open meeting, then you are safe. You can also buy a following of people. If you have organizational power, you can influence your people's role and support from within the organization, including financial support.

Standing out in the hot sun earns votes. Being the last voice or image a voter sees before going into the voting booth is highly valued by the candidates. Being on location to greet them is appreciated by voters. I guess that depends though. I felt that the “hawking” done by candidates at the early convenience election location was frankly distasteful. Many voters chose not to be bothered and parked where campaigners were not allowed. The hawking had no value in attracting voters to the polls, but possibly helped to persuade them to cast their votes for some candidates. I was one of the few who preferred to go house to house and ask people to come out and vote. Calling friends brings loyal supporters to the polls. Going door-to-door educates the public. A personal “please vote” goes a long way.

Some of the things I heard occurring behind the scenes of this election made me bristle. Politics are not exactly ethical, you know. Candidates can be ethical, but their people may not. Signs were stolen out of yards for example under the cover of darkness in apparent attempts to remove advertising of targeted candidates. There were even reports of coerced contributions of skilled labor. Some activities by “supporters” disappointed me and some advertisement falsehoods disappointed me. There was no avenue to contest those claims except to spend more money.

In this election, residents were blasted by propaganda in every media possible. Many did not want to be blasted, so they turned it all off, throwing away the newspapers, and not answering or ignoring the calls. I heard "enough already" several times. I sure felt that way myself. "Another d*^# call from a machine!" How is it that a candidate can use a machine to call your home numerous times when you are on the national no-call list anyway? Is that ethical? Is it breaking the law? Also, why would anyone call from a church when that is against IRS regulations? Why did I get a call from Tommy Williams? Why did I get a call from Kevin Brady? Politicians were actually advertising themselves on someone else's campaign contributions. Maybe robo calls should have said "This has been a paid political advertisement for Tommy Williams and Ed Robb by the campaign committee for Ed Robb."  Why would anyone spend so much money anyway for a non-paying job? Ego? Issue? Ideal? Fun? Experience? Why? I am a voter and a stakeholder in this government, so I ask these questions. Don’t you? What is the motivation and why do certain political figures want to have a certain candidate in office, especially in light of that person’s past performance? Some people have connected the dots and made their own calculated conclusions.  Advertising can be informative and appreciated, but the repeated immersing of people in it is not.

Personally, I had one reason to run for office. I believe what has occurred on the board is not exactly right. That was exemplified by the all out campaign spending to maintain control of the waterway spending strategies and other projects. I bet there were some people who would have raised $100,000 and spent it, if they thought that was necessary to reach their goal. I draw parallels with the spending of our taxes. That leads me to think there is big money in getting all those people into office. Doesn’t it to you?

Look back at who endorsed the candidates and start asking yourself some of these questions. Politics here appears to run much deeper than any concerns about The Woodlands itself. Those currently in office are not suspected of neglecting township business in my mind, but I know the job can be done better at a lower cost. Government watch groups are chasing the money trails to check if there is foul play with money. They believe through those connections that we have an under-the-rug political machine operating here. They insinuate that some of the people on the board have personal agendas. The suspicion is raised to a much higher level when one looks under the umbrella of endorsements and favors. It is not about the quality of living in The Woodlands.  One person compared it to Chicago. That was because of the apparent money trail and endorsements. Well, let's see, a church where candidacy was announced from the pulpit without equal time to others (perception: my organization, I can do what I want). This raised the question of church vs. state in the minds of many. If one would compare the voting records against the church's membership role, some say the outcome would be obvious. I do not plan to conduct that study, but perhaps some organization or watchdog group should.

I have heard these thoughts from several sources, some from activists and others from long time residents. Several people say they are afraid to speak out, because they fear that they will not be heard in other matters, or their business relationships would be impaired. Influence and power drive them to be quiet. I am not one of them. My strategy is open and much easier to understand. We need to focus on one thing here – Be a great place to affordably live, that serves the entire family and community. Everything else takes a back seat.

For me, my values stand with those who originally came here, who developed the feeling of a hometown, those who walked to the store, even at night to get a gallon of milk for breakfast, in the darkness of the tall tree shadows. That is the way it was when I moved here, and that is the way I seek it to be in the future. Some people say we should not be out at night. Bah humbug. Quality and security is not defined in that way. Quality is defined and measured within certain focus points, namely safety, amenities, mobility, pollution, affordability, services, livable homes and our natural forest. Excellence in mobility gives us the complete freedom to move about anytime of the day or night. If you make the place not livable, then it is not the community we have known with the advertised values seen in marketing.

Residents missed an opportunity to make a difference on May 8th.  Other opportunities will come along as life goes on. My hummingbirds returned to the yard five days after the election; I am going to double the number of grandchildren this year with my son’s announcement on Election Day. Yes, there are better things to do, but I do want to thank my supporters for their confidence in me.  A person can only offer to help. Some force it down the public. I will not. The community will likely continue to flourish but at a higher price than necessary. It will be a community of distinction, but maybe not one of quality. We continue to grow, but we are beginning to see deterioration, and we are only two years into the township. Now seven directors will manage your tax money. One of them was absent from voting for 37% of the decisions for the past several months. His loyal following and political allies voted for him to be on the board. 92 % of our registered voters remained quiet and allowed that to happen. If you are one of those quiet ones, will you allow it to happen again next year and the year after? What will it take to get you to help drive your own destiny?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Transit Consulting Contract 2010 - Woodlands Township

Two contracts of The Woodlands Township should be on residents' radar during the next few months. The Goodman contract was budgeted and let for transit consultant services, primarily for trolley and water taxi services. The other contract will be considered in a separate article.

The total contract is for $100k. It is to advise the township and provide reports on air quality to H-GAC (Houston-Galveston Area Council)as part of a pilot project, in addition to the transit consultation. $20k is to provide a recommendation for transition of the water "taxis" to the township. That includes the capital improvements needed to bring the boats up to specs that includes dining and completing the maintenance facility for the boats. It does not include a look into alternatives such as custom pontoon boats. Another $22.5k is included to pursue funding sources from federal and state agencies, among others. Another $22.5k is allocated for interfacing those agencies.

Additionally, at a cost of $27.5k, Goodman is contracted to conduct a survey for determining the interest and value of conducting a pilot trolley program between the village centers and Town Center. In this survey, residents will be asked questions at each location. The results will be compiled and reported back to the township. Residents in apartments and homes nearby to the village centers will not be part of the survey unless they visit the village centers and participate in the process there. It seems to me that multi-family dwellings would be a primary source of passengers for such services.

Right now, I am unsure what the actual vision is for the pilot program. Perhaps the contract includes that, but if so, it was not evident. The questions are apparently designed to see what interests residents have, so the vision should come out of those questions.

The trolley system in Town Center has been quite successful. If you have not ridden on one before, I highly recommend doing so, just to have a feel for what the service provides. With a trolley system to the villages, an avenue would also be introduced to visitors and tourists to go into the village centers to eat at a restaurant or shop at a boutique. I am hopeful that we can produce a good vision that serves both the public and the visitor, to reduce gas emissions and take traffic off of our roads, while stimulating the financial health of our village centers. A trolley system has a high chance of success in my mind to improve mobility here. The same question gets asked though. Should that be a function of the government or a private enterprise?

On the other hand, the operations of the cruisers is not a good investment, at least as currently defined. Goodman has already delivered on that part of the contract. They reported a probable loss of $240k annually is expected. However, with some tweaking and additional ridership, the operation could break into the black by "privatization" through the CVB. The taxis are perceived as a major component of drawing visitors to The Woodlands. They are perceived to be the unique difference between a visitor electing to come to The Woodlands in place of another nearby destination in the Houston area. However, the ridership statistics do not demonstrate that conclusion.

The Woodlands Development Co owns the taxis free of any federal dependencies or commitments, and it owns the underlying interest in the waterway corridor. The Federal Transit Administration owns an equitable interest in the waterway corridor. The development company has a long term agreement to extend the waterway westward to the lake. They have acquired federal ARRA money to extend the waterway starting this summer, along with the maintenance facility. Additionally, the company is arranging for federal funding of another parking garage next to the existing one on Lake Robbins at Six Pines.

Another project to fund with federal money, is a fleet of electric cars.

So it goes. The development company has plans for additional services and eventually we will have to assume some of that operation. It would be good to have the corresponding proposal and expected burden on taxpayers. I have yet to explore that part of the development company's plan. I just hope the board is aware of this and has visibly bought into the idea before the project is initiated. What is the plan and when does the township take over the operation and at what cost? I suppose those are the questions for the board.

Related Links
+ Federal Transit Administration

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Election 2010 - No shows at the polls

Have you wondered as I have about the no-shows in The Woodlands Township election, 92% of registered voters who did not vote? I took some proactive steps as I canvassed neighborhoods to check on the pulse of voters. What I found out was simply amazing!
Top Issue Number Percentage Percentage removing the no issues and unknowns
MUD 2 1%         1%
Other Svcs 2 1%         1%
Trees 5 2%         3%
Other 4 1%         2%
Schools 1 0%         1%
Parks 0 0%         0%
Mobility/noise 12 4%         7%
Animal Control 2 1%         1%
Garbage 0 0%         0%
Crime/law enforcement 17 6%         10%
Safety 4 1%         2%
Alerts/watch 1 0%         1%
Ad valorem taxes unfair or too high 17 6%         10%
Common area maintenance 4 1%         2%
Covenants and related services 16 6%         10%
No issues 104             38%       
Unknown 53 19%
Big government and local politics 17 6%         10%
Against commercialization 5 2%         3%
In favor of commercialization 2 1%         1%
Loyalty 4 1%         2%
Total including no issues and unknown 272 100%
Total less No issues and unknown 168 62%       100%
This was not a scientific survey. There was no attempt to balance demographics or lifestyles. It was collected solely from middle class neighborhoods. I did sample different types of neighborhoods. All villages are represented by approximately equal numbers. Generally speaking, each village was different and each neighborhood was somewhat different in responses. A total of 168 unique responses were generalized into categories. The question was "What is your top concern in The Woodlands?" Five categories accounted for 47% of the total. Some people skirted the question, which resulted in the 19% unknown. The "No issues" category came primarily from newcomers, who explained they had not been here long enough to understand local issues. Some were perfectly content with the way things are run. Others just do not understand the political arena nor how things work here.

Safety signifies true safety issues such as children in the middle of the street without adult supervision, or ants on the trails establishing a high risk to allergic children and adults. Crime concerns are mostly from the press or politicians, not any first hand experiences except for one. Mobility issues were generally the result of living close to a major road. "Close" is rapidly changing from being the adjoining street to the major road, to three streets away from the major road.  Access and noise were the focus of those discussions. Loud trucks and motorcycles are the primary concern, but the constant hum of traffic is also irritating.

Covenants were large issues in several neighborhoods. I have passed on the complaints to the administrative staff. I found issues in almost every village.

The big government category is a serious one. Many people beyond this exercise have expressed their concern about putting too much power in the hands of a few, especially when it seems there is a little voting club along with what appears to be some rubber stamping and inept, unprepared decision making. Term limits has been suggested to overcome the "been there too long" and to remove defensive attitudes associated with pet projects. After all, taxes belong to the public, not the government.

So what gets people out to vote? You can immediately strike off the "No issues" crowd or in this case 37% of the registered voters. They were happy. If we assumed the 19% unknown group also are no-shows, then we have 56% of the registered voters expected not to show up. So what happened to the other 36%? Could they have been out of town for mother's day? Some yes. Could they have had other priorities? Maybe, but my assessment is that at least 36% of the registered voters were just not sufficiently interested enough to go out and vote. Ball games, picnics, children activities, and all those things you want to do on a Saturday were beckoning on such a beautiful day.

How do we fix the problem?  It is fairly hopeless. So what do candidates do? There is not much hope to tell you the truth. Incumbents get the draw because there are no intelligent voters. This is what some are saying and this is what will bring America down. People will complain when their taxes go up. Hey - not my problem say those who challenged the incumbents. People will complain when they suffer from a crime because of the wrong metrics and an ineffective police staffing method. They will complain when the traffic is bad. Those who can see the future issues cannot reach the general public, who is too busy to discuss the issues.  Urban living is more complicated than people seem to realize. That makes the issues more complicated as well. What everyone needs is a means to understand the issues with little time invested. Based on the discussions I had, we are a society that crosses our fingers and hopes for the best. That is, things will work out out of natural order and process.

Elections are great but we won't have many contenders, given the lack of consideration of the process. Who wants to throw away their money on a public that does not care? This is a new The Woodlands? This is what it has become?

Consider that the 2% who responded with a "you are wasting your time here. He is my pastor" attitude. Instead of 2%, it probably turned out to be in the neighborhood of 25-50%. I will likely explain that in another article. These are the loyalty votes, not based on issues, not based on anything, except that the man preaches sermons on Sunday mornings, has lived in this community a very long time, and is an expert collector of people's money. Sad but true. There really is no way for the public to be educated. As it turned out, there was probably no reason for his team to spend so much money, but they were not sure.  What is apparent is that the election for some reason was very very important to him and his team, enough to spend lots and lots of money to make certain he was elected for this two-year term. These two years are the critical years for establishing a new government. The people of this community will be hand fed into the desired results by those who are commercial-centric. Issues such as expansion west will be pushed onto the population of this community. You can expect the quality of life to continue to deteriorate as a result. My family is a victim of the general issue of development, so we know first hand about it.

If you are one of those who did speak out by voting, make sure your voice is again heard when we consider a new government, have a meeting on taxes, establish a budget, and every major major issue along the way. I hope to publish major subjects that need your attention as we go forward. There will be two meetings a month. One will be in the evening where you can speak out.  Those who did not vote I do not expect to take part in any of the proceedings, but realize at least some of you missed your chance for good cause. I hope you participate in the meetings. Now I have to say that you will not likely be pleased with the opportunity to speak out. The Board of Directors will continue with the before meeting / after meeting method of resident comment. It is a cold governmental process. Residents will probably never be able to engage in the actual discussion and deliberation of issues. Well, maybe at town halls.

I hope this makes some people stop and think about what happened on May 8th and will help those interested to overcome the election process issues. We have only begun to fight. We will take it wherever it needs to go to get fixed. Maybe, just maybe by some remote chance, we will see some reforms, stoppage of arrogance and actual representation of the real public. I am not holding my breath.