Dallas Morning News. June 25, 2021.
Editorial: ERCOT shouldn’t be exempt from laws of open government
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been described as a corporation, a nonprofit, a grid operator and a traffic cop. Now, with the endorsement of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday, ERCOT is being described as something other than a government entity that would have to meet disclosure requirements.
Following the winter storm, the agency has been flooded with open records requests for documents, text messages, e-mails and recorded phone calls that would shed more light on the inner workings of the state’s response. ERCOT doesn’t want to release them. Paxton ruled in ERCOT’s favor, reasoning that the agency is not bound by the rules of open government because it’s not a public entity.
And yet, just three months ago, when ERCOT was facing at least 35 lawsuits related to the winter storm, the the grid operator, which is overseen by the Public Utility Commission, seemed pretty convinced that it was, indeed, a public agency and immune from litigation.
“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a court filing, reported by the Texas Tribune.
In a separate letter, Jay Stewart, an attorney representing ERCOT, wrote: “ERCOT performs a public function. The system administration fee that funds ERCOT’s operations is collected pursuant to the State’s police power.”
And it’s not just ERCOT and Paxton saying this. In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas affirmed the agency’s immunity, and therefore its status as a public entity, after Panda Power sued the grid operator.
We understand that ERCOT occupies a unique position. It’s independent and nonprofit. It doesn’t levy taxes and its leaders are not elected. But it is funded by government-mandated fees and overseen by commissioners at a state agency who are appointed by the governor, and it faces no competition from other grid operators. When Texas deregulated the energy market almost 20 years ago, we envisioned a system that would be more responsive and accountable to consumers, not less. ERCOT’s special status shouldn’t make it exempt from transparency.
By the letter of the law, Paxton may be right here, though we would also add that he has the opportunity to publicly campaign for transparency even if his ruling needed to go the other way. But that might be too much to hope for.
Which brings us to the rest of the Austin cortège. Just over two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott declared victory over the grid’s shortcomings, proclaiming, “Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
Apparently, transparency wasn’t on the to-do list.
So to be absolutely clear about what we’re hearing from Austin: ERCOT is a public entity, except when it’s not. Austin has done everything necessary, except this thing. And the grid is rock solid going into summer, unless it gets hot outside.
Houston Chronicle. June 27, 2021.
Editorial: Trump-era rule lets developer build houses on wetlands - using Harvey disaster aid
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all know why a few days of heavy rain in Houston renders whole city blocks impassable, turns front lawns into freshwater ponds and decades of household memories into piles of bulk trash on the curb. It isn’t just that Houston — and much of the Gulf Coast — was built on a swamp. It’s that we destroyed, and then proceeded to build on top of, the very wetlands that could have prevented much of the flooding by doing what nature designed them to do: absorb the water like a sponge, then slowly release it into watershed drainage systems.
What’s worse, we never stopped building in wetlands and flood plains — no matter how many Harveys have punished us for it. And now, weakened federal regulations left over from the Trump administration are making it even easier to get risky developments approved.
Take Hitchcock, a tiny city of not quite 8,000 in southern Galveston County. It was devastated by Harvey, which damaged around 70 percent of homes, several historic buildings and left City Hall marinating in a foot of water.
Situated on the coast, a mere 16 feet above sea level, much of Hitchcock resides within a flood plain, and a third of it, about 16,000 acres, is considered wetlands.
That hasn’t deterred development in a 33-acre plot of dense forest and wetlands at the intersection of Texas 6 and FM 2004 that has become a tension point between preservation and growth. The skeletons of three- to four-bedroom houses rise on the construction site of what is to be The Oaks. The $25 million, 90-unit multifamily subdivision is marketed toward middle-income Texans in an area that desperately needs affordable housing. On its face, The Oaks will help boost a dwindling tax base in a city that only a couple of years ago was flirting with bankruptcy. Once fully occupied, city officials expect the development to bring an estimated $600,000 a year in property taxes.
Under the surface, though, The Oaks is a poster child for short-sighted development and counterproductive government spending. Not only is The Oaks being built in a 100-year flood plain, it’s being subsidized by federal Harvey disaster aid.
Yes. The government, meaning you, the taxpayer, is paying a developer to put more people in harm’s way — using funds intended to dig them out of the last storm.
How can this happen? Easily and quite legally, apparently. The Texas General Land Office, the gatekeeper for federal disaster aid that Texas needs far too often, decided to dip into one of the pots of money it received after Harvey to help fund The Oaks development through its Affordable Rental Program. In 2019, the Land Office earmarked $17 million for the project — more than two-thirds of its cost — to Galveston-based developers DSW Homes.
While the arrangement certainly seems to defeat the purpose of recovery funding, it appears all parties followed the letter of the law. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allocated the federal funds, a housing development can rise above flood plain restrictions if it is built two feet higher than base flood levels.. The nine-foot pilings and ground-floor garages planned at The Oaks meet that standard.
And what about the wetlands on the site?
Bayou City Waterkeeper, a nonprofit focused on wetland protection and Clean Water Act compliance, sent a letter in September to the Army Corps of Engineers raising concerns that an environmental consultant used by the Land Office and the developer underestimated the number and acreage of wetlands affected by the development. The nonprofit conducted an independent review of the site and found several likely wetland areas not taken into account — as many as eight total acres, about 14 times the 0.57 acres found by the other consultant.
What accounts for the discrepancy? Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency redefined which wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act to waters that are directly or indirectly connected to a “perennial tributary” — a river, bayou, stream or creek. And that’s the narrow definition of wetland used by the consultant for the Land Office and developer, and also, by the Corps in its own assessment.
Trump’s rule change prompted numerous lawsuits including by several states. Former federal regulators pushed back, including Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s EPA administrator, who said the measure “neglects established science.”
Wetlands experts such as John Jacob agree. Jacob, a retired Texas A&M University professor who studies Texas wetlands, conducted the independent assessment of The Oaks site for Bayou City Waterkeeper. Based on the presence of absorbent soils, commonly occurring wetland trees (Chinese tallow, hackberry, elms) and wetland hydrology at the site, Jacob used the scientific definition to determine there were more than eight acres of wetlands on the site, not the minuscule amount found by the Corps and the other consultant.
“That was kind of shocking to me that the Corps was not really pressing the (wetlands) issue there,” Jacob told the editorial board this week. “There were clear, clear patterns.”
Bayou City Waterkeeper asked the Corps in October 2020 to re-examine the areas in question and asked the developers to cease construction until an investigation could be completed. More than nine months later, construction continues and the Corps, in a statement to the editorial board this week, confirmed the status of its investigation: The Corps determined the wetlands in question are not within the agency’s jurisdiction.
Michael Regan, the EPA administrator in the Biden administration, committed this month to undoing the Trump-era rule, and we urge him to act swiftly in doing so.
The Oaks development clearly demonstrates what’s at stake. Most likely, though, any federal rule change will come too late to stop it. The families who move in, even from their elevated perches, will be on the front lines of the next storm that churns up the Gulf, and the whole area could suffer more flooding and damage after more precious wetland defenses are whittled away.
Yes, in the short term the development will also bring much-needed tax revenue. But how long until the benefits are eroded by the harm?
As so many of our leaders claim to embrace a vision of a flood-resilient region, it makes no sense to pave over the fragile natural defenses we have left. The consequences of rampant growth are largely borne by citizens who live downstream, and after emergency crews come to bail them out, taxpayers will once again be left footing the bill.
The wetlands dispute in Hitchcock underscores the same debate that has raged in Houston for decades. We keep asking: How much development is too much? But that’s the easy question. Nature has drawn us a map. The hard part is following it.
Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel. June 22, 2021.
Editorial: Internet expansion is coming soon, but grant would speed up process
We are pleased to see the Deep East Texas Council of Governments continue its fight to bring broadband internet access options to the region despite a potentially discouraging setback with the initial denial of a $100 million grant from the Texas General Land Office.
DETCOG is appealing the ruling because, as director Lonnie Hunt said Tuesday, officials believe the application was incorrectly graded.
The applications are judged on a points system, and DETCOG’s fell just 2.5 points shy of receiving the grant that would have provided the backbone for an extensive internet expansion.
If Hunt is correct in his assessment that the application was misgraded, and we hope he is, DETCOG could soon find itself closer to realizing the dream of internet coverage for every single household and business in Deep East Texas. Blanket coverage across the region is the goal, but work will start slowly in counties that need it the most, if the funding is secured. But eventually, expanding the internet infrastructure could bring 10,000 new jobs to the region over a decade.
“That is a game changer for Deep East Texas,” Hunt said, and we couldn’t agree more.
State officials have also made it easier for DETCOG and other agencies to get federal funding for internet projects with the passage of legislation authored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville and Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin. That bill, signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott, creates a statewide broadband plan.
It’s about time.
Texas is one of just six states without such a plan, and it’s caused us to lag behind in receiving federal dollars to fund our high-tech infrastructure. Not having a statewide plan means points are automatically deducted from grant applications. And as we’ve seen with the $100 million grant from the General Land Office, every fraction of a point matters.
Unfortunately, it took the coronavirus pandemic for state officials to get serious about increasing internet access. We suppose it is easy to forget perched in Austin — Texas’ version of Silicon Valley — just how many people in rural areas lack proper access to high speed internet. But in some portions of Nacogdoches County, almost a quarter of residents can’t get internet access.
DETOG has the numbers to back this up. A 2019 study found that less than 15% of places around the 12-county region have the infrastructure needed for broadband internet. And East Texans aren’t alone. A Pew Research Center study reveled that 1 in 4 Americans lack high-speed internet access either because of inflated prices or limited service in rural areas.
There was once a time, in most of our lifetimes, that internet seemed to be a fad or a luxury. Those times are gone. Internet has become a necessity of modern life, and it must be made available as widely as electricity, running water and natural gas.
Abilene Reporter-News. June 26, 2021.
Editorial: Fireworks fly over change in plans for Abilene holiday show
We had an early fireworks show this year.
On Thursday, reaction was set off by news that the WesTex Connect show planned for July 3 was off. Or was it?
Maybe delayed? To when? Why?
Or was that the “Freedom Festival Fireworks” show? That event name popped up. There is no such thing.
Confusion sparked reaction. Abilene, famous for once getting worked up for getting in bed with Myrtle, suddenly had its own Fireworksgate.
For some reason, having a fireworks show in Abilene is hard. We are community-minded on many things, but setting off fireworks sets off ... fireworks.
Don’t mess with our fireworks.
Residents were mad one year when we didn’t have a show at all. Heck, we had to drive all the way to Tye, about eight miles west of downtown Abilene, to see one. There were plenty in other area towns. But we focused on why our big city couldn’t have a show.
It’s as if a fireworks show, and now related events, comprise the 11th amendment to the Bill of Rights. Or is guaranteed by the city charter.
It’s not. It’s a lot of work by a lot of people. It’s hugely expensive. It doesn’t happen without teamwork and money.
It depends on the weather, too.
Another year, the wind rose in the evening and city officials canceled the show. Big disappointment for many, of course.And the city was hammered for its decision. The current contract with the city allows a show to be staged over several days, in case there is a weather concern.
We haven’t had a dry year, but shooting fireworks has been banned in the county during drought. So there’s that.
From what we gathered Thursday, a complete shipment of fireworks had not made it to Abilene. The challenge became getting it here for July 3.
One consideration would be regulations for transportation. They are hazardous materials.
It takes, we’re told, five to seven days to set up the show safely and to do it right. You just don’t open boxes, light fuses at 10 p.m. and hope it works.
Our show is impressive. This year’s show was/is intended to pop the top off previous ones.
Despite a pandemic, we had a show last year. We persevere, and that’s the goal this year. At this point, the effort is being made to launch a show, even if it’s delayed.
By now, having survived 2020 and seeing how some issues have lingered in 2021, a foul-up on fireworks should not faze us. Have all your packages arrived on time, with the right order? Likely not.
As of Friday, a July 5 date seemed to be the most likely. The fireworks need to arrive by Tuesday to “build it out,” said Richard Kemp, speaking for the WesTex Connect Fireworks Spectacular.
Radio and TV ads were pulled Thursday, lighting the fuse to confuse. What’s going on? Various stories swirled.
Before an official announcement of any new plans, the Freedom Festival folks set out a disclaimer that its event was not connected to the fireworks show. Residents have wondered, isn’t this all one thing?
It’s not. Yet it is. Whatever is planned locally for the Fourth, a fireworks show is the highlight. Freedom Festival events are timed to end so people could watch the fireworks.
The idea of no fireworks show quickly riled up folks. Creating Fireworksgate.
Let’s break it down and get ready for a happy Fourth.
The fireworks show looks to be moved back because of a situation out of local control.
Regardless, the Abilene Freedom Festival, which is not connected to the WesTex fireworks presentation, goes on as planned. There is no festival fireworks show after their concert July 4.
Having a free fireworks show - you can view it from many places without paying a cent - and Fourth of July events is not our right. It’s a privilege, and we should thank, and support those who organize our fun.
Those who organize 4th of July events could work better together.
If all this puts you off, there are options. Neighborhood parades Saturday morning. Abilene Community Band concert, back after missing a year, Sunday evening.
We have the freedom to gripe. But we also have the freedom to zip it.
Let’s do that, and have a way better Fourth of July than we did a year ago.
San Antonio Express-News. June 25, 2021.
Editorial: Ex-publisher lifted voices of this paper, community
In 1998, at her first Express-News Community Advisory Board meeting, Adriana Villafranca was sitting next to Publisher Larry Walker. Before the meeting, Walker whispered to her, “You know, you are the youngest one here at the table, right?”
When the 28-year-old UTSA development officer nervously agreed, Walker told her he was the oldest — and to not hold back and to use her voice.
On Thursday night, upon learning Walker had died at the age of 79, Villafranca recalled his words. “Boy, advice like that coming from a gentle giant was huge for me,” she said. “I follow it to this day.”
Encouraging new voices and providing them a platform are among Walker’s enduring legacies.
Walker wasn’t born with ink in his veins, an instinctive taste for journalism or the dream of one day running a newspaper. He was an accountant by training, and a very successful one by the time his career intersected with newspapers.
Walker was publisher of this newspaper from 1990 to 2005, serving as chairman in 2006. During that time, the native of Macon, Ga., established himself as one of San Antonio’s civic and philanthropic leaders. He and his wife, Caroline, became interwoven with the city through the newspaper and their many interests and charitable concerns.
A good newspaper publisher is deeply engaged with the community, celebrating its strengths while being part of a larger effort to confront its challenges, and concerned about making a profit while committed to serving the readers. A good publisher is one of the most powerful people downtown, but one who understands the responsibility to use that power for those not as fortunate. A good publisher gives an Editorial Board journalistic freedom, even when he or she might disagree.
Walker was all of this. Politically conservative, he was a populist who pulled for the underdogs.
This Editorial Board became more diverse under Walker. He hired its first female editorial page editor, and its first Latina and African American board members. He would say that if you’re going to give an opinion, it can’t be just that of one group because nobody learns and nobody grows.
Because Larry Walker was once its publisher, the Express-News continues to encourage new and different voices to be heard.