Editorial Roundup: Texas

Houston Chronicle. Dec. 5, 2021.

Editorial: Abbott guarantees Texas grid is ready for winter. Where have we heard that before?

Take it with a grain of salt, we’re told, about information from an questionable source.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s assurance that, yessiree, he’s got that electric grid thing taken care of, might require skepticism comparable to a 50-pound bag of rock-salt crystals. Let the winter winds blow, let the ice and snow settle in like Jack London’s Alaska, like Texas in an unfortunate February. No need to worry.

The sun may be shining warm and bright during these early December days, but Texans can’t help but shiver remembering what happened nearly a year ago, during an already grim pandemic season.

Thanks to Winter Storm Uri — and power industry unpreparedness — the state’s electric grid came close to complete collapse. Millions of us — 1.4 million in the Houston area alone — lost power for days as we wrapped ourselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down without heat and water in subfreezing temperatures. Hundreds of Texans, old and young, lost their lives to hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, fires or serious illnesses.

Damages exceeded $20 billion. Texans will be paying higher electric bills for years to compensate utilities for the soaring prices they were forced to pay to the only winners of this debacle: those selling and transporting gas at sky-high prices.

A few months after the storm, Texas lawmakers passed legislation designed to make the grid less vulnerable to extreme cold. Their efforts included requiring some facilities to weatherize, establishing a statewide emergency alert system and passing provisions aimed at improving communications among the various parties responsible for keeping the lights on across the state. They also passed bills to reform the grid’s manager, Energy Reliability Council of Texas.

The governor perused the Legislature’s handiwork and declared that it was good.

“Everything that needed by done was done to fix the power grid,” he assured us during a June signing ceremony.

Pass the salt, please?

Abbott should have said that he and his legislative colleagues did everything the all-powerful natural gas industry allowed them to do, even though the industry was the chief culprit of the tragic blackouts.

A recent report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that the Railroad Commission of Texas refused to hold the industry to even minimal resiliency standards, despite the February catastrophe.

We know what happened 10 months ago was predictable — and indeed was predicted by regulators and industry observers who knew that Texas had done little to respond to similar winter-related blackouts that revealed our grid’s vulnerability in 2011.

After that 2011 storm knocked out nearly 200 power plants and triggered blackouts for 3.2 million Texans, a report by federal agencies and watchdog groups urged the state to require power plants to set minimum weather-preparation standards for gas producers. The industry fought the recommendations, and state lawmakers and regulatory officials caved.

Close to half of all generation outages during Uri occurred in gas-fired plants, because operators did not insulate the well equipment properly. And still haven’t.

“Today’s final report highlights the critical need for stronger mandatory electric reliability standards, particularly with respect to generator cold weather-critical components and systems,” the authors of the FERC report wrote. “Protecting just four types of power plant components from icing and freezing could have reduced outages by 67 percent in the ERCOT region.”

So why is it that, despite the legislative reforms enacted earlier this year, the gas sector doesn’t have to lift a finger to winterize for this winter or next?

Answer: The oil and gas industry managed to schottische its way out of weatherization requirements by persuading lawmakers to limit upgrades to those facilities that a committee deems critical to the state’s power grid.

State regulators have until September of next year to decide which facilities are on the list. Only then do those so designated have to start weatherizing, at least a six-month process.

That means those pipes are naked to the cold until at least 2023.

Other natural gas facilities can apply to opt out of that weatherizing by paying $150 and filling out some paperwork. After widespread public backlash to this loophole, the Railroad Commission on Tuesday gave itself the ability to reject any such application for a waiver and disqualified the highest-volume producers from even applying.

Maybe the proverbial grain of salt makes us seasoned pessimists, but why should we trust the Railroad Commission to use this discretion responsibly? After all, commissioners, perennial handmaidens to the industry, are largely dependent on oil and gas firms’ largesse for political survival. Who’s to say they won’t use their discretion to give their cronies a pass?

As Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson noted recently, more than two-thirds of the campaign donations to the sitting commissioners have come from their friends in the industry. Citing a report from an activist group called Commission Shift, he pointed out that all three commissioners trade oil and gas stocks, even as they rule on complaints lodged against those companies.

As we urged a few days ago, members of the Railroad Commission, so beholden to the industry, ought to resign for their handling of the February blackouts.

Likewise, with the governor, we can’t help but wonder whether the pass given to natural gas has something to do with the fact that the industry has been Abbott’s top campaign contributor from January 2017 through 2020.

According to a report from a watchdog group called Texans for Public Justice, the industry lavished $16.5 million on the governor, 21 percent of the total raised. Abbott got about $4.6 million from oil, gas and energy interests during the post-legislative session this year, including $1 million from natural gas potentate Kelcy Warren of Dallas.

Warren was in a generous mood, no doubt because his company, Energy Transfer Partners, collected a $2.4 billion profit during the February storm, a major portion of the $11 billion profit the natural gas industry as a whole collected by selling fuel at exorbitant prices to power companies clamoring for it.

The people’s representatives may skate this winter — and we don’t necessarily mean on ice. Even though the Farmer’s Almanac predicts Texans will be “chilled to the bone,” the venerable guide to planting could be wrong. Its mysterious formula for prognostication is only slightly more opaque than Abbott’s.

The governor is probably playing the odds that his electric-grid words of assurance won’t be tested in the coming months, despite the increasing unpredictability of climate change.

His obeisance is yet another reminder that it will probably be a cold day in hell — or in Houston — before lawmakers and public officials have the guts to stand up to their benefactors. Voters shouldn’t be so meek.

Judging by a poll released last month by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, which found 60 percent disapproving of state leaders’ handling of the power grid collapse, we’re confident that Texans won’t need a Uri 2.0 to hold elected representatives accountable.

Then again, pass the salt.

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San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 1, 2021.

Editorial: AF’s silence on T-38 crash doesn’t stop the questions

Training new military pilots to fly jets is a dangerous and necessary business.

Sadly, that old truth rang true again Nov. 19 when two T-38C Talon trainers crashed on the runway at Laughlin AFB near Del Rio.

The accident killed Air Force 2nd Lt. Anthony D. Wentz, 23, of Falcon, Colo., and injured two others. One was treated at and released from Val Verde Regional Medical Center in Del Rio, and the other remains in critical condition at Brooke Army Medical Center.

The tragedy underscores the bravery and sacrifice of those defending our nation. An important way for the public to honor their service is to pay attention, ask questions and demand transparency.

We’re paying attention, and we’ve noticed the Air Force has released few details about the Laughlin accident. According to Express-News reporting, the service wouldn’t reveal something as simple as whether the aircraft were landing or taking off.

The move is a departure from responses to other mishaps and another example of the military’s slow slide toward opaqueness.

This hesitation goes against the military’s principle of “maximum disclosure, minimum delay” and the Air Force’s own guidance to “release unclassified facts about the mission the aircraft and crew were on when the accident occurred.”

“Describe the purpose of the flight,” says the service’s public affairs guidance, “and give as many facts about the mission as security permits.”

Laughlin and its headquarters — Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph — so far have done neither.

The base’s training regimen is not classified, so why veil whether the planes were landing or taking off, let alone other information? When queried, spokespeople at Laughlin and AETC punted and said the incident was under investigation.

The Laughlin crash resembles an accident that occurred two years earlier, on Nov. 21, 2019, at Vance AFB, Okla., when a pair of T-38s collided while performing a formation landing — a maneuver in which two aircraft flying close together land nearly simultaneously. The instructor, Lt. Col. John “Matt” Kincade, 47, and his student pilot, 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, died in the accident.

The Air Force’s investigation report cited pilot error, and after family outcry in the aftermath, the service eventually banned formation landings.

While formation landings may be banned, other formation flying remains part of pilot training.

Did the Laughlin crash involve formation flying? The Air Force needs to answer this and other questions.

People are better able to understand training accidents when the military lays out the basic facts early. However, the rumor mill spins faster when spokespeople clam up.

Saying nothing because the truth is uncomfortable or inconvenient is a breach of trust and a hit on credibility. The Air Force’s silence on the Laughlin crash offers a reminder that to maintain public trust, government agencies must be open and accountable. A lack of information only fuels speculation.

The Department of Defense’s principles of information say that “information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment.”

The truth of the Laughlin crash will come with the Air Force Accident Investigation Board report, but that could take several months.

Five fatal T-38 crashes since 2017 have claimed eight pilots’ lives. There have been at least three other nonfatal accidents in the same period. The nearly 60-year-old aircraft is slated to be replaced with the T-7A Red Hawk beginning in 2023.

In every community, and especially one like the San Antonio area, where T-38s fly over thousands of residents nearly every day, the Air Force owes transparency.

We need the military to organize, train and equip forces to defend our country. We don’t need it to shield us from the truth.

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The (Nacogdoches) Daily Sentinel. Dec. 3, 2021.

Editorial: Our new political neighborhood is a little confusing

Nacogdoches remains a great place to live, work and vote but the Texas Legislature sure changed our neighborhood significantly.

That’s not to say most of our new political neighbors are strangers, but we’d wager that more than few folks in the newly realigned 17th Congressional District, in which we now find ourselves, couldn’t point out Nacogdoches on a map. Forget about having them try to pronounce the name of the Oldest Town in Texas.

Barring any successful court challenges or an election upset, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, will be our new liaison to Washington D.C.

We had been part of the 1st Congressional District, a seat held now by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, in a district made up largely of East Texas.

Waco’s so far away, they don’t even call it East Texas anymore. And it’s not even the farthest point in the district. From Garrison to Round Rock is a solid 230 miles.

The Lone Star State is one of several that during the ever-contentious redistricting process is supposed to preserve “communities of interest.” That’s a $5 government term for areas with the same needs.

Round Rock and Pflugerville are a world away from Garrison, Chireno and Woden.

Waco, however, does remind us a bit of Nacogdoches. It’s a vibrant city with a historic downtown and a college. But one semester at Baylor would make a hefty downpayment on a house in Nacogdoches.

Both our city and their’s struggle with poverty, though Waco’s got a much steeper divide between the rich and poor. The McLennan County poverty rate is around 18%. Here it’s about 30%.

We’ve other concerns, but we’ve yet to reach out to Sessions, who could assuage our fears, so we won’t get into them in this space.

Lawmakers in Austin also did a number on our Texas House District 11, but it’s more palatable.

The folks in the Texas Capitol, in their infinite wisdom, decided to drop Cherokee County from District 11 while adding Panola, Shelby, Sabine and Newton counties along with us and Rusk County.

We’ve got far more in common with these counties than we do with suburban Travis County. To us, Cherokee County seemed the best fit. The population is almost equal. Nacogdoches High School competes against Jacksonville. Our current state senator lives in Jacksonville.

Both our towns have early June festivals. They’ve got tomatoes, and we have blueberries, which is fine with us. We have blueberry pancakes. No one wants a tomato pancake.

Rusk County has always been a good fit too. They face the same problems we do. They have a similar population, and the people of Henderson had the good sense to schedule their downtown shindig in the fall.

Now, we find ourselves as the major population center on the far western edge of the district. And we can’t remember the last time we went to Newton County or anyone from there came to Nacogdoches for anything other than a business trip or fleeing a hurricane. Nothing against the good people of Newton County, of course.

It seems as if the Legislature had no where else to put them, so they squeezed these counties into our district. How it will work for the next decade remains to be seen.

On the city and county level, voting districts aren’t changing much. Most voters won’t notice a thing.

The city has yet to decide on its new ward boundaries, but council members seem inclined to make the fewest tweaks possible. Commissioners approved precincts with very few changes.

State Senate District 3 didn’t change much either, which is why this story didn’t land higher on our list.

We hope it all works out, and maybe we’ll become better neighbors across a broader region.

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Dallas Morning News. Dec. 5, 2021.

Editorial: 21 people died in the Tarrant County jail last year. That’s unacceptable

Twenty-one people died in custody of the Tarrant County jail last year, significantly more than any other jail in North Texas. So far, no one can say why. And it’s very likely that no one will answer for those deaths. That should change.

Texas jails undergo annual inspections from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Tarrant County has failed inspection the past two years. In March of this year, the TCJS inspection report noted 21 in-custody deaths in the previous 12 months. The average daily jail population during that period was 3,888. That’s a ratio of 1 death to every 185 inmates in the average population. That’s more than 3.5 times the mortality rate at the Dallas jail (1 to 670) for the same period, and a significantly higher rate than Dallas, Denton, or Collin County jails in the past five years.

For context, Dallas County reported eight in-custody deaths last year among a much larger population. Collin and Denton each reported one. Looking at those four counties for the past five years, the next highest death rate came from Denton County which reported four deaths in 2018 from an average jail population of 1,096. But that’s still about 70% lower than Tarrant County’s record last year.

Tarrant County has failed its annual inspection in three of the last seven years, also a higher rate than its three neighboring counties.

We’re concerned about the spike in deaths, so we reached out to the Tarrant County sheriff’s office as well as Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and the TCJS. None gave us a satisfactory explanation. If anything, they pointed out flaws in the system that holds jails accountable.

“The members of the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office always work hard to improve and set high standards,” the sheriff’s chief of staff Jennifer Gabbert wrote in an email. “We have a fantastic team here, and it is due to their willingness to pull together during some of the most difficult times in our profession and the nation.”

While we don’t dispute that law enforcement agencies are under a microscope right now, we’ll point out that the reason for that scrutiny comes from incidents like these 21 deaths. If fewer people died in law enforcement custody, perhaps there would be less scrutiny.

If the Tarrant County jail is failing to protect inmates, the state’s regulatory process isn’t incentivizing them to do better. TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood explained the process: When a jail fails inspection, it receives a notice of noncompliance, and it is given 30 days to submit a plan of action for improving. Once TCJS approves that plan, the agency monitors the jail to see that it’s being executed. Then there’s a re-inspection. Wood said that in most cases jails pass the second inspection. But if they don’t, they face no fines or censure. If a jail remains noncompliant for six more months, the sheriff and county judge can be called to appear before the TCJS board, which meets quarterly. Wood said Tarrant County has never had to appear at such a hearing. At that hearing, the board can issue its own compliance order. And finally, if a jail violates that order, the case can be referred to the Texas attorney general’s office for enforcement.

All of that means that jails have virtually limitless second chances before even the possibility of facing legal or financial consequences.

Notably, Tarrant County did not fail its March inspection because of in-custody deaths. The jail was cited for failure to notify magistrates within 12 hours of taking arrestees into custody, and failure to give inmates an hour of exposure to daylight each day, an issue that Gabbert connected to COVID-19 protocols. Wood said that for in-custody deaths to contribute to a failed inspection, his commission would have to identify patterns of abuse or neglect that contributed to the death. He admitted that standard is rarely met, though the jail was issued a separate notice of noncompliance in relation to one of the 21 deaths last year, a 50-year-old man who hanged himself in his cell. TCJS found that the jail staff failed to adequately observe that inmate.

We see two steps that should be taken here.

First, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn should take an active role in getting this trend pointing the right direction. The problem isn’t going away. According to a database of in-custody deaths managed by the Attorney General’s office, there have been nine more deaths in TCJ custody since the March inspection. Through Gabbert, Waybourn declined to talk with us about this issue. That’s not the tack he should take. He should be out in front of this. So should Judge Whitley, whose office didn’t return our calls.

Earlier this year, Waybourn’s colleague in Collin County, Sheriff Jim Skinner, fired seven people and held multiple news conferences after a single controversial death in jail custody. Waybourn should likewise go out of his way to show his commitment to transparency, accountability, and saving lives. We asked Gabbert if anyone has faced disciplinary action as the result of these deaths, but she didn’t reply.

Second, the regulatory system for county jails lacks teeth. The incentives for keeping inmates alive shouldn’t be years-removed from failures to do so. Next legislative session, elected officials should take a hard look at jail accountability and add provisions for disciplinary action related to inmate mortality.

It concerns us to see a spike in deaths in law enforcement custody. What concerns us even more is what we’re not hearing: a common-sense, concerted effort to solve this problem.

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Weatherford Democrat. Nov. 27, 2021.

Editorial: Reno’s silence speaks volumes

The Reno city council last week officially swore in a new police chief. It was the beginning of a new chapter following one that ended promptly, and without transparency or explanation.

Former Police Chief Tony Simmons was hired to a five-year contract to oversee the police department in March 2020. Then, in October, the council approved to enter into a separation agreement with Simmons.

Signed on Oct. 23, a copy of the agreement provided to the Democrat notes that upon separation, Simmons would “voluntarily retire” and receive a $70,000 payout — a year of pay according to his original contract.

The agreement also includes a release of claims against the city, a non-disparagement clause against the city and its elected officials and a stipulation that Simmons “will never apply for employment with the city” and would not accept a position if offered employment by Reno.

A signed acknowledgment by Simmons on Nov. 2 notes that since the time of the separation agreement, no complaints or lawsuits were filed against the city, and further that Simmons has “no legal claim against the city” and does not intend to pursue any such claim.

It appears the Reno city council was in a hurry to excise a department supervisor and ink a taxpayer-funded deal to buy his silence. Indeed, Monday’s discussion on redesigning the police emblem, just minutes after a new chief was sworn in, enforces an urgency to wipe the slate clean.

Compound that with the fact that the council which voted for the separation includes a mayor who has only held the office since May and a mayor pro tem who was challenged — and at one point replaced — for not living in the city.

Worse, it seems their need to ink a deal to send their police chief packing was top priority.

We wonder why?

In August, council members signed and presented a letter to the chief. Though they did not discuss the contents of the letter at the meeting, a copy obtained by the Weatherford Democrat listed 11 accusations the document casts as “incompetency, corruption, misconduct, or malfeasance” under Texas law and under Simmons’ employment agreement as “willful misconduct and gross negligence.”

Simmons was given a Sept. 9 deadline to respond to the claims. A Freedom of Information Act request by the Democrat seeking those responses was declined by the city and forwarded to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for an opinion.

The Texas AG hasn’t yet ruled on the request, effectively holding the public in the dark as an elected board wrangled an exit deal with one of its top employees.

The Weatherford Democrat also sought any communications sent or received by council members regarding complaints or allegations of misconduct by the chief or police department between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30.

The city’s response: it has no such documents.

The resignation letters of former Reno PD officers seem to back that up as well.

“It has been the pleasure of a lifetime serving under you,” one officer wrote. Another former officer noted changes to the department “significantly for the better,” while another said they cherished their time assisting in the rebuilding of the agency.

Indeed, only one officer’s resignation letter provided a glimpse of the upheaval. That officer wrote that the decision to resign was “due to the political environment with the Mayor and City Council” and “unethical tyranny.”

“Unfortunately, this means you will be the last man standing,” according to the resignation letter submitted to Simmons. “Do not falter in this coming storm.

“You will come out on the side of righteousness in this oppressive battle the Mayor has decided to wage against the heroes of this agency.”

With Simmons gone and under a gag order agreement with the city council, and no officers left, that leaves one party to answer those questions — the city’s elected officials.

And they’re not talking or responding appropriately to public records requests.

Their silence leaves us wondering who and what they’re trying to protect with city-funded separation agreements and public records request denials?

We know who they aren’t protecting with their affront to transparency: taxpayers.

END