Newsflash

Red Light Cameras

RedLightNewA federal judge issued an injunction November 26 to keep Houston’s 70 red light cameras from coming down — three weeks after voters elected to turn them off. 

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes’ injunction will ensure the city continues to ticket and collect fines from red light runners caught on camera through November 15 –– the date Mayor Annise Parker announced the lights were turned off, following the defeat of a referendum to continue their use. The injunction is in response to a contract dispute filed by the city against American Traffic Solutions, the company that installed and maintained the cameras, and a countersuit by ATS against the city.

Houston has had red light cameras in place at several major intersections since the fall of 2006. Since then, they have resulted in ticketing of 800,000 drivers for a total of $44 million in fines, of which ATS was entitled to a commission of $1.75 per ticket. In September 2010 alone, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company earned $31,000 from more than 17,000 tickets issued here in Houston citywide. 

The battle against the devices began last summer with the formation of Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, a political action committee headed by criminal attorney Randall Kubosh, his mother, Francis, and his two brothers. Paul Kubosh, an attorney who specializes in traffic court cases, and Michael Kubosh, a former minister and currently owner of a bail bonding company, are the others involved. 

The family-run PAC fought to have a charter amendment banning the cameras placed on the November ballot. The wording on the ballot read, “Shall the City continue to use red light cameras to enforce state and local laws relating to traffic safety?” 

A Special Purpose Committee Campaign Finance Report shows more than $210,000 donated to Keep Houston Safe, which supported a campaign for the continued use of cameras. Of that, ATS contributed $150,000. 

A poll conducted by Rice University’s Bob Stein prior to the election showed 55 percent of voters were in favor of keeping the red light cameras in place. On November 2, the amendment to maintain the cameras failed by a 53.2 percent margin, but the contract dispute underway in federal court has put the voters’ mandate in limbo. 

By Judge Hughes’ order, cameras will remain in place until the litigation is finalized. 

The city’s contract with ATS stipulates that the company is paid $2,395 per month for each of the 70 cameras at 50 major intersections –– more than $167,000 total –– and that a four-month notice must be given to cancel the contract, which was scheduled to run until 2014. The extra expense to honor the contract could cost the city $668,000 at a time when it is already facing a budget shortfall of $70 million. 

At about the same time as the ruling regarding the contract dispute with Houston, ATS also celebrated a unanimous ruling by the California Supreme Court upholding a lower court’s ruling on the legality of the payment structure in contracts between municipalities and private contractors to provide equipment and support services for automated traffic enforcement systems. 

Houston is the bellwether battle as the state legislature is also taking a look at the legality of red-light camera use, says Michael Kubosh. That’s why ATS is fighting so hard to keep the Houston cameras in place, he added. 

The City of Houston really doesn’t want them removed because of the revenue stream they provide, despite the voters’ mandate, Kubosh said, and whatever the outcome in federal court, an appeal from either side is likely. 

“The citizens of Houston should be very concerned that the city attorney is providing a weak defense for the voters,” says Kubosh. “I see trickery. [The City] and the red light camera company want the same thing. They want the cameras back up and making money.”  

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, red light running is the leading cause of urban automobile crashes. In 2004, more than 900 people were killed in the U.S. and an estimated 168,000 were injured in crashes involving red light running. Statistics from the Houston-Galveston Area Council show that red light accidents in the Houston area account for approximately $225 million per year in total comprehensive cost.

Deborah Quinn Hensel is the news editor of Houston Woman Magazine. To contact her, send email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

La Maison in Midtown

SharonGenoraWith a bit of planning, patience and determina-tion, an attainable goal can become a stunning reality. Just ask Sharon Owens and Genora Boykins, long-time friends and business partners, who found this to be true as they worked towards opening La Maison in Midtown, an urban bed and breakfast.

In the late 1990s, the two observed that development was being planned for Third Ward and Midtown and decided to purchase a piece of property. The women wanted to do something with the property that would meet a need in the community. After learning Houston was lacking adequate hotel accommodations – it was said this was in part why large conventions never came to Houston – they researched the hospitality industry and started planning to build, open and operate a bed and breakfast.

“We thought opening a bed and breakfast would be a nice way to get involved and engaged in what was going on in Houston at the time,” said Owens.

In 1999, Boykins stumbled across a piece of land at the corner of Brazos and Drew that was up for sale. 

After speaking with the real estate agent, they purchased the land. Even though Midtown was not nearly as popular or populated as it is today, it seemed the ideal place to build. 

“The key of real estate development is location, location, location,” Boykins said. “It was really about seeing what was planned for the future and trying to be in the right place at the right time.” 

With land secured, Owens and Boykins started taking steps to make their vision a reality. Both holding full-time jobs, they knew this project would take a fair amount of time to complete. Owens is vice president of corporate community relations for CenterPoint Energy and Boykins is general counsel for Reliant Energy.

Having previous development experience, Boykins knew they would face the same challenges any other entity wanting to build new construction would encounter. The two were determined to stick it out together. 

“It took perseverance, patience, relationships, prayer and finding the right people who understood the business and would be willing to lend their talents to help us make it a reality,” said Owens. 

The next four years were spent learning the industry, researching travel industry trends and creating a land plan. They also retained an architect to create the building’s design concept. In 2004 they created La Maison in Midtown Ltd., to provide a legal structure suitable for building, owning and operating the business. 

From 2004 to 2007, the pair focused on creating a financial plan, securing investors and trying to obtain financing. Both admit coming up with a bankable deal was one of the most challenging parts of this process. Many of the lenders they approached suggested other uses for the land, such as building and selling town homes. One lender lost the paperwork and transferred them between various loan officers. 

During this time they secured a contractor, DMAC Construction, that was able to recommend a bank and Small Business Association (SBA) lender. Receiving commitment letters from this bank and SBA lender, financing was secured in March 2008. 

The next several months were spent obtaining architectural plans to complete the permitting process. This was another trying time — many changes to the design were made to comply with building codes that, through the course of this process, had changed.

A ground-breaking ceremony was held in April 2009. Construction on the building began in June 2009 and was completed in May 2010. The occupancy permit was then issued, and La Maison in Midtown hosted its first guests this summer. 

“Had we built the B&B within three to five years of purchasing the property, the surrounding development in Midtown would not have been conducive to support our vision,” Boykins said. “We remained both prayerful and hopeful that when the B&B was complete Midtown would be a robust community, and it appears that the timing was just right.”

Eleven years after first acquiring the land, La Maison in Midtown stands as a three-story New Orleans-style bed and breakfast. The seven-room escape in the city offers its guests southern hospitality with the warmth of home and convenience of a boutique hotel. 

“It is a great feeling when a guest says, ‘This is so wonderful and relaxing,’” Owens said. “It really validates what we were trying to do.” 

Whether a business or leisure traveler, staycationing family or getting-away girlfriends, Owens and Boykins hope that guests ultimately find rest and relaxation as they make themselves comfortable in this cozy little home away from home. 

Kim James is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Hadassah to honor three

HadassahLogoRedThe Houston Chapter of Hadassah will salute Sonia and the late Harold Raizes, The Rose nonprofit breast cancer organization and Hayley Feldman, leaders of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” at its 2011 Women of Courage benefit. The gala luncheon and auction will be held Sunday, Feb. 13, beginning at noon at the Westin Oaks Hotel.

“We are thrilled to incorporate several ‘firsts’ this year -- the first time Women of Courage has honored someone posthumously, the first time to honor a man, the first time to honor an organization and we’re introducing our first-ever Woman of Tomorrow Award recipient,” said Joy Blog, event co-chair (with Linda Rubenfeld).  

Representing “Yesterday” is the late Harold Raizes, a venerable Houston businessman, Jewish leader, and kind and loving husband, father and grandfather. Starting in the 1940s, Harold encouraged his wife to become involved as a Hadassah volunteer. He took pride in Sonia’s rise in the Hadassah organization, where she blossomed in her Hadassah leadership positions. 

“I couldn’t receive this honor without Harold, of blessed memory, being honored too,” said Sonia Raizes, reminiscing how her husband, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and a Hadassah Associate and committed supporter of Hadassah, was always at her side at Hadassah functions.

Sonia Raizes, who, along with The Rose, signifies “Today,” first joined Hadassah when she was a bride in Mason City, Iowa. A National Associate of Hadassah and a member of the National Board of Hadassah, she served as the National Fundraising Task Force Coordinator for the Greater Southwest Regions and Area Founders Chair for the National Major Gifts Department. She has held portfolios on the local and regional levels of Hadassah and has given courses in training for fundraising, membership and leadership. Sonia Raizes has served as area chair for Houston’s Cancer Drive. Her community involvement also includes leadership roles with Young Judaea, United Jewish Appeal and her synagogue board and Sisterhood.   

The Rose is the city’s leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization providing mammography screening, diagnosis, access to treatment and support to all women regardless of their ability to pay. Last year, The Rose provided 27,837 screening and diagnostic procedures for those able to pay; 15,680 screening and diagnostic procedures at no charge to low income, uninsured women; 7,621 free patient navigation services to other treatment patients without insurance.

The Rose co-founders, Dixie Melillo, M.D., a general surgeon specializing in breast cancer, and Dorothy Weston Gibbons, CEO, will accept the Women of Courage Award.

The “Woman of Tomorrow” —representing the future of Hadassah —  is Hayley Feldman, a third generation native Houstonian, who learned the values of volunteerism by her family’s example. In Hadassah, she has been active in the LeAtid group for 11 years, holding many positions, including membership vice president and president. At the Houston Chapter level, Feldman has served as membership vice president, on the Strategic Planning Committee and has coordinated mailings of the Women of Courage luncheon invitations. She is a PTO vice president and board member for Beth Yeshurun Day Schools, Federation Collage 2011 Kick-off co-chair and has been active in the Congregation Beth Yeshurun Sisterhood and the Friends of Godwin Park.

Tables and individual tickets for the Women of Courage Luncheon are now available for purchase. To obtain full details, please call 713-661-1022.

Hadassah, a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is the largest volunteer women’s organization in the U.S. with more than 300,000 members, including more than 3,000 in the Houston area.

Fit to drink?

water-faucet2Multi-billion-dollar sales of bottled water and water filtration systems are largely predicated on public perception that tap water in many major U.S. cities is unsafe to drink. In Houston, water quality has come into focus recently, with reports from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) shining a spotlight on the presence of radiation in the city's water supply and its potential link to cancer.

Scientists­––and even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which monitors public water supplies––agree that radiation in the water can trigger cellular mutation and cancer, but the EPA sets the limit on levels of radiation based on cost vs. risk. Water supplies can be made risk-free, but at a higher cost, the TCEQ's website explains:

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied the health risks and the costs associated with reducing it — that is, at what point do the costs of further reducing the risk outweigh the expected benefits? In this analysis, the EPA used an estimate generally considered to be conservative — the point at which the risk was no more than an additional two cases among 10,000 individuals," the site says. "In the EPA’s analysis, that level of risk is reached by people who drink two  liters — about a half a gallon — of water every day for 70 years at any one of these levels of radiochemical content:

  • For radium, 5 picocuries per liter (combining both isotopes, radium-226 and radium-228).
  • For the gross alpha standard, 15 picocuries per liter.
  • For uranium, 30 micrograms per liter."

"These levels are called the maximum contaminant level, or MCL, for the respective substance. The only way to remove the risk entirely is to reduce the level of radiochemicals to zero. The cost of completely removing the radiochemicals and disposing of the resulting waste safely could make your water too expensive to use."

Test results dating back to 2004 provided by the TCEQ show the water supply in specific areas of the City of Houston have had high levels of gross alpha and gross beta radiation, and high levels of radium and uranium, the latter of which is known to concentrate in certain areas of the body, leading to bone and liver cancer and blood diseases such as leukemia. Whereas the MCLG, or the federally recognized public health goal, for both gross alpha and beta particles is zero, the legal limit (MCL) is set at 15 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) for alpha, and 50 for beta. In the test results, alpha particles in some areas of town measured as high as 389 pCi/L and beta particles measured 226 pCi/L (both in San Saba WSC, 2006).

Such findings put Houston squarely in the hotseat with environmental watchdog groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG). Based on those same test results, EWG ranked Texas cities like Arlington (#1), Fort Worth (#3), and Austin (#7) among the nation's top 10 for best water supplies. Houston fell to #95 of 100 cities ranked for its poor record.

Still, the City of Houston contends its water supply meets EPA regulations, and its Drinking Water Quality Report, 2009, seems to support that declaration--even though it isn't as detailed as the TCEQ findings in pinpointing specific neighborhoods. It does show the results for up to 97 potential chemical contaminants, including lead and arsenic.

A statement by Jun Chang, P.E., deputy director of the city's Public Utilities Division city's addressed the issue on the Public Works and Engineering website (www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/water) by saying that the problem is limited and isolated.

"Recent media stories have raised questions over the quality of the water you drink. The City of Houston takes these matters seriously. However, the issue raised is limited only to a small number of isolated groundwater wells that were built by Municipal Utility Districts which were inherited by the City through annexation," Chang writes.

"Since 2002, gross alpha particles, which are naturally occurring in aquifers, have been detected in some groundwater wells that the City is replacing. Only six of seventy-eight wells had levels of gross alpha particles approaching regulatory standards and only one was in excess of the maximum contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That well is not being used now, nor does the City expect to need to use it in the future. The City will soon decommission the site entirely. The remaining five wells have been used intermittently and water from these wells is diluted by mixing it with surface water before it enters the water distribution system. Therefore, the levels of gross alpha particles in the water reaching the public are all within the federal and state limits for safe water. Residents should rest assured that the City’s drinking water is among the safest in the country."

Does drinking bottled water provide any more protection? Not much, experts and environmentalists concur. For one thing, much bottled water on the market is merely treated tap water with many of the same chemicals present––lead, chlorine, herbicides and pesticides. Furthermore, phthalates from the plastic bottles are known to leach into the water over time. Birth defects and changes to hormone levels in laboratory rats have been some of the effects associated with this exposure, and in one Swedish study, a potential link to autism in children was found.

Still, the notion that bottled water is healthier persists. The bottled water industry reached its peak earnings in 2007 with $11.5 billion in sales, but dropped slightly in 2008 and 2009 due to the recession, according to a 2009 study conducted by the Beverage Marketing Corporation. The average American consumes 26 gallons of bottled water per year, says the International Bottled Water Association, ranking the beverage second only to soft drinks in popularity.

Stitched in Time

Stitched_Crew2Houston auteurs Jena Moreno and Nancy Sarnoff didn't know a lot about the filmmaking process, nor did they know much about their subject matter — quilting — when they embarked on their first documentary film, Stitched, last year. Now, they have developed a passion for both.

“My grandmother was a quilter, and I have memories going down to her basement in Ohio and seeing this big wooden frame with her quilts,” Sarnoff said. “I knew she made ‘blankets,’ but I didn't know why or what the process was or what it meant to her.” 

The idea for Stitched emerged after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, sending scores of evacuees into Houston’s convention spaces like the George R. Brown — just weeks before the annual International Quilt Festival was due to open there. The festival opened on time, unimpeded and drew a crowd second only to that of Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference, which impressed Moreno and Sarnoff, both veteran business reporters for The Houston Chronicle

“One day I looked up and there were all these quilters walking around downtown carrying their bags, and it seemed to me that the city was getting back to business after all the chaos,” Moreno said.

The backdrop of the quilt festival and its competition for the International Quilt Association’s “Best of Show” prize seemed like a great foundation for a documentary film, Sarnoff added. 

Preconceived notions about quilters being white-haired ladies who stitch patchwork  bedcovers were quickly cast aside as the filmmakers saw what actually goes on at the George R. Brown. Traditional and art quilters of all ages and skill levels, and from around the world come to view a diverse and fabulous quilt exhibit — and to buy fabric, patterns, notions and sewing machines. A recent survey, Quilting in America, shows there are 21 million quilters in the U.S. alone, creating an industry worth $3.6 billion. 

“I didn’t expect to fall in love with the art of quilting and respect it so much, and to find all of these super-cool quilters who are not only fascinating to interview, but fun to hang out with,” Moreno said. 

The two reporters uncovered a compelling story. Three unique art quilters — Caryl Bryer Fallert, Hollis Chatelain and Randall Cook — not only compete for top prizes but also have generated some controversy. Traditional quilters with precise, hand-stitched works view art quilters as a different breed anyway, and the colorful works of these three create even more buzz because of their subject matter, methodology and technique. 

Fallert, of Paducah, Kentucky, was the first to win a major national prize with her machine-made quilt at a time when hand-made pieces were held in greater esteem by purists. Chatelain, of Hillsboro, NC, infuses her art with images of social and environmental issues and uses paint on her quilts as if on a canvas — a technique that had many competitors crying foul when she won the Houston festival’s top prize in 2004. 

Cook, a yoga and Pilates instructor from Rochester, NY, is one of a handful of men who quilt. His art quilts depicting male nudes have also raised eyebrows. The film is primarily about these artists, the challenges they face and the amazing art that anyone can relate to and appreciate. It’s about artists who are pioneers striving for acceptance in their art, Moreno said. 

Fallert won first prize for “Feathers in the Wind,” in the small, abstract art category, and Chatelain won the “Viewer’s Choice” award for “Innocence.

”To get their project rolling, Moreno and Sarnoff needed funding. First, they earned a grant from the Southern Documentary Fund, and then additional support was obtained through funding platforms Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. A website, www.stitchedfilm.com, was born, and social media also helped garner support.

The filmmakers acknowledged that the Houston Film Commission has also been supportive, providing suggestions for producing and marketing the 70-minute film, which will debut in April, 2011. A three-minute excerpt was shown at the Aurora Picture Show’s Extremely Shorts Festival and won second place in a field of 90 films. 

Moreno’s husband, Tom Gandy, has had a pivotal role in their fledgling production companies, PictureSmith Productions and Frame1Media. Gandy, who has worked at two Houston television stations, was also Moreno’s cameraman when she ran The Chronicle’s bureau in Mexico City. Not unlike a quilter stitching together bits of colorful cloth, he now pieces together segments of videotape from their journeys and interviews, striving for a seamless final product. 

“If I weren’t married to the cameraman, this film wouldn’t be happening,” Moreno said.With no marketing experience, the small production team has big ambitions to market the film at festivals around the world. Stitched also may be a stepping stone to future projects, “if we continue to develop skills as filmmakers,” said Sarnoff, who is expecting her first child this December.

“So far, this has been so much fun, and everything has gone our way. We really haven’t failed at anything.” Moreno said. “I could see myself doing this for years to come.” 


Deborah Quinn Hensel is the news editor of Houston Woman Magazine.

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