No property owner likes appraisal districts. After all, organizations like the Harris County Appraisal District play a key role in determining how much property tax a homeowner pays, and that's never a good thing. And HCAD deals with so many properties that horror stories do crop up from time to time. But Jim Robinson, HCAD's chief appraiser, does a remarkable job making the agency as transparent and user-friendly as can be. Videos and online tutorials help teach homeowners how to appeal their assessment; records are easily searchable. And Robinson always makes himself available to the media to explain what's happened when something goes wrong, and to look into it further if need be. No one loves an appraisal agency, but believe us, HCAD could be much, much worse.

For a city of our size, Houston's not a great people-watching city. It's so spread out and so segregated, by class if no longer by race. Take downtown, for example. For the most part, the middle-class office drones stay below decks in the tunnels while the poor people sizzle in the heat topside, and (relatively) seldom do the twain interact. But the Texas Medical Center is one of Houston's few equalizers. Virtually all of us will spend some time there at some point in our lives. The occasion could be a joyful birth, or it could plumb the depths of misery — you see the full range of human emotions there. And since the Med Center is world-famous, people come from all over the world. What's more, and we know this is a little sick, but it's a glamour spot. Few celebrities visit Houston when not paid to do so, but most of those who do are coming for treatment at MD Anderson or another Med Center hospital, so there's the chance you might even spot someone famous.

Somehow, T.H. Rogers keeps coming up with great principals who embody the school's unique mission. That mission involves melding two distinct populations: Vanguard students who attend the gifted-and-talented magnet program from kindergarten through eighth grade, and deaf and multiply impaired students of all ages. Managing things can be a tricky adventure requiring lots of patience, but principal David Muzyka manages it, most of the time with a smile. The school continues to turn out terrific kids who go on to do great things, and who have benefited greatly from their Rogers experience.

KTRK is home to one of Houston's most enthusiastic practitioners of "Hype the Tropics," Tim "Hurricane" Heller. Luckily, the station also has a more realistic meteorologist, Casey Curry, who doesn't portentously announce the need "to keep an eye on" every thunderstorm that might form in the Caribbean. Curry ably describes conditions and possible scenarios without trying to make everything seem like Armageddon. When she tells us it's time to run for the hills, we'll start running.

READERS' CHOICE: Frank Billingsley, KPRC

Nothing about the decrepit, avocado-colored three-story building on the banks of Buffalo Bayou just west of the Main Street bridge advertises the fact that it used to be the focal point of Texas's fertile psych-rock scene, which was both bluesier and more adventurous (musically and pharmaceutically) than its better-known San Francisco Bay Area counterpart. But the top floor of the building, built as the headquarters of the International Coffee Company in the 1930s, was a hippie-friendly haven that nurtured bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, The Red Krayola and ZZTop (who played their first show there) and gave their fans a place to congregate and enjoy the swirling light shows with minimal hassle from The Man. How much longer the remains of Love Street will be there is anyone's guess, as the building is supposedly marked for renovation as part of the Buffalo Bayou beautification project, but the reverberations that originated there continue to resonate in the music of latter-day psych bands both in Texas and around the world.

Local TV talk in Houston tends towards either somewhat dreary, earnest discussions of public works budgets, or breezy, content-free slam-bang interviews with celebrities plugging projects and repeating what they've said in a dozen cities. Ernie Manouse's InnerVIEWS, despite its terrible title, is a welcome exception. He goes the national route, since his KUHT show is syndicated, but he actually prepares for his interviews and — more important — listens to what his guests say, taking the interview wherever it might go. His most recent season featured people like Ken Burns, Jerry Herman and Michael Dukakis — not exactly a Jay Leno-level of celebrity, but all interesting people who got a chance to talk in depth.

When Pearland resident Cherry Woods found herself being attacked by two large pit bulls, she found salvation in the most unlikely creature. "She's the most reclusive, timid animal I've ever seen," Cherry's husband, Harold, told KHOU about the couple's cat Lima. But Lima sprung into action during the attack, hissing and scratching until the killer dogs turned their attention away from Cherry, long enough for Harold to pull his wife to safety. "I'm very glad that we had [Lima]," Harold told the television channel. "When it came down to my wife getting hurt, [the cat] jumped right in. It's amazing." Even better: Lima survived the experience.

READERS' CHOICE: Annise Parker

If you or I were in a bar in Waco, Texas, and we got into an argument with somebody, and then went outside with that person in full view of several patrons, and then shot that person point-blank in the face in front of several witnesses who would later testify that we fired without provocation after asking our victim, "Where do you want it?" you or I would be in a heap of shit. That is because, unlike Billy Joe Shaver, the country legend whose alleged actions are described above, you or I likely cannot afford to hire Dick DeGuerin. The Shaver trial was simply astounding. Despite all that damning testimony and Shaver's blustery bravado on the stand — when a prosecutor asks you if you should have left the bar instead of shooting the guy in the face, it's generally not recommended to contend that the former option was "chickenshit" — the jury took only two hours to acquit the honky-tonk poet in what had seemed an unwinnable case for the defense. It was just the latest, and from a pure lawyerly standpoint, perhaps the greatest, in a 45-year-long career for the one-time Percy Foreman protégé, which has also seen him win big for the likes of New York heir-turned-Galveston tranny corpse-beheader Robert Durst and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Bertie Simmons is the septuagenarian principal of Furr High School on Houston's East Side, where 15gangs have been identified on campus. Despite this, calmness prevails and test scores are rising, thanks to the former district superintendent who came out of retirement to take over the then-troubled school in 2000 and uses "positive reinforcement" as her motto. Biggest exploit to date: She got on a plane with 32 gang members from Furr who'd earned a trip to New York City to visit Ground Zero (they didn't believe 9/11 was real) after she extracted a promise from them to keep trouble off the campus for one school year. They even took in a Broadway showing of 42nd Street. And liked it.

Nowhere else on the Houston dial this past year could you hear Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie, both within the same hour, at least on a major corporate radio station. It was sometime last fall that we heard the former's single "You Never Know" while driving around town, and we immediately had to make sure we didn't have our iPod plugged in. The next hour we heard not only Amy Winehouse and Jackson Browne, but some disco-era Rolling Stones. Say what you will, but that's a sight better than Ke$ha and Justin Bieber over on the pop stations.


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