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Local politics

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

The Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he said they illegally created an independent elections office and hired an administrator.

The move invites a potential lawsuit from the attorney general, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was confident the county would win.

“This is another example of (Attorney) General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans,” Ellis said.

He noted that Paxton sued to prevent counties from installing more than one drop box for mail-in ballots during this fall’s general election. The attorney general also convinced the Texas Supreme Court to block Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.5 million registered voters. Paxton also had issued an opinion suggesting the county’s drive-thru voting arrangements violated the state election code.

[…]

In a written response to Paxton Tuesday, [County Attorney Vince] Ryan acknowledged that Harris County had not promptly informed the state of those actions. He said, however, that Texas law says the delays do not change their validity.

Harris County joined more than 100 other Texas counties in creating an independent elections office, which combines the election management role of the county clerk with the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted in favor of the change, arguing it is more efficient. The two Republicans were opposed, saying it created an administrator who is unaccountable to voters.

The court was similarly divided in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion. Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Paxton’s threat as a distraction and said Longoria must be able to do her job.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said Ellis’s criticism of Paxton was unfounded. The attorney general has a duty to ensure the law is followed, he said.

“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think there is some evil intent,” Cagle said.

See here for the background, and let’s put aside for the moment the laughable idea that Ken Paxton has any moral authority when it comes to telling people to obey the rules. I dismissed Paxton’s threats as mere bluster, but I’m an Internet smartass. There are no real consequences when I’m wrong about something. I certainly hope Vince Ryan is right about this – and as a side matter, I hope incoming County Attorney Christian Menefee was consulted and is on board with this, because it will be his mess to clean up if Ryan and the rest of us are wrong. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if we’re about to be dragged into a prolonged court battle, or if this was indeed just hot air. The Texas Signal and the Chron’s Erica Greider have more.

Keith Nielsen resigns

Better late than never, I guess.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen resigned Monday, the party’s secretary confirmed, ending a brief tenure dogged by his social media post that displayed a Martin Luther King Jr. quote next to a banana.

The post, which recalls a racist trope associating Black people with monkeys, sparked calls from high-ranking Texas Republicans for Nielsen to decline the office, which he won after defeating former party chair Paul Simpson in March. Nielsen at first said he would not take office, then reversed course, despite opposition from some precinct chairs due to the social media post.

Nielsen did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

His resignation follows months of lackluster fundraising by the party, which saw donations virtually dry up after Nielsen took over Aug. 3. The party reported a haul of $14,600 from that point until Oct. 24, the latest date covered by campaign finance reports.

The party spent just $4,140 between Aug. 3 and Oct. 24 as it ran a coordinated campaign for the slate of Republican judicial candidates in Harris County. The party had just $10,690 in the bank, according to its most recent campaign finance report.

During the first six months of the year under Simpson, the party raised $92,624, after reporting it had taken in $206,056 during the last six months of 2019.

See here for the background. There’s probably a moderately interesting story about why Nielsen resigned, then un-resigned, then re-resigned, but it doesn’t really matter. He didn’t have much effect on the Harris County GOP one way or the other, and his successor likely won’t either. To the extent that he’s remembered, it will be as the guy who posted that awful racist meme, then later resigned because of it. Let us never speak of him again. The Trib has more.

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

Someone is going to have to help me understand this, because I’m clearly missing something.

Best mugshot ever

Harris County failed to follow the Texas Election Code when it created an independent election administration office, rendering the office and the appointment of Isabel Longoria as administrator null and void, according to Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the county attorney’s office, Paxton said Harris County did not inform the secretary of state in a timely fashion, as required by law, when it created the new office in July and when an administrator was selected in October to run it.

“As a result, neither the Commissioners Court’s July 14, 2020 order nor the Election Commission’s October 30, 2020 appointment of (Isabel) Longoria to the position holds any legal weight,” Paxton wrote. “In short, the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist.”

Longoria’s appointment should be rescinded, the attorney general said.

County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth referred questions to County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who deferred to the County Attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to the secretary of state.

“We feel confident that, after they review this, all misunderstandings will be cleared up,” Soard said.

Longoria said in a statement that the county attorney had advised her there were no procedural issues with the creation of her office; she will continue working.

[…]

The Election Code requires counties to inform the secretary of state within three days of creating an elections administration office. Within six days, it must inform the state of the appointment of an administrator.

Paxton said Harris County waited two weeks to inform the secretary of state it had created the elections administration office and three weeks to formally disclose the hiring of Longoria as administrator, a senior aide in the County Clerk’s Office.

Harris County must take “corrective action” within 14 days, the attorney general said, or the state may take the issue to court. Paxton did not respond to a question asking why his office did not address Harris County’s error in July.

County Attorney Vince Ryan placed an item on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda to discuss the matter.

Here’s the relevant statutes relating to an Elections Administrator:

Sec. 31.031. CREATION OF POSITION. (a) The commissioners court by written order may create the position of county elections administrator for the county.

(b) The order must state the date the creation of the position of administrator is effective. The effective date may not be later than 12 months after the date the order is adopted.

(c) To facilitate the orderly transfer of duties on the effective date, the order may authorize the commissioners court to employ the administrator-designate not earlier than the 90th day before the effective date of the creation of the position, at a salary not to exceed that to be paid to the administrator.

(d) Not later than the third day after the date the order is adopted, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the order to:

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

Sec. 31.032. APPOINTMENT OF ADMINISTRATOR; COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION. (a) The position of county elections administrator is filled by appointment of the county election commission, which consists of:

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

(3) the county tax assessor-collector, as secretary; and

(4) the county chair of each political party that made nominations by primary election for the last general election for state and county officers preceding the date of the meeting at which the appointment is made.

(b) The affirmative vote of a majority of the commission’s membership is necessary for the appointment of an administrator.

(c) Each appointment must be evidenced by a written resolution or order signed by the number of commission members necessary to make the appointment. Not later than the third day after the date an administrator is appointed, the officer who presided at the meeting shall file a signed copy of the resolution or order with the county clerk. Not later than the third day after the date the copy is filed, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the resolution or order to the secretary of state.

(d) The initial appointment may be made at any time after the adoption of the order creating the position.

The relevant sections relating to timing are highlighted in bold. As was noted in the comments to the Chron story, there’s nothing in the laws to say what happens if a county, for whatever the reason, fails to do the paperwork in a timely fashion. Saying that the appointment is null and void for being a few days late is to be the equivalent of saying that because there were a couple of precincts in Wayne County that didn’t exactly balance we need to throw out every vote in the county. I may not be a lawyer, but I can tell when the remedy doesn’t fit the alleged infraction. And if we’re going to be super-technical about it, then let Commissioners Court rescind and re-appoint Longoria today, and notify the Secretary of State later in the day via email, fax, Fed Ex, town crier, and unfurling a giant poster with Isabel Longoria’s picture on it outside the SOS office tomorrow morning. Will that suffice?

This part puzzles me even more:

Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a frequent critic of local Democrats, urged Commissioners Court to revoke Longoria’s appointment.

“Appointing an administrator of elections in the nation’s third largest county should have been made by following the prescribed legal process to the letter,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The attorney general’s letter is specific that the duties of that office should be returned to the elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector.”

The dispute is the latest in a series of disagreements between Texas leaders and Harris County officials over how the state’s largest county runs its elections. Paxton and state Elections Director Keith Ingram see their actions as reigning in rogue local leaders; Hidalgo and county officials view them as unnecessary micromanagement.

I mean, we’re aware that all of the election innovation that made Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt SO MAD last month was done by the County Clerk, right? Not a non-partisan official whose bosses include the Chair of the Harris County GOP? I’m trying real hard here, but I fail to see what they think they’d be gaining by putting Teneshia Hudspeth in charge of running elections. Do they think she wouldn’t keep doing what she did while Chris Hollins and Diane Trautman were in charge? Have they forgotten that she’s an elected Democrat? Seriously, what is their angle here? I mean, other than being little pettifoggers with a grievance. Like I said up front, someone help me understand this one.

Let’s please find more opportunities to avoid using unpaid prison labor

More like this, in other words.

CM Abbie Kamin

As Houston officials hashed out the budget last spring, City Council members Abbie Kamin and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz quietly asked to send a routine contract back to the Turner administration.

The $4.2 million deal was needed to replace tire treading on the city’s commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. The city was about to award the contract on May 12 to the lowest bidder, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which offered to complete the work for some $750,000 less than the only private bidder, Southern Tire Mart.

The state agency was able to offer a lower price in part because it does not pay its workers. The agency relies on the labor of prisoners, who do not earn wages when they work in Texas, one of a few states that do not pay workers in correctional facilities.

At the council members’ request, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration put out a new request for bids, this time including language that required compensation for workers. Three private vendors applied — TDCJ did not — and on Oct. 27 the city selected Southern Tire Mart for the $4.6 million contract.

CM Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said the change was necessary to ensure the city does not funnel money into what they described as an amoral and unjust system. They hope the city will continue to bypass the state agency in future contracts while they lobby state legislators to address the pay issue.

“Our hope is that we can have a citywide policy,” said Kamin, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “The important thing out of this example is that sometimes it’s the little things that may not be really exciting, but that can have a profound change on the systemic and lingering effects of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

Evans-Shabazz, like other critics of the state’s no-pay practice, likened such prison labor to slavery. If they earned wages, the workers could use that money for phone calls or commissary items, she said.

TDCJ “told me they use the money for their employees. Well, that just doesn’t sit well with me and it seems more like ‘slave labor,’” Evans-Shabazz said. “Being an African American, that certainly doesn’t sit well with me. … I just think that’s dehumanizing.”

[…]

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institute, said work is relatively fundamental in prisons across the country. The group estimates half of all prisoners have a job of some kind. Much of that work involves prison operations, from janitorial duties to laundry.

It’s also common for prisoners to do work for state agencies, but Texas is among several states that do not pay prisoners for such work, Bertram said. Prisoners in the El Paso County Jail were recently enlisted to transport the bodies of people killed by COVID-19. They refused to work for free and are being paid $2 an hour, according to the Texas Tribune.

Even in states that do pay, Bertram said, the wages often are not enough to cover phone calls, commissary items and costly payments for health care. Job-training benefits often are also lacking, she said.

“When you look at the jobs people are getting offered and you think, ‘Does any job like that exist on the outside?’ you start to think this training might not amount to anything,” Bertram said. “It’s never been a better time to realize that people who are incarcerated are very much part of the economy and deserve to be supported.”

There’s a lot of history and other backstory to this that I skipped over in the article, so go read the whole thing. Suffice it to say that people – all people, prisoners included – should be paid a fair wage for their labor. If you must, consider that a firm like Southern Tire Mart was unable to compete with the sub-minimum wages that the TDCJ was able to get by with, until CMs Kamin and Evans-Shabazz stepped in and altered the calculus. They’re now seeking to get a bill passed in the Lege that would mandate pay standards for prisoners, which Reps. Ron Reynolds and Alma Allen will carry and which I fully support. Sorry, but there’s no moral argument for taking advantage of the artificially cheap labor of an involuntary workforce. I’m happy for the city of Houston to show some leadership on this, and I hope other cities and counties will take notice.

A different kind of COVID tracking

Hope this works.

Harris County Public Health will survey residents for COVID-19 antibodies in an effort to determine how many people already have been infected with the novel coronavirus, the department said.

Beginning Sunday, health workers will visit randomly selected homes and ask residents to answer questions and provide blood samples.

Humans produce antibodies, proteins in the immune system, to fight infections from viruses and other pathogens. It can take days or weeks for antibodies to develop following exposure to the coronavirus, and it remains unclear how long they remain in an individual’s blood.

The Houston region has recorded 236,704 COVID-19 cases since the virus arrived here in March, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, but health officials estimate this is only a fraction of the total number of infections.

Health officials hope the antibody tests will help the county determine how COVID-19 spread in certain communities, how transmission rates differ between neighborhoods, how effective containment strategies have been and how many residents contracted the virus but never exhibited symptoms.

“This survey is a very important way that local residents can help public health workers fight this virus,” Harris County Public Health Executive Director Dr. Umair A. Shah said in a statement. “By finding out how widespread the illness is, we can develop strategies that will help us control the spread of COVID-19.”

Participation in the program is voluntary, and only selected households are eligible. Teams of health workers wearing yellow vests will make their rounds from Nov. 15 through Dec. 15, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The point of this survey is to find the people who have COVID but didn’t know it and never got tested for it. This will help us know what the real level of infection is in the county, since the official stats are almost certainly too low. It may also help identify previously unknown hot spots, in the way that wastewater testing can do.

And speaking of official statistics:

Please wear your mask and stay socially distant, y’all. There’s only way one way out of this until that vaccine is ready.

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $10 million fund to invest in early childhood development programs proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her chief policy goal for 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the county government to shift its priorities.

The first-of-its-kind county initiative will provide seed investments over two to three years in programs and strategies aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for young children and their families, Hidalgo wrote in a memo to Commissioners Court. Those include reducing health disparities at birth, promoting responsive and nurturing parent-child relationships, reducing adverse childhood experiences and maltreatment and expanding access to high-quality childcare.

“Early childhood development is a fundamental determinant of long-term and societal health and wellbeing,” Hidalgo wrote.

Hidalgo pledged during her State of the County address last November to make significant investments in improving the lives of children. Since March, however, the pandemic has occupied much of Commissioners Court’s time.

The $10 million will be distributed among entities that provide services to children and at least one firm tasked with evaluating their effectiveness. Requests for proposals would be due Jan. 29, with the goal of launching programs by the end of March.

Hidalgo cited the effectiveness of similar programs in other metro areas, including a Chicago effort aimed at steering teens away from gun violence.

As noted, this was something Judge Hidalgo discussed in the State of the County address last year, and it was also something she campaigned on. She had and has a vision of county government that is more involved, and with the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court, she is acting on it. Speaking of which:

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the proposal, which they said is beyond the scope of county government.

I first heard the name Jack Cagle about thirty years ago. I was pretty active with Planned Parenthood back then. I reached out to the main clinic, which was then on Fannin, in early 1990 in advance of the economic summit that was held that year at Rice (I was still a grad student there at that time), because I had heard about various anti-abortion groups coming into town for the summit to picket and disrupt things at the clinic, and I wanted to do something about it. So I wound up spending the week of the summit as a clinic defender, where a bunch of other folks and I formed a human barrier on the sidewalk to keep those jackasses away from the front door. Got yelled at a lot on their one big day of protest, which was cool, but we succeeded in keeping the clinic running without disruption.

I was back for more in 1992 when the GOP held its convention in Houston, at the Astrodome. Clinic defense that year was a lot more fraught, and a lot more tense, as the threat from the national anti-abortion groups that poured into Houston felt a lot more real. We were boosted by a court ruling that kept them across the street from us, but it was a tense couple of weeks, let me tell you.

It was during this time that I encountered an attorney named Jack Cagle, who was representing those anti-abortion agitators as they sought the right to harass our staff and volunteers and especially our patients in an unfettered manner. He even had the cheek to show up at a reception the clinic held for its defenders. He got his start in Houston politics as a staunch “pro-life” activist, and within a couple of years had been elected to a misdemeanor court bench, from which he was eventually plucked by then-County Judge Ed Emmett to fill a vacant seat on Commissioners Court.

And now here he is, this champion of “the unborn”, one of the most powerful people in Harris County, and when presented with the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of actual born living children, he declines, on the grounds that it’s not his job. That’s some kind of “pro-life” philosophy, isn’t it? May he be haunted every day by the images of children that he could have helped but couldn’t have been bothered to care about.

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

The Harris County Elections Commission on Friday appointed Isabel Longoria as the county’s first election administrator, who will assume the voter registration and election management duties that currently fall to the county clerk and tax assessor-collector.

Longoria, a 32-year-old currently serving as a special adviser to the county clerk on voting rights, will lead the new elections administration office created by Commissioners Court in July. Most of the large urban counties in Texas already had adopted the administrator model, which allows one official to be responsible for all election-related duties.

County Clerk Christopher Hollins, who is running the current general election, will step down from his role next month. He previously told the Chronicle he had no interest in the administrator job.

[…]

An obscure five-member body called the county election commission selected Longoria on a 3-2 vote. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hollins and Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schecter voted in favor; Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett were opposed.

Nielsen and Bennett previously had objected to appointing an elections administrator who is not accountable to voters.

Harris County will still have an elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector. However, they no longer will be responsible for any election-related duties. Historically, the roles were bifurcated because the tax assessor until the 1960s was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

See here for the background, and give my interview with Commissioner Ellis a listen to understand why he pushed for this. I was at best ambivalent about the idea, but he did a lot to persuade me. Picking Isabel Longoria, who is smart and accomplished and will for sure be a force for good with respect to voting rights and expanding access to the vote, does even more. I know that the ideal was to have someone in place before the election, so that person could get familiar with Harris County’s elections operations, but Longoria is already there, so that’s also a plus. Here’s an interview I did with Longoria last year when she was a candidate for City Council District H. I think she’ll do a great job, and I have high expectations.

Here comes a charter amendment effort

I’m neutral about this, at least for now.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association and a coalition of other groups are launching a referendum campaign to give city council more power at City Hall.

The fire union and other groups announced the effort Monday outside the union’s headquarters. The petition, if it garners enough signatures, would ask voters to give city council members the ability to place items on the council’s agenda if they get two of their colleagues to join the request.

The mayor currently has near-total control of what appears on the council’s weekly agenda, a feature that historically has led to consternation for members and advocates on all sides of the political spectrum.

“It’s a small ask, but it will give citizens a big voice at City Hall. We’re a city of more than 2 million (people), and if you’re a citizen out there with an issue that you care about for your neighborhood or your community, and you don’t have connections at City Hall or the backing of some large group, it’s very hard for you to get your voice heard,” said Charles Blain of Urban Reform, a right-leaning advocacy group. “And that’s unfair. But that’s not the problem of any one elected official, that’s the system of government that we have in the city of Houston.”

The coalition needs to gather 20,000 signatures within 180 days to get the item on the ballot. The organizers did not identify a specific election date they are eyeing for the referendum.

Blain stressed the politically diverse coalition behind the effort, which includes the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-leaning Indivisible Houston, Houston Young Republicans and the Houston Justice Coalition. City Councilmember Amy Peck, a conservative, also attended the news conference and said she supports the campaign.

Blain said the effort was not meant to further one cause or group. Instead, he said, it seeks to give residents a more accessible track to voice their concerns and get them addressed.

The immediate effect of such a change would be to eliminate, or at least weaken, any mayor’s ability to stifle council consideration of an issue or measure he or she does not support.

[…]

Turner said he respects the group’s ability to petition, but he thinks the current system is just fine.

“I think what is being proposed would create chaos and confusion,” Turner said, arguing it would lead to more combative and contentious politics akin to the federal government. “What it ends up doing is, it takes you away from the critical things that are important to the people in the city of Houston. There are a total of 17 of us on city council, and if, for example, only three can continuously bring up additional things, then you’ll be spending all of your time dealing with those items, and it takes away from everything else.”

The referendum organizers said council members still would need to win a majority of their colleagues to pass the measures, a political reality they said would discourage frivolous or unrealistic agenda items.

The story quotes HPFFA President Marty Lancton saying this isn’t about the firefighters’ differences with Mayor Turner. Imagine me raising my eyebrows here.

As the story notes, this idea has come up before, but has not gotten anywhere. In theory, I don’t have a problem with the idea. It’s still going to take a majority to get something passed, and I have no doubt that every Mayor has has refused to put things that likely would have gotten a majority vote from Council on the agenda. Any Mayor worthy of the office will have various ways to at least discourage things they don’t like from getting passed. Maybe this will make more people pay attention to Council races, especially At Large Council races. (Yeah, I know, probably not.)

It’s an interesting question to ponder what might be different in Houston now if we’d had this provision all along, or at least for the past 20 or 30 years. I can’t think of any specific ordinance that might have been passed – Mayors, like other politicians, generally prefer to do things that are broadly popular, or failing that things that will be more likely to get them re-elected than less likely. If you can think of something that would be law today were it not for one or more Mayors brazenly suppressing the will of the public, please specify in the comments.

I will say, a change like this is going to have the effect of making City Council more like Congress or the Lege. Plenty of legislators make their bones not on passing bills but on stirring up trouble, after all. If this were in place today, I feel confident that the threesome of Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, and Greg Travis would feel free to bring forth many items for Council’s consideration. If all that did was waste time and annoy the Mayor, I’m pretty sure they’d consider that worth the effort. I’m picking on those three, but you could look at any time in the city’s recent political history and find a trio of troublemakers; almost every Council member has at least one issue they care a lot about that they could get two others to support, whether it goes beyond that or not. The average Council meeting will get longer with this on the books, is what I’m saying. Raising the threshold to bring forth an agenda item to, say, six or eight, would cut down on this, and ensure that most of the things that do get introduced this way are good candidates to be adopted, and not just used to score a point.

I would also expect this to encourage various special interests to ramp up their contributions to Council members (and candidates) with an eye to them sponsoring ordinances these interests favor. That’s got to be more efficient than going all in on a Mayoral candidate. I mean, this happens now, but it’s more complicated.

This may sound like I’m negative on the idea. I’m not, but I’m not sold on it either. I really would like some examples of things that would be in place in Houston now if Council members had this power. I’d also love to hear what former Mayors think of this, now that they no longer have to deal with it. What do you think?

Don’t park in a bike lane

It’s illegal now, and you will get a citation.

Houston city council on Wednesday made it illegal to park in or otherwise block the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, a long-sought change by cyclists fed up with dodging cars and other obstacles in their designated paths.

Council voted 15-2 to pass an ordinance to forbid people from blocking the dedicated lanes that are physically separated from roadways. The prohibition applies to 120 miles of bike lanes, and violations will be punishable by a $100 fine.

Councilmembers Mike Knox and Edward Pollard voted against the measure, but did not explain why. Council did not discuss the ordinance.

Previously, there was nothing in the city’s code that prohibited blocking the lanes. The city had to post “no parking” signs along the lanes in a sometimes futile effort to keep them clear.

Nick Hellyar, a board member for the nonprofit Bike Houston, hailed the ordinance as a pragmatic step toward safety.

“Bike Houston has been fighting for this for forever,” said Hellyar. “It’s just some of that common-sense government that sometimes we need to push a little harder for as advocacy groups.”

Warnings will be given for the first 90 days, and an amendment proposed by three Council members to offer a free bike class in lieu of the fine – sort of like defensive driving class for illegal parkers – was adopted. Motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the off-road bike trails, so in a sense all this does is standardize the bike trails around the city. I approve.

Bill Kelly: Voting Matters

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

The national headlines have highlighted the increased turnout among Harris County voters, and rightfully so. But rather than discuss or project what that increase is likely to mean for election results, it is worth noting the actual mechanics of how so many of our neighbors are able to cast these early votes.

Chris Hollins, our Harris County Clerk, and his team have rolled out an impressive and imaginative early voting plan. Commissioner’s Court deserves credit for making the needed investments so that citizens in Harris County can safely access the ballot even during this pandemic.

Now I’ve been working in campaigns in Harris County since 2003, but this is the first time we have operated under a Democratic County Clerk for a general election. And the difference it has made is truly amazing, and I hope people can tell the subtle changes that are making a significant difference in giving voters access.

First, there is the timing. Governor Abbott’s decision to expand the normal 12 day early voting period to 18 days was critical to promoting a safer – and less crowded – voting experience. The tremendous turnout we have seen in the last 9 days would have packed polling locations without this additional time.

Days are made up of hours, and the investment by Harris County to keep polls open from 7am to 7pm is actual a big deal. Under previous clerks, early voting hours were restricted to the hours between 8:30am to 4:00pm during the first 5 days of early voting.

It is common sense and now self-evident that more people are turning out when the polls are open longer at more convenient times for voters.

What I want to point out is that proposition remains true in reverse: fewer voters access early voting when there are fewer hours.

While Harris County was operating under restrictive hours, Tarrant, Travis, and Dallas Counties all offered more hours for early voting. The Harris County excuse? It would cost more.

Having a Clerk who values democracy matters.

Second, locations – locations – locations. Today, there are 122 early voting locations around Harris County. In 2018, that number was close to 40. Again, this is not a difficult concept, but to see the scale of progress is really amazing.

Aside from tripling the number, nowhere is the location accessibility factor more visible than on our major college campuses. Having early voting locations at the University of Houston (Go Coogs!), Rice, and Texas Southern is a game changer.

In 2008, the closest early voting locations to each of these campuses was the Fiesta near NRG or the HCC Southeast location near I-45 South & 610.

For anyone familiar with Houston geography, these locations are not convenient – at all – to any of these campuses.

Again, Harris County choose not to place an easily accessible early voting locations before Hollins did for any general election. If you think this was an accident, I’d point to the campus openings of Rice in 1912, UH in 1939, and TSU in 1946. It should not take over 70 years to get an early vote site on these campuses.

Investing in over 100 locations in a county of 4.7 million should be the new normal – if the goal is to increase voter access and participation.

Finally, election day itself has been transformed to offer greater access. In campaign after campaign in the 2000s, the message of “you can early vote anywhere in the county” would quickly pivot to “you can ONLY vote in your neighborhood precinct.”

You wanna see a campaign manager in a panic? Tell them their election day doorhangers have the wrong polling location.

While Harris County clung to this system, Fort Bend creating election day Voting Centers, which allowed anyone in the county to vote at these locations on election day. It was an easy message to point toward a location where every voter in the county could vote. Another choice made that made voting less accessible.

Now, voters in Harris County can vote at ANY voting location on election day. For low propensity voters, the ease of pulling into a polling location and hearing, “yes, you can vote here,” again helps more voters participate in voting.

Timing, locations, and countywide access are all concrete policy changes that have been instituted by the Harris County Clerk since 2018. But these changes should not be the end point.

Even before the voting process begins, state policy looks to restrict access in ways that are laughable. The lack of online voter registration in Texas is a clear indictment of suppression policy. Despite statewide support for the policy, Senator Carol Alvarado faced opposition on her bill to create this online voter registration system by Republicans in Harris County.

Wonder why.

To be clear, the Texas Election Code allows for astronauts to voter from space . . . but does not allow for online voter registration. Seriously.

Online registration is less expensive, much cleaner with data input, and is unquestionable easier for citizens looking to register than mailing in an application.

Texans are choosing their new elected leaders right now. Much of the Texas political power structure does not want a larger voter turnout, which is directly reflected by the voting policy.

Harris County decided to invest in greater voter access. It is making a difference.

Bill Kelly works as the Director of Government Relations for Mayor Sylvester Turner. He has worked on the winning campaigns for Mayor Bill White (2003), State Rep. Hubert Vo (2004), Council Member Peter Brown (2005), State Rep. Ellen Cohen (2006), and the Harris County Coordinated Campaign (2008).

We need a better word than “controversial”

From the Chron: Meet Al Hartman, the controversial Houston CEO who is suing Hidalgo, Abbott over COVID orders.

Al Hartman is not shy about his beliefs.

As a guest on a Christian radio show, he spoke about a faith so strong that he heads to a mall after Sunday services to proselytize among the shoppers. He once handed out “Make America Great Again” hats to employees during an outing sponsored by his commercial real estate company. He is an active member and generous contributor to conservative groups, candidates and causes.

The latest cause for Hartman, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Hartman Income REIT Management, is masks, recently joining a suit against Harris County’s top elected executive, Lina Hidalgo, for ordering businesses to require employees and visitors to wear masks. This was two months after joining a suit brought by conservative activists against Gov. Greg Abbott over shutdown orders.

In August, he was further thrust into the public eye when the website Buzzfeed reported — and the company confirmed — that an employee was asked to leave a meeting by Hartman for refusing to take off his mask. The meeting, according to Mark Torok, Hartman’s general counsel, took place before the government recommended that everyone wear masks.

Hartman and his company, which owns directly or through affiliates some 60 buildings across Texas, present another example of how politics and ideology are shaping the response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States and at least 16,000 in Texas. Hartman’s company has not required employees to wear masks, and, until a few weeks ago, signs posted throughout the company’s buildings stated tenants and visitors were not required to wear them, either.

Hartman declined to be interviewed. But by the end of the summer, his workers were falling ill from COVID-19, as first reported by Buzzfeed. Torok confirmed that at least two employees who work in the 43-person corporate office at 2909 Hillcroft Ave. tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Employees practice social distancing and handwashing, Torok added. Many do wear masks.

I’m going to be concise here.

1. If your “freedom” or your “beliefs” rest on the need for other people to be harmed, then your freedom is a sham and your beliefs are bad, and neither the legal nor political system should accommodate you.

2. Along those lines, and as someone who was raised in a Christian faith, I do not understand this version of “Christianity” that regularly advocates for the harm of other people. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus was teaching.

3. As noted in the title of this post, we need a better word for our newspaper headlines than “controversial” to describe people like Al Hartman. “Nihilistic” would seem to me to be a better fit, but I’m open to other ideas.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

The swan song for eSlate machines

We’re still using them for this election, as clunky and outdated as they are, but they’re on the way out.

Harris County may shatter turnout records with as many as 1.5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, the county clerk estimates.

It also has achieved a less desirable position, however — the county will be the largest jurisdiction in the United States that cannot audit its election results because it uses a voting system that does not produce a paper record.

Of all the paperless votes in the country, about 1 in 5 will be cast here, according to an analysis by the New York University Law School-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“If there’s some reason to cast doubt on the election outcome, there’s nothing independent of the software to turn back to with a paperless system,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the center’s election reform program. “All you can likely do is re-run the results and have the software come up with the same results as the previous time. I don’t think that’s great for voter confidence.”

[…]

Despite warnings from election security experts and an acknowledgment by past Republican and Democratic county clerks that new machines were needed, Harris County failed to follow the state’s other urban counties in doing so before 2020. Texas is one of 14 states that still permits paperless voting systems.

The county since 2002 has used the Hart InterCivic eSlate machine, remembered by many voters by its spinning wheel interface. It records votes on a mobile memory card which then is brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

[…]

Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham said he decided to make the switch after the Legislature in 2019 nearly passed a ban on paperless machines. Plus, his 13-year-old machines had begun to fail.

“They were having issues with the capacitors on the motherboard burning up,” Oldham said. “The last couple years, we were getting 15 to 20 of these things happening every election.”

Harris County failed to move as quickly, however. Both 2018 candidates for county clerk, Republican Stan Stanart and Democrat Diane Trautman, pledged to replace the aging eSlates.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with a machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said a few days after she won the election.

She initially had hoped to acquire the new machines in time for the 2020 presidential election — Houston even hosted a voting machine trade show this past July — but within months of taking office concluded the timeline was not feasible.

The county last December began soliciting vendor proposals, aiming to debut new machines in the May 2021 elections.

Launching a new voting system in a low-turnout election is wise because it allows county clerks to resolve inevitable problems with a wider margin for error, said Rice University professor of computer science Dan Wallach.

“Otherwise, you’re just inviting new system jitters making a mess when you really, really want smooth sailing,” Wallach said in an email.

At least we know what we’re getting with them. While it’s true that the 2018 candidates for County Clerk made promises that have not yet been fulfilled to replace the eSlates, Stan Stanart was first elected Clerk in 2010, so he could have moved sooner than that. Be that as it may, we’ll get new machines for next year. Expect there to be some serious activity in this department when the new elections administrator comes on board.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

Still code red

We’ll turn it down a notch when the data says we should.

The counts of coronavirus patients in local hospitals have been falling for two months. Restaurant patios are packed. Houston’s symphony and pro soccer teams are resuming at limited capacity. The state is relaxing restrictions on many businesses next week.

So, why is Harris County still at its highest threat level, urging residents to stay home?

Simple, County Judge Lina Hidalgo says: The metrics her office compiled in forming the threat level system in June have not all been met.

Hospitalization trends met the county’s goals weeks ago. A change to the way new cases were tallied cleared that hurdle on Monday, as did the last hospital target — COVID-19 patients making up less than 15 percent of intensive care beds. The lone barrier to downgrading from red (“stay home”) to orange (“minimize ALL contacts”) is now the county’s test positivity rate, which, at 7.7 percent, exceeds the 5 percent target.

Hidalgo said she understands the public is tired of vigilance, but she loses no sleep over being a holdout.

“What I’m trying to do is have at least one level of government that’s offering research and numbers-based information and consistently refuses to be swayed by political one-liners,” she said. “That continues to be my commitment. When you have folks pretending we can just go back to normal, it puts the community at risk and it gives people false hope.”

[…]

Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president at Baylor College of Medicine, called the county’s 5 percent target reasonable and widely used, but said, broadly, COVID-19 indicators suggest this is an appropriate time to slowly reopen.

Setting goals and then ditching them when the public grows tired of the restrictions they support would be a mistake, McDeavitt said. When Abbott reopened the state in May, Texas had not hit the benchmarks his own advisors had set.

“On the other hand,” McDeavitt added, “if you set metrics and slavishly wait until every single one of those numbers is where it needs to be, that is also problematic. You need to look at the big picture — and I know from talking to the county that’s what they do. Everybody is trying to find the right balance.”

Hey, if Greg Abbott isn’t going to pay attention to his own metrics, someone has to. To be fair, other counties have lowered their threat levels, and Dr. McDeavitt’s point about where the metrics are is well-taken. Positivity rate is a key figure, but it’s also affected by the number of tests that are given, which in turn is affected by test availability. It may be that we need to have a discussion about this, and it may be that we need to reassess what our risks are these days. But still, the fact that Judge Hidalgo is consistent about the metrics we have set for Harris County is a good thing.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

A new COVID testing strategy

Sounds promising.

Harris County wants to implement a program that would look at how and where active COVID infection exists, hoping to better understand how the virus spreads within the region in real time, and use those findings to help shape public health policy.

This commonly used public health strategy involves analyzing representative samples of the population to get a better picture of how the virus is acting rather than just looking at overall infection numbers in the hopes that such data could help single out and address hotspots. By understanding the circumstances, occupations and activities that drive community spread, public health officials and legislators would be better equipped to understand the virus and address high-risk COVID communities.

While Harris County COVID testing currently takes place at a number of fixed drive-through and mobile sites, as well as through private and other healthcare providers, the program, known as surveillance testing, would provide data at the community-level that broadens data collection beyond those actively seeking out testing for possible infection. This type of survey would also help obtain data on asymptomatic cases.

How the county will implement the program has not been determined. A committee has been in the process of reviewing proposals from organizations that submitted applications to conduct the study. Each proposal must outline a plan — including collection strategy, finances and other project details.

Surveillance testing programs generally involve recruiting participants for a medical test as well as having them complete a questionnaire or additional survey, explained Dr. Rebecca Fischer, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. This information could be collected by going door-to-door, setting up an outdoor site, or recruiting participants through a website.

“A community surveillance testing program could really be a game-changer if done correctly,” Dr. E. Susan Amirian, epidemiologist at the Texas Policy Lab at Rice University, wrote in an email. The group was approached by County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office to help officials better understand the epidemiological and scientific aspects of such a project. The Harris County Public Health Department has also been involved in an advisory role, said the department’s media specialist Martha Marquez.

With no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place, states, counties and universities have taken it upon themselves to conduct these kinds of “surveillance tests” to learn more about how the virus acts and spreads in their communities. Current reporting tactics are considered “passive” surveillance since they rely on people actively seeking diagnosis, said Fischer.

There’s more, and you should read the rest, but stop and focus for a minute on the first sentence of that last paragraph. Why, exactly, is there “no national community-level COVID surveillance testing program in place”? I mean, we know the answer to that question, but the point is that in the midst of the non-stop chaos and sabotage and authoritarianism, we’re still asking the same questions, making the same arguments, and waiting for the same basic things as we were six months ago. We should maybe try not to forget that.

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

In late April, Lina Hidalgo stood at a microphone in the Harris County emergency operations center in Houston and pushed up the teal fabric face mask that had slipped off her nose. Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke. Next to her, an American Sign Language interpreter translated for an audience that couldn’t see her lips. But there was no need to worry her message would be lost. Soon it would become the subject of debate across the country—and so would she.

Hidalgo, the county judge of Harris County—the top elected official in the nation’s third-largest county—announced that millions of people in the Houston area would be required to wear a face covering in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who didn’t comply would risk a fine of up to $1,000. Behind her, charts and graphs told the statistical story that had led Hidalgo to this moment. Since early March, when the state’s first case of Covid-19 had been identified in Houston, the urban heart of Harris County, the number of infected people in the county had climbed to 3,800. That day, the death toll stood at 79 and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned that number could “exponentially increase.”

Hidalgo had been bracing for the disease for weeks. She had sought advice from officials in King County in Washington state, the nation’s first hot spot. Armed with their insight, she rallied her own emergency management and public health officials to prepare a response and on March 16 ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms. Initially, state officials followed suit. Three days after Hidalgo’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster for the first time in more than a century. Texans huddled indoors. But by early April, pressure was mounting on Abbott to end the lockdown. Hidalgo was pulling the other way.

You know what happened from there. You should read the whole thing, it’s mostly stuff you already know but it’s deeply satisfying to see someone who’s been right about the virus in all the ways that matter and who’s been the target of some vicious, racist insults as a result of her being right about it get her due. I’m going to highlight two other bits here:

“The perils of straight-ticket voting were on full display Tuesday in Harris County,” the Chronicle’s editorial board clucked. “Longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican who’s arguably the county’s most respected official, was ousted by Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student running her first race.”

“We hope she succeeds,” the editorial continued, “but residents can be forgiven for being squeamish about how Hidalgo will lead the county and, by extension, the region’s 6 million people, through the next hurricane.”

I can understand the initial apprehension about a political newcomer taking over as County Judge, and I can understand some unease at it happening as part of a partisan wave. But I guess I’m just going to die mad about all the pearl-clutching over straight-ticket voting, which casts a whole lot of people as mindless automatons instead of individuals who made a choice. That choice in 2018 was to vote for change, and to vote against Donald Trump. One can admire Ed Emmett for his competence, his compassion, his deep concern for Harris County and its residents, and still disagree with him on principles and priorities, and want to see our county government move in a different direction. The sheer condescension in that first paragraph will never not annoy the crap out of me.

“I expect for some Texans it’s a little hard to take that a young Latina who earned her citizenship, as opposed to being born here, has the level of authority that she has,” one of her advisers, Tom Kolditz, told me. “She absorbs every criticism, she listens to every racial dog whistle, she puts up with ageist comments about what her abilities are or are not.”

[…]

Re-opening schools has emerged as another battleground. Hidalgo has taken a position that is consistent with her aggressiveness throughout the pandemic. On July 21, she ordered all school districts in Harris County to delay opening schools for in-person learning for at least eight weeks. Wearing a floral face mask at a recent press conference, her curly hair longer than normal due to the pandemic, she urged the community to work together “until we crush this curve.”

“Then, we can responsibly bring your kids back to school,” she said. “Right now, we continue to see severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus and it would be self-defeating to open schools.”

A familiar chorus of criticism from state and federal Republicans followed quickly. Rep. Crenshaw, among others, has beat the drum that schools must open. And a week after Hidalgo’s announcement, the Texas attorney general said that local health authorities can’t close schools to preemptively prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, announced it wouldn’t fund schools that closed under such orders.

Kolditz, Hidalgo’s adviser and a retired Army brigadier general, has framed the pandemic like a war that can’t be won without a common objective and unity. When Hidalgo was empowered to call the shots in Harris County the pandemic was relatively under control, he said. Since Abbott undermined that, “it’s been a disaster.”

“We’re going to wake up from this pandemic and be stunned by how many lives were wasted by bad leader decisions, and she is not a part of that,” he said.

Hidalgo has largely tried to avoid making the pandemic into a political fight, but she is not naïve about the political implications of every decision. “If we do the best we can and, politically, that wasn’t appropriate for people and I’m not re-elected in two years, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

I mean, we could listen to the person who’s been consistently right, or we could listen to the people who have been consistently wrong. Seems like a clear choice to me, but what do I know?

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.

Mike Floyd resigns from Pearland ISD

Sad to see him go, but he picked a good reason to exit.

Mike Floyd

Losing a vote to nix a $300,000 contract with a controversial special needs facility was the beginning of the end for Mike Floyd’s tenure as a Pearland ISD trustee.

The 21-year-old first made headlines three-and-a-half years ago when he was elected to the Pearland ISD school board as a senior at the district’s Dawson High School. His principal and staff cheered for him the day after the votes were tallied.

Few, however, cheered after a tense board meeting on Aug. 10 led to the approval of a partnership with the Shiloh Treatment Center and a potential $2.5 million budget shortfall, which precipitated Floyd’s resignation on Friday.

In a letter to Board President Charles Gooden Jr., Floyd said he wanted to cut his extended term short due to “recent board decisions that I cannot support.” His term was set to expire in May, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the election was pushed back to November.

While he had already told his fellow trustees he would not seek reelection so he could attend law school, Floyd said the board voting 5-2 to approve the contract with the Shiloh Treatment Center was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and led him to resign.

“In a way I’m not just resigning because of this contract, which is abhorrent in and of itself,” Floyd said. “It’s a warning sign to people who care about what’s going on for this district.”

[…]

Regardless, the money issue will be decided on Nov. 3. And although Floyd has resigned and is taking a gap year before attending Georgetown University’s Law Center next fall, he plans to stay engaged with the board and local politics. He hopes others will, too.

“People have to watch these meetings and get to know their school board member and their city council members,” he said. “If they don’t get engaged, they won’t have the quality representation I would hope for Pearland.”

See here for some background on Floyd. The story has more about this treatment center, which sure doesn’t sound great. Floyd was a pioneer, but other progressive candidates in Pearland, for City Council and school board, were not able to duplicate his success at the ballot box. Not yet, anyway. I wish him all the best in law school, and I look forward to him resuming his political career in Texas at a future date.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Harris County issues guidance for opening schools

They can’t issue mandates, so this will have to do.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday unveiled the county’s guidance for school reopenings, recommending based on a handful of COVID-19 metrics that schools offer only virtual instruction in the coming weeks until the virus is further curbed.

County officials are issuing the guidance as families and education officials continue to grapple with the idea of resuming in-person classes in the coming weeks, and after Gov. Greg Abbott barred local officials from ordering campus shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the non-binding guidance, Hidalgo and county health officials recommended that school districts offer only virtual instruction as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients.

School districts are advised to reopen with reduced capacity as those metrics improve and Harris County hospitals see a 14-day average flattening or decrease in their general and intensive care unit bed populations. At that point, school officials can consult with Harris County Public Health officials on their plans to reopen.

“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”

Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other organizations.

[…]

County officials have not yet publicly released the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, though Umair Shah, the director of Harris County’s public health department, announced Tuesday that the rate is between 15 and 16 percent. The Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center on Monday reported positivity rates of 14.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. The city’s 14-day average has continued to decline since peaking at nearly 30 percent in early July, but remains above the county roadmap’s 5 percent threshold.

Hidalgo and Shah lack the authority to order compliance with the roadmap before the school year begins. Abbott said July 31 that local school boards and state education officials can limit the reopening of buildings in the first eight weeks of the school year, but county officials may not shut down campuses preemptively.

The governor said local health authorities may shut down campuses in response to confirmed outbreaks in a building, but Texas Education Agency leaders said public school districts risk losing state funding if schools remain closed for longer than five days.

You know how I feel about this, so I’m mostly going to peace out here. Judge Hidalgo had ordered schools closed for in-person instruction until at least September 8, back when that was a thing the locals could do. HISD is beginning remote learning only on that date now, and even as a parent of two HISD students, I have no freaking idea when they will be ordered back to the classroom. You can see the Ready Harris roadmap here and the metrics for success here. Maybe if Greg Abbott took this stuff half as seriously as Judge Hidalgo does, we’d be in a better position to reopen schools with some confidence.

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

Your Harris County Republican Party

What can one possibly say?

Keith Nielsen has taken office as the chairman of the Harris County GOP, despite saying he would not do so earlier this summer after facing backlash to an image he posted on Facebook juxtaposing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote with a banana.

Nielsen, elected in March, was set to automatically take over as the party leader in Texas’ biggest county, home to Houston, at 12 a.m. Monday. To forfeit the office, he would have had to notify the party secretary prior to midnight, which he did not do, according to party spokeswoman Genevieve Carter.

By Sunday night, over 120 precinct chairs had signed on to a statement reminding Nielsen of his early June “declination to take the office.”

In recent weeks, all signs pointed to Nielsen reneging on his promise to not take office. He showed up to a meeting with state Senate district chairs last month and left the impression that he was reversing himself, and last week, he announced an Aug. 18 meeting with precinct chairs in an email that he signed as the “chairman-elect.”

Nielsen never publicly confirmed his intentions as questions mounted about whether he was going back on his word. Meanwhile, some of the prominent GOP officials who had initially pressured him to step aside reiterated their calls. The group included Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, of Conroe.

“A bigot whose word is no good,” Brady tweeted Tuesday. “This is not what the party of Lincoln stands for. He needs to be removed. Now.”

It was not immediately clear how Nielsen could be ousted.

See here for some background. As a reminder, there were quite a few other GOP county party chairs who said nasty racist things on Facebook following the George Floyd murder, and they’re still in their positions. Plus, you know, Sid Miller. Good luck sorting this all out, y’all.

Rental assistance

We’re going to need a lot more like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston on Wednesday added another $20 million to its rent relief program, aimed at helping thousands of tenants catch up on late rent payments.

City council voted unanimously to add the money Wednesday, more than doubling the initial program the city launched in May. Private donors, including Texans owner Janice McNair, gave $5 million toward the effort, and the city devoted another $15 million from the federal money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The program requires concessions from landlords for them to receive the funds. They must forego eviction proceedings through September for all of their residents, even if only one of them is set to receive assistance. They also must waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to a payment plan for residents that are behind.

“The concern was, you took the money, and then a month later, you’re still trying to get them out,” said District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The application window will open first for landlords, and then their tenants will be able to apply. Thomas said that will open some time in the next two weeks.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls for a grace period ordinance that would give residents more time to catch up before getting evicted, said the assistance and resulting concessions provide for a more fruitful approach. He said a grace period worsens the financial liability those tenants will have to cover later down the road.

“When their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated,” Turner said of cities that have implemented similar policies. “What will happen is that at the end, the hole is so much bigger.”

Advocates have said a grace period would provide blanket coverage to residents who will not get access to the city’s relief funds, which Turner and others have acknowledged cannot meet the overwhelming demand.

See here for the city’s press release. I’m not sure why the city preferred this approach, but I do know that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep people in their apartments if at all possible. Losing their homes, especially at a time like this, will have devastating and long-term consequences, and not just for the newly homeless people – there will be more strain on the city’s social services, and it’s not like there will be a long line of other folks waiting to take the now-vacant apartment. We really need the Senate to act on the bill that the House passed months ago, because there are millions of lives at stake. If nothing else, surely we can all agree that putting a bunch of people out on the street is not going to help the economy. Keeping folks in their homes is the right answer no matter how you ask the question. All levels of government need to do their part.

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.