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What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

HISD redistricting is on the docket

Already happening, in fact.

Current districts

Houston ISD plans to redraw the boundary lines for its nine school board trustees based on population changes reflected in the latest U.S. Census.

HISD officials emphasized that the changes only impact voting, not what schools children are zoned to. The district is required to adjust those boundaries when the U.S. Census reflects a significant population shift.

The board presented two plans, which are fairly similar, and aim to decide by mid-December. Both aim to return each district to within 10 percent of a predetermined ideal size of about 164,000 people.

District VII, represented by Bridget Wade and spanning from River Oaks to Briarmeadow in west Houston, has seen the most growth, so it will be redrawn.

That district also saw growth 10 years ago, the last time the Census was done. However, the growth wasn’t considered significant enough to warrant being restructured. District I, which represented the north side, and District IX, the south, were the only two to be restructured 10 years ago after the last Census.

On the flip side, this year’s Census data showed that District III in southeast Houston shrank. Dani Hernandez represents that district.

It’s difficult to adjust just one or two districts, said Sydney Falk, an attorney of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado and Acosta LLP, an Austin-based law firm that did the analysis.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Falk said. “As soon as you touch one, you need to adjust the others.”

He added that all the changes were relatively minor. Districts I, III, IV, VII and VIII will all be restructured. Districts II, V, VI, IX generally won’t change.

I couldn’t find anything about the proposed plans on the HISD website, but I’m sure something will appear sooner or later. There are some community meetings happening if you want to discuss the matter; I’m sure the proposed maps will be present at these.

HISD did a small redistricting in 2011 as noted, and then had to do it again in 2014 after the annexation of North Forest ISD. I expect the process to be pretty peaceful and straightforward this time around.

And if you’re wondering if HCC will go through a similar process, the answer is Yes, they will, and they are.

The Houston Community College Board of Trustees is conducting a once-per-decade redistricting process to better align HCC districts based on equitable population distribution.

The board is considering redistricting options at meetings over the next several months. Options currently under consideration are available for the public to comment on and review at an HCC information web page on redistricting located at www.hccs.edu/about-hcc/board-of-trustees/hcc-redistricting-information.

Community residents can review proposed maps and provide map suggestions via a redistricting form at the web page or by emailing [email protected] All submitters must provide their full name, home address, a phone number and, if available, an email address.

“Redistricting is the process by which the boundaries of elective single-member districts are periodically redrawn in response to changes in population,” said Board Chair Dr. Cynthia Lenton-Gary. “We encourage members of the public to visit this site for information and updates concerning redistricting and the proposed maps we will be reviewing.”

Districts are determined based upon U.S. Census data. If population numbers show that a single-member district exceeds the population of the least populated, single-member district by more than 10 percent, the district map must be re-drawn. The goal is to ensure that each single-member district consists of near equal population across the system.

That was posted on October 10; I trust you’ll forgive me for not having that at the forefront of my mind at the time. Their index page for redistricting has all the information you could want. Current and proposed maps are here – not surprisingly, they all look very similar – and the timeline tab indicates they plan to adopt a map next April. Like I said, all the info is there for you to see.

The case for redrawing Constable/JP precincts

A Twitter thread of interest:

Note that he means the Justice of the Peace courts. Current maps for those precincts are here. Note that the Constable and Justice of the Peace precincts are the same. Note also how large geographically precincts 4 and 5 are. I’m sure they were quite empty in the 70s, but that was a long time ago. That’s one of the main theses in the accompanying article, which focuses on population growth and caseloads, and how they affect people facing evictions, which are handled by the JP courts.

Every Monday morning, Judge Israel Garcia, Jr., who serves as Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, stares down a punishing docket of eviction, debt collection, and traffic cases for the week. His courtroom has a line out the door of parents and children, desperate to resolve a dispute with their landlord or settle a longstanding debt. But the law can be unfriendly to these defendants, and Judge Garcia must know that relief will never come.

All Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County deal with large caseloads, but the number of cases in Precinct 5 is seemingly endless. If you visit our Harris County Evictions Dashboard, you’ll see how imbalanced the caseload really is – there are 10 times as many cases in Precinct 5 compared to Precinct 6.

What’s going on here? Do renters in Precinct 5 have a much higher risk of eviction than renters in other areas? Are its residents that much more likely to fall behind on their credit card payments or speed through a school zone? No. The reason why Precinct 5 has more cases is because it has more people –  a lot more people. And it has more people because Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of JP courts since 1973.

For this blog post, I explore just how lopsided the caseloads in Harris County’s JP Courts have become due to a lack of redistricting over the past 50 years. I also show the results from a simulation I ran of 1,000 new maps for the courts that account for population change. Every single one is better than what we have today.

I discussed the political case for redistricting the Constables in an earlier post. That’s a separate matter from what David McClendon is advocating. The two goals, if they are indeed goals for Commissioners Court, would be in some tension here. My first thought is whether McClendon took the Voting Rights Act into account in this exercise, because Precinct 6 – one of two precinct with Hispanic Constables and (with the election of Dolores Lozano in Precinct 2) all Hispanic JPs – would be first in line to be made larger. Precinct 2, the other of those two precincts, is right next to it. Precincts 3 and 7 have Black Constables and JPs. Any potential redrawing of these precincts needs to ensure that Black and Hispanic voters aren’t losing representation.

The Constables are currently five Dems and three Republicans, with Precincts 4 and 8 being all-GOP, while Precinct 5 has one JP from each party following Israel Garcia’s win in 2020. As a practical political matter, Commissioners Court is not going to draw a new set of maps that will make it harder for Democrats to win. Again, as far as I can tell, McClendon didn’t take that into account.

And that’s fine. That wasn’t his idea, and his goal was to even out the caseloads to enable a better process and hopefully better outcomes for tenants facing eviction. The good news here is that McClendon ran a thousand maps, each of which were better than the existing one for his purposes. That strongly suggests to me that the political purpose of not making it harder for Dems to get elected – while also at the least not making it easier for a few specific Constables to get re-elected – can be achieved at the same time as making the courts function better for everyone. Maybe there’s not an optimal solution for each in the same map, but surely improvements can be made. I would absolutely advocate for Commissioners Court to take a long look at this.

Here’s the result of the Republican Commissioners’ budget busting

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

Harris County will eliminate more than 500 vacant jobs, delay some flood control projects, postpone a sheriff deputy cadet class, and cancel raises and cost of living adjustments for county law enforcement after the default to a lower tax rate forced by the two Republican commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six straight Commissioners Court meetings to block the adoption of any property tax rate by the Democratic majority, saying taxpayers deserved a break amid soaring inflation and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

With early voting underway and three members of Commissioners Court on the ballot, the county’s annual budget process also played out amid escalating political rhetoric, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of defunding the police.

State law requires a quorum of four members of the court to adopt a tax rate. By preventing the court from setting the rate last week — the last week it legally could — the Republican commissioners forced the county to default to what is known as the no new revenue rate, the levy at which the county will take in the same revenue as last year, plus $45 million from property added to the tax rolls in the last 12 months. Only $15 million of that additional revenue will go toward operations, the county budget office said recently; the remaining $30 million will be used for debt payments.

The no new revenue rate is 53 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the previous rate of 58.1 cents. In a bid to reach a compromise with Cagle and Ramsey, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had proposed a rate 56.3 cents, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority. It would have included 200 additional members of law enforcement. Cagle earlier had pitched a rate of 55.6 cents and included 200 new lawmen. For the owner of a $300,000 home, the difference between the two commissioners’ proposals would have been about $16.

[…]

Budget Director Daniel Ramos said departments have eliminated an estimated 560 vacant positions as a result of the lower-than-expected tax rate.

He said most of those positions were planned to be filled and that in some cases, departments have used savings from not filling vacant positions to pay for other expenses such as contractors, overtime and maintaining services. Eliminating those vacant positions will mean reduced services in those departments, including the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, he said.

“IFS has medical examiner vacancies because of how specialized the position is, so they use the savings from positions being vacant to offset medical contractors to complete autopsies,” Ramos said. “Harris County will do less autopsies because they don’t have that funding anymore.”

The eliminated vacancies in the sheriff’s office will result in the department reducing the number of people it can hire and the amount of overtime it can pay patrol officers.

The $16.6 million loss for the sheriff’s office is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies, according to a memo from Ramos.

Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez will decide what gets funded and what does not as the department makes “some tough decisions.”

The postponed cadet class could be restored later, Spencer said.

“We expect to continue to lose deputies at the usual attrition rate, so it might be a situation where we have a cadet class down the road just to keep our heads above water with staffing,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be adding positions. It would just be replacing ones that we’re able to afford.”

Ramos said county staffers, including law enforcement officers, are feeling the effects of the county receiving less tax revenue than expected as planned cost of living adjustments and pay increases have been canceled.

“Most departments were able to absorb it into their vacant positions,” Ramos said. “We don’t have a final number quite yet, but there are hundreds of vacant positions that got eliminated across basically all departments.”

The Harris County Flood Control District lost its proposed $23 million increase, while the Harris Health System budget decreased from a proposed $957 million to $822 million.

Some flood control maintenance projects will be deferred to future years, Ramos said in a memo to county leaders last month.

“The type of projects that will be deferred include erosion repair, outfall repairs, sediment removal and conveyance improvements,” Ramos said. “Further deferral of maintenance projects will increase the risk of infrastructure failures during flood events.”

Additionally, the lower funding for the flood control department could jeopardize a $290 million federal grant for sediment removal that requires the county to advance the cost of the project before being reimbursed.

See here and here for some background. There’s a separate story about the effects this will have on Harris Health. My “favorite” detail from this story is that the cuts will affect “cybersecurity upgrades”, which speaking from my professional perspective sure seems like a bad idea. And the most fun part about all this is that unless there’s a 4-1 split on Commissioners Court, all this can happen again. Doesn’t seem like a great way to run a government, but it’s what we’ve got.

Mayor Turner’s cancer treatment

I’m very glad to hear he’s doing well.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed Wednesday that he was diagnosed with cancer this summer, for which he had surgery and received six weeks of radiation treatment.

Turner said he went to the dentist for a root canal, and doctors ultimately found osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his jaw. He had surgery for nine hours on July 30, the mayor said, followed by an eight-day hospital stay and weeks of radiation in August and September.

Turner discussed the illness publicly for the first time in a question-and-answer discussion with former ABC-13 anchor Tom Koch after his seventh annual “State of the City” address.

“I’ve also had my own personal medical situation. For all of my life, I’ve been the healthiest ever,” Turner said. “I go to the dentist to get a root canal, on my way to France with the trade mission. Doctors come and say, ‘Well, it’s a little bit more than a root canal.'”

The mayor said he got a biopsy, and just before departing for France doctors told him he would not be able to make the trip. During the operation, Turner said surgeons took part of his leg bone to restructure his jaw. He had radiation every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. from Aug. 1 to Sept. 12.

“Back at City Council that day, I continued to do what I needed to do in the city of Houston. Let me tell you, I have been blessed,” Turner said to applause. “As I look at the seven federally declared disasters, and then I look at what I’ve had to endure myself, and then you bounce back. What I would say to you is this is an incredible, incredible city.”

[…]

Turner’s office did not elaborate on the mayor’s prognosis after the event.

“That’s the extent of what he plans to share at this time,” said Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director.

There’s a larger conversation we could have about how much our political leaders need to tell us about their health, but I’ll save that for another time. In retrospect, given that there was no noticeable change in how the city was operating, it’s hard for me to say that we needed to know this information any sooner than now. Reasonable people may see it differently. As I said, I’m very glad that Mayor Turner is doing well, and I wish him all the best.

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court have announced they will skip a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, reversing the position they took Friday, potentially ending a month-long impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

On Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

In a statement, Cagle said, “I have read that Commissioner Adrian Garcia is now calling his most recent tax increase proposal his ‘final offer.’ There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer. In addition, Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey has announced that he will not attend Monday’s special session of Commissioners Court. Given Commissioner Garcia’s publicly announced refusal to negotiate in good faith and given the absence of a full quorum of court members in attendance, I will not attend the special session of Commissioners Court scheduled for Monday afternoon.”

Cagle on Friday said he would attend the special meeting hours after Garcia held his news conference in which he called his proposal his final offer.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey has reversed his decision, as well, according to a statement from his office released on Saturday: “He was hopeful in attending Monday’s special meeting of a ‘discussion’; however, vagueness around the “possible action” in that meeting paired with Tuesday’s meeting details leaves the door open to take other actions relating to the massive tax increase. Commissioner Ramsey is officially rescinding his offer and will not be attending Monday’s meeting.”

See here for the previous entry. I’m sure you can imagine just how shocked, shocked I am at this turn of events. We’re way into the farce zone at this point, so barring an unlikely change of heart on their part it’s time to move on to other political solutions. Let’s get that 4-1 majority and not have to worry about this going forward.

UPDATE: You know what Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey had time for yesterday? A little golf, and some fundraising.

There may be a county budget deal available

I don’t trust anything Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey say, but we’ll see.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court said Friday they would attend a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, potentially ending a monthlong impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced he would attend the meeting a short time later.

The two Republican commissioners have skipped the last three Commissioners Court meetings to block the three Democrats on the court from adopting a property tax rate. They view the Democrat-supported rate as too high at a time residents are dealing with the highest inflation in years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also want the county to fund more law enforcement.

Garcia’s proposal, unveiled in a Friday morning news conference, would set the overall property tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority.

The current overall county tax rate is 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Under the rate of 57.5 cents originally proposed by the Democrats, the owner of a $250,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would save about $12 in the first year, assuming the appraised value was unchanged from the previous year.

Under Garcia’s proposal, that homeowner would pay $36 less.

Garcia’s plan calls for an additional $20 million to hire 200 additional law enforcement officers, echoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s call for 200 additional law enforcement “boots on the ground.” It also includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for law enforcement officers.

“Today I make you my final offer,” Garcia said. “It checks every box that each of my colleagues has stated as a priority. … If my Republican colleagues continue to refuse to show up to work, it proves, once and for all, they had no intention on getting any deal done.”

State law requires a quorum of at least four members to set the property tax rate. The court has until Oct. 28 to set the tax rate. Failure to come to an agreement would force the county to adopt what is known as the “no new revenue rate,” a levy that generates the same amount of money as the previous year. In Harris County’s case, the no new revenue rate would include an additional $45 million from developed properties added to the tax roll this year.

Again, this is a legislative minority getting to set the terms because of an anti-majoritarian component of our state constitution. If we are going to bring up the quorum-busting by Democratic State House members again, I will remind you that 1) unlike the State House Dems, Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can do their thing from the comfort of their homes – they do not have to flee to another state to avoid being detained by the cops and dragged back to the county courthouse; and 2) the Republican legislative majority eventually got everything they wanted and all they had to do was wait it out, while the Democratic Commissioners Court majority has no choice but to negotiate. Either way, they cannot do what they would have done if the two Republican Commissioners didn’t have this power. These are two very different situations.

As far as the fear that somehow the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court will suddenly appear, gavel them into an official meeting, and pass their preferred budget before they can abscond again, the following is from the Harris County Attorney’s office:

Harris County Commissioners Court has issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday, October 17 that will focus on proposed tax rates and changes to the budget.

In response to members of court claiming they will skip the meeting because of concerns that a tax rate may be adopted, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee issued the following statement:

“There is no ‘vagueness’ about whether Commissioners Court can adopt a tax rate at Monday’s special meeting. The answer is no. Nor does the court having the Monday meeting mean that they could adopt a tax rate at some subsequent meeting with fewer than four members present.

If any member of court plans to skip Monday’s meeting, they should be honest about why, and not claim that they’re doing so out of fear that a tax rate could be adopted.”

State law requires that prior to a Commissioners Court holding a tax hearing those rates must first be noticed to the public at least 5 days prior to the hearing. Any vote to adopt those rates must take place after the hearing but not later than 7 days after the hearing.

Like I said, we’ll see. I don’t trust these guys and neither should you. Even if there’s an agreement reached, it was done under ridiculous circumstances. The Adrian Garcia deal, if that’s what we get, is fine as it is, it’s the process that’s the problem.

Houston City Council approves its new map

Now we wait for the lawsuit(s).

City Council on Wednesday approved new boundaries for the city’s 11 districts for the 2023 elections, featuring modest adjustments affecting parts of downtown, Braeburn, Greater Inwood and a few areas in southeast Houston.

The new boundaries aim to balance district populations based on the latest census data.

By law, the most populous district should not have more than 10 percent more residents than the smallest district. Based on the 2020 census, Districts C and G need to give up some neighborhoods. Districts H, I and J, on the other hand, have lost too many constituents and need to expand. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts.

The redistricting plan had gone through several iterations based on months of internal discussions and public feedback. On Wednesday, four council members also offered amendments to the proposal, three of which were successful.

Despite the majority support for the new maps, council had to vote twice to approve them after it was revealed late Wednesday that the city secretary called out the wrong agenda item before the council voted during the morning session.

The council reconvened at 6 p.m. for a public hearing on a proposed bond election. Following the hearing, which drew no speakers, the council confirmed the new maps by a 14-2 vote, with District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos and District E Councilmember Dave Martin dissenting.

[…]

City Demographer Jerry Wood said throughout the design process he had to juggle competing interests from council members and the public and was unable to accommodate some requests.

“If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make everybody happy, you’re going to be sorry for thinking that,” Wood said. “If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make as few people unhappy as possible, then you might have some success.”

See here for some background. The map I’ve embedded is from the early part of the process and doesn’t include any of the changes made at that Council meeting, so go here for the latest details. CM Gallegos has some issues with the process and with an amendment that affected District I; the story did not say why CM Martin voted no. Overall, this was pretty painless, certainly easier than it was in 2011 when we had to add two new districts. That doesn’t mean there won’t be legal issues:

Much of the discussion around redistricting has centered on the lack of Hispanic representation at City Hall.

While about 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic council member out of the 16, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the council.

The goal of the lawsuit is to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area, to improve minority representation.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of the legal challenge.

“We are asking for equity and fairness, and we just don’t have that with the current districts,” said Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with the organization. “That’s why we are filing the lawsuit to push for changes.”

Some are worried that Kamin’s amendment could have an adverse effect on Hispanic votes.

The areas set to move to District H instead of Freedmen’s Town, have high percentages of Hispanic constituents, but are experiencing gentrification and are expected to see a decline in Hispanic populations in the following years, according to Wood.

Gallegos said that he did not originally agree with LULAC’s demand to abolish Houston’s at-large seats, but in light of these new developments, he plans to work closely with the organization to advance its cause.

“After what happened this morning, I agree that we need all single-member districts to make sure that we have the representation we need,” he said.

See here for some background. I don’t have anything to add to what I wrote then. I think the plaintiffs would have a decent chance of prevailing if they file, but it’s not a slam dunk. An alternate possible outcome would be to agree to move City Council elections to even-numbered years, as the natural boost in turnout would create a more diverse electorate and thus could raise the chances of Latino candidates in citywide races. That was one of the things that happened in Austin, in addition to the switch to districts from At Large; their elections had been in May of odd years, for maximal non-turnout. Greg Wythe wrote on this topic some years ago at his sadly defunct blog, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There are good reasons to keep city elections in the odd years – Lord knows, we have enough to vote on in the even years, and putting them in the even years would very likely make them more overtly partisan – I’m just saying it’s a possible option. We’ll see what happens.

Just keep staying away, Commissioners

At this point the pattern is clear. They’re just going to keep staying away, at least until after the election. At which point one can hope that one of them will have a more permanent vacation from these duties.

For those of you who like to bring up the Democratic legislators’ quorum busting from last summer, I will say again that these two have the right to do what they are doing, per the law and the rules of the chamber. That doesn’t mean they’re free from being criticized for it. I will also note that for a variety of reasons, the quorum-busting Democrats eventually came back, and the thing they were trying to stop got passed by the legislative majority in place. Also, for those of us old enough to remember 2003, the Legislature made some subsequent rule changes to make it harder to break quorum, and there were some penalties in terms of committee assignments and other bureaucratic matters in the next session. Assuming there’s still a Democratic majority on the Court in 2023, it would be well within their rights to see about making life a little less pleasant for whichever of their Republican colleagues are still there. I hope someone is at least thinking about that.

City news release website hacked

Oops.

Looking for a mail-order Russian bride or wondering how to order a school term paper online? Or maybe you want to improve your slot machine skills by playing online casino games. The city of Houston’s official website for news releases has you covered.

The page on Wednesday morning featured a spate of blog entries on a variety of confounding topics that were decidedly unrelated to City Hall. They were taken down by the afternoon, after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them.

The source of the blog entries, many of which were nonsensical, was unknown Wednesday. Mary Benton, the city’s communications director, said she alerted the information technology department to the posts. The listed author on the articles, a housing department employee named Ashley Lawson, did not actually write and post them, Benton said.

The entries appeared on the city’s news site, cityofhouston.news, a WordPress blog that does not share a domain with the city’s primary website, houstontx.gov.

Christopher Mitchell, the city’s chief information security officer, said no city information was compromised.

“We were recently made aware of improper posts appearing on a blog site utilized by the city to allow individual departments to post departmental content,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The blog site is hosted on a third-party platform and is not connected to any City of Houston enterprise systems. At no point did the city experience a compromise of city systems, data, or information. The origin of the posts was from an active account that was no longer in use, and the city is taking all necessary precautions to correct the issue and prevent a recurrence.”

The posts, often in broken or garbled English, had appeared at least 29 times since Sept. 13, displayed as “uncategorized” entries among more routine posts about police and fire investigations and where to get a flu shot.

Yeah, from a cybersecurity perspective this is (most likely) more of an embarrassment than a breach. It’s a good reminder of why obsolete accounts should be routinely deleted, or at least disabled. There are simple ways to monitor for this kind of activity – even fairly low-tech solutions, like automatically emailing new post notifications to an admin, are worthwhile – and I suspect the city will be doing that in the future. If you have to experience a public cybersecurity failure, there are much worse ways to do so. Please take this relatively painless opportunity to learn from it.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

The new county COVID risk assessment system

We’ll see how it works.

Harris County has revamped its method for assessing the public’s risk for contracting COVID-19, replacing the threat level system that has been in place since early in the pandemic with a community level system that places a greater emphasis on new cases.

The change was made due to a “decoupling” of the relationship between new cases and new hospitalizations during the most recent wave of COVID-19 fueled by the BA.5 subvariant of omicron, Judge Lina Hildalgo said during a news conference Thursday. Harris County did not see a spike in hospitalizations as COVID-19 cases surged this summer, she said.

The new system will allow the public to make their own decisions about the level of risk they are comfortable with taking, knowing that the chance of being hospitalized with a severe illness is relatively low if they have been vaccinated and boosted, Hidalgo said.

“We’re turning a page on a phase of this virus, and I’m very hopeful that we won’t have to go back to a time when surge hampered the entirety of the community,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said the threat level system had been an important tool for gauging risk throughout the pandemic. It had been updated before, but this week’s changes represent a “wholesale redesign,” she said.

The new system uses a trio of color-coded community levels that indicate the risk for contracting COVID-19. Low is green, medium is yellow and high is orange. Harris County is currently yellow, but Hidalgo anticipated the community level could rise to orange with the risk for transmission increasing with children back in school.

[…]

The Harris County Public Health website offers guidance for each of the three threat levels, including recommendations for wearing a mask, traveling and social gatherings when the county is green, yellow or orange. The site will continue to offer other pertinent information, such as wastewater monitoring data and the percentage of county residents who have been vaccinated and boosted.

I had to find the appropriate webpage for this on my own – click the embedded image to get there. The old threat level webpage now gives a 404 error. This new system seems fine and reasonable. The main concern is about what might come next.

Q: So how are we doing these days? The numbers certainly look better than they did.

A: They are falling, no doubt about it. But we have to keep in mind that we don’t have a lot of details about the real number of cases. Most of us are getting diagnosed at home using home testing kits. The numbers were always underestimating by a factor of four or five. Now it’s probably seven to 10. So you have to have to look trends.

Numbers are going down. But here are numbers I keep reminding people of: We’re still losing 400 or 500 Americans a day to COVID, which makes it the third or fourth leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States. There’s still a lot of terrible messaging. People say we don’t have as many hospitalizations. Or that everybody has been infected or vaccinated or vaccinated with breakthrough. All of that is true. On a population level, it has had mitigating effects. But that doesn’t help you make an individual health decision.

People conflate that with individual health decisions. If you’re unvaccinated, there’s still a possibility you could lose your life to COVID. Even if you’re vaccinated and not boosted, there’s that possibility. And we’re seeing the boosters aren’t holding up as well as we’d hoped. That’s one of the reasons I’m strongly encouraging people to get this new booster, which has the mRNA for the original lineage and an added one against BA.5. After four or five months, there’s risk again for being hospitalized. The coverage declines from 80 percent to 50 percent protection against hospitalization.

Then this BA.5, even though it’s going down, it’s a long, slow tail. It’ll be around well into the fall. And the toughest thing to get people to understand is what’s going to happen in the winter. Obviously there’s no way to predict. But I think it’s still quite likely that we’re going to see a new variant just like we have the last two winters. Last winter it was omicron, BA.1. The winter before that we saw alpha. And new variants are arising because we’ve done such a poor job vaccinating low and middle-income countries.

We don’t know what a next variant could look like. More like the original lineage? Or something more like BA.5? The advantage of the new combined booster is that it gives you two shots on goal. It’s more likely to cross-protect against what’s coming down the pike. That’s no guarantee. But we’ve never done this before in terms of what the FDA does. We’ve never vaccinated against something that might be lurking out there. It’s a paradigm shift. What’s happening, and I don’t think the FDA will phrase it this way, but we’re creeping toward a universal coronavirus vaccine.

That’s from a Q&A with Dr. Peter Hotez, who knows better than I do. But I do know enough to say that you should get the omicron booster. And I also know enough to say that political stunts that endanger public health are bad. I think that about covers it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

People who live in crime-filled houses should not throw stones

Local idiot megachurch pastor Ed Young recently said some typically ignorant and politically-charged things, which has people justifiably upset. Not the first time for him, either. I have better things to do than think about Ed Young, so let me just note one thing from that story:

Young, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, leads one of the country’s biggest churches, touting a membership of 80,000 across several locations as of 2019. His congregants include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Texas lawmakers.

Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, you say? Where have I seen that name in the very recent news?

Federal investigators are probing the Southern Baptist Convention over its handling of sexual abuse following the publication of an explosive report that found top officials had for two decades silenced abuse survivors and fought reforms out of fears of lawsuits, leaders of the nation’s second-largest faith group said on Friday.

In a statement, the SBC’s top leadership body, the Executive Committee, confirmed that the Department of Justice is looking into “multiple” Southern Baptist entities.

The statement was signed by all of the leaders of the SBC’s seminaries and main entities. They said they will cooperate fully with the criminal investigation and “continue to grieve and lament past mistakes.”

[…]

The SBC’s handling of abuse has been in the public spotlight since 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published the first of an ongoing series, Abuse of Faith, that found hundreds of church leaders and volunteers had been convicted of sex crimes.

They left behind at least 700 victims, nearly all of them children.

The newspapers’ reporting prompted Southern Baptist church members to request a third-party review last year of the SBC’s Executive Committee’s handling of abuse reports dating back to 2000.

Clean up your own fucking house, Ed. You have zero moral authority over anyone.

(I’d also tell you to get your facts straight, but I know you don’t care.)

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

This is why elections administrators are under attack

What a lousy thing to do right now.

Harris County’s new elections administrator has not taken office yet, but the Harris County GOP is already trying to shape his reputation.

On Wednesday, State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted an image of records showing Clifford Tatum has a federal tax lien of more than $100,000. Bettencourt questioned Tatum’s ability to run the office based on his tax records. According to the tweet, the records were obtained July 5, the date Tatum’s selection was announced.

The Internal Revenue Service filed the $108,209 lien against Tatum last October.

In response to Bettencourt’s tweet, Tatum said in a statement: “This is a personal tax matter and not related to my career as an elections administrator. I have been in touch with the IRS and expect the matter to be resolved by the end of the year. I have been a public servant for over 20 years and my personal life has never impacted my professional career.”

Tatum was selected by a unanimous vote of the five-member Harris County Election Commission in July.

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel was the only person on the five-member Harris County Election Commission to vote against final approval of Tatum, which could not be completed until after he had established residency in Harris County. The commission met briefly to take the vote and adjourned in under 10 minutes.

“Why did the four Democrats on the Election Commission shut down debate on this yesterday?” Siegel said in a statement on Wednesday. “Why didn’t the recruiter do their job and disclose issues with Mr. Tatum’s background before the original offer was voted on? I’ve been asking the paid recruiter and the county attorney’s staff about this for a month.”

In response, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee issued a statement: “The interview, offer, and selection process for the new elections administrator was thorough and all members of the Elections Commission participated. Mr. Tatum’s experience speaks for itself, and I look forward to working with him.”

See here for the background. Personal tax issues are standard fodder in election campaigns, mostly for the purpose of casting someone as untrustworthy or irresponsible. This isn’t an election, though, it’s a job application, and and having a personal tax issue is generally not an obstacle to getting hired. If there’s evidence that Tatum was dishonest about this to the recruiter and/or the Commission, then bring it forward and we can evaluate that. If not, if he answered honestly any questions he might have been asked about this, then it’s not that much different than telling me he’s got a big unpaid balance on his credit cards. Not great from a personal finance perspective, but not relevant to the job he’s been hired to do.

Also, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re out there being a big public supporter of Ken Paxton and The Former Guy, dismissing all criticism as mere partisan attacks, I’m not very likely to take seriously your complaints about some other guy’s back taxes. We all love throwing the word “hypocrisy” around, but maybe try a little self-awareness. I’m just saying.

And look, while no public servant is above criticism or having their conduct scrutinized, now is maybe not the best time to be pointing and screaming at election officials for things that have nothing to do with running elections. Election officials around the country and right here in Texas are besieged by violent threats and harassment from the people that Paul Bettencourt is talking to when he says this stuff. Someone is going to get attacked, even killed, if this keeps up. Could you maybe refrain from throwing gas on the fire for a little while? Is that so damn much to ask?

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

City Council redistricting on the agenda

Get ready for some public hearings.

The City Council of the City of Houston, Texas, will hold the following public hearings in the City Council Chamber, City Hall, 2nd Floor, 901 Bagby, Houston, Texas 77002. The purpose of the hearings is to receive comments, suggestions, and alternate plans from the public regarding the Proposed City Council Redistricting Plan, in accordance with the City Charter, Article V, Sec. 3:

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

All persons desiring to be heard at any of the public hearings must reserve a specific amount of time (up to 3 minutes) by contacting the City Secretary’s Office at 832-393-1100. Details for signing up to speak in-person or virtually are posted at https://www.houstontx.gov/council/meetingsinfo.html(External link). Reservations for each hearing will be received up to 3:00 p.m. the day before each hearing is scheduled to begin.

See here, here, and here for some background. The current map is here and the proposed new map is here. As expected, the changes are fairly minor, to correct population imbalances. The Let’s Talk Houston redistricting page has more details, both overall and for each district. I don’t think this is going to be particularly eventful, but it’s redistricting so there’s always the potential. The question of whether we should get rid of At Large seats will need to be a separate discussion; it may come up here, but it’s not in the scope. Look for a lawsuit down the line. What do you think of the new map?

Some ideas for improving elections in Harris County

Put it on the new guy’s to do list.

When Harris County’s new elections administrator starts the job next month, he will have less than three months to get ready before polls open on Oct. 24 for early voting in the November election. On top of the tight timeline, he will run his first Harris County election under intense scrutiny from political insiders who will watch to see whether the county repeats its mistakes from the March primary.

There is work to be done to prevent those and other missteps in the upcoming November election, according to a new report commissioned by the county to look for weak spots in the March primary. The findings point to numerous changes Harris County could make, such as improving training and resources for workers and voters, strengthening recruitment of election workers and streamlining operations.

[…]

The draft report from the research firm Fors Marsh Group offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the primary election — and an accounting of the many challenges the county elections office faces as employees adapt to new leadership, new voting machines and new state laws.

Before Commissioners Court created the appointed elections administrator in October 2020, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector managed voter registration and elections in Harris County. Longoria took on the newly-created position just as the county began to roll out its new voting machines in May 2021.

According to the report, executives at Hart InterCivic — the company that makes the county’s voting machines — pointed to several reasons behind difficulties in the March primary, such as “the transition of electronic to paperbased voting, compounded by the creation of a new Elections Office, the pandemic, and the lack of funding for execution of an effective training and voter education effort.”

A survey of Harris County election judges and poll workers included in the report showed 91 percent were satisfied with the instructors who trained them and the answers they received. However, only 66 percent of those who served as election judges in March thought the training was sufficient, while 35 percent of first-time election judges and poll workers said they did not feel adequately prepared to serve in the election.

Voters would benefit from training on the new machines, too. According to the report, however, “much of the funding initially planned for education and outreach had to be repurposed as part of the office’s internal budgeting process in order to meet other pressing elections needs.”

There also is room to improve how election judges and poll workers are recruited, according to the report. Many election workers were recruited at the last minute for the March primary, the report revealed; 30% were recruited three to four weeks before the election, and 29% recruited one to two weeks before the election.

The report indicates Harris County could streamline its election operations by switching to joint primaries. In Harris County, the Democratic and Republican primaries are operated separately at each voting location, with separate lines and separate machines. In the March primary election, the county had 90 voting locations open during early voting and 375 locations on Election Day, but the report suggested the county really operates double those numbers since each polling place housed two separate primaries: “This system effectively meant setting up and managing 750 polling locations on Election Day, each with its own equipment pick-ups and drop-offs.”

Honestly, a lot of this sounds like growing pains to me, with adjustments needed to get used to new voting machines and the new Election Administrator office. I haven’t gone looking for a copy of the report, but I would also put the issue of collecting election results on Election Day, which also needs a clear answer from the Secretary of State office about what is legal. There’s nothing here that suggests to me that this is a big broken mess that’s going to require a total redesign of the entire system. More training of election workers and of voters on the new machines, both of which will require some more funding, is the big takeaway. That sounds very doable to me, and it sounds like a clear and measurable mission for the new Elections Administrator. Welcome to the job, Clifford Tatum.

Commissioners Court takes some action on access to contraception

From last week:

Harris County leaders on Tuesday passed a trio of items in support of women’s access to abortion and contraception in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The most significant of the three measures directs county departments to find ways to protect and expand access to affordable and no-cost contraception, sexual education, family planning, and other programs including “access to safe abortions where possible under the law.”

A second measure provided for the county to lobby the state Legislature to mitigate the effects of a near-total abortion ban in Texas, while a third item was a symbolic resolution to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe.

All three measures passed 3-2 on party-line votes.

Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote in favor of all three items, “in recognition of the fact that we’ve had a right curtailed, and what that might mean for future rights that might be curtailed. I’m very, very concerned about that.”

It’s hard to know how much effect that first item can have, as it is giving direction to county departments rather than implementing something specific. I hope there will be a report at a later date with some details about what actions can be taken and are being taken. It’s also important to remember that as long as the Republicans have full control of state government, they can pass laws forbidding or outlawing whatever these actions turn out to be. I very much approve of the intent here, but we have to keep the bigger picture in mind.

We have a new Election Administrator

From the inbox:

Harris County’s election commission today named Clifford D. Tatum the county’s next Elections Administrator. He is scheduled to take over from interim EA, Beth Stevens.

Mr. Tatum is the chief information security officer for the DC Board of Elections in Washington, D.C. He brings 16 years of election experience to the EA position.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice from Guilford College and a Juris Doctorate from Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.

In response to the selection, Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu issued the following statement:

“Following a nationwide search, the election commission is thrilled to select Clifford D. Tatum as the county’s new elections administrator.

“The commission worked well together to reach our decision, and Mr. Tatum was unanimously selected in a 5-0 vote.

“Mr. Tatum has an impressive background in leading elections — currently with the DC Board of Elections and prior to that as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. We are excited to bring him on board.

“Mr. Tatum’s elections experience — combined with a background in information security and elections law — make him perfectly suited for the Elections Administrator position, and we look forward to welcoming him to Harris County.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The above is a press release from the HCDP. As of 5:30 PM when I draft this, I’ve not seen a news story yet, though there’s this tweet from Judge Hidalgo saying that his hiring was unanimous. I’m sure there will be some coverage shortly. In the meantime, the Google machine found this biography for Cliff Tatum from the US Election Assistance Commission, and this WaPo story from 2011 about Tatum taking over as the head of the DC Board of Elections. He sounds like a solid hire, and he certainly has the background and experience you’d want for the person taking this job, especially with the next election looming. I’m sure we’ll learn more about him soon. In the meantime, welcome to Houston, Clifford Tatum.

UPDATE: And here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t have much in the way of new information but which does remind us that “Tatum’s appointment will be confirmed in a vote at a later meeting pending a background check and after he meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code”.

SCOTx re-enables statewide abortion ban

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court has blocked a lower court order that had allowed clinics in the state to continue performing abortions even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it’s landmark 1973 ruling that confirmed a constitutional right to abortion.

It was not immediately clear whether the clinics in Texas that resumed performing abortions just days ago would halt services again following the ruling late Friday night. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

The whiplash of Texas clinics turning away patients, rescheduling them, and now potentially canceling appointments again — all in the span of a week — illustrates the confusion and scrambling that has taken place across the country since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

An order by a Houston judge on Tuesday had reassured some clinics they could temporarily resume abortions up to six weeks into pregnancy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly asked the state’s highest court, which is stocked with nine Republican justices, to temporarily put that order on hold.

“These laws are confusing, unnecessary, and cruel,” said Marc Hearron, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, after the order was issued Friday night.

Clinics in Texas — a state of nearly 30 million people — stopped performing abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned Roe v. Wade. Texas had left an abortion ban on the books for the past 50 years while Roe was in place.

Attorneys for Texas clinics provided a copy of Friday’s order, which was not immediately available on the court’s website.

See here and here for the background; Steve Vladeck provides a bit more context. You can see a summary of the order (order 22-0527) here. The relevant bits:

The parties are directed to submit briefing by 5 p.m. July 7, 2022 regarding whether the 269th District Court of Harris County, Texas, has jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of a criminal statute. See State v. Morales, 869 S.W.3d 941 (Tex. 1994). Real parties in interest are requested to respond to relators’ petition for writ of mandamus by 5 p.m. July 11, 2022. This order does not preclude further proceedings in the court of appeals and district court, including proceedings to address the jurisdictional issue described in paragraph 2 above. The Court is confident that those courts will proceed expeditiously.

[Note: The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.]

The 269th Civil Court in Harris County, which issued the temporary restraining order that SCOTx has now lifted, has a hearing scheduled for July 12 to determine whether an injunction can be granted. We may get that on the 12th or 13th, and then subsequent rulings from SCOTx shortly thereafter. I assume the writ of mandamus was filed by the Attorney General to supersede all this and just declare that there’s nothing stopping them from enforcing that 1925 law that criminalized abortion. Don’t you just love it when this kind of order drops on the Friday evening of a holiday weekend? Axios, the WaPo, the NYT, and the DMN have more; as of Saturday morning when I drafted this the Trib had not yet published anything and the Chron was carrying this same AP story. Like I said, Friday night, holiday weekend.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

Still no new Election Administrator

C’mon, y’all.

Harris County officials canceled an election commission meeting for the second time this week, again citing a lack of quorum because only two members were able to attend in person. The rescheduled meeting now is set for Tuesday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, one of five members of the commission, announced Sunday evening that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

When they meet, members of the county’s election commission are expected to pick a new official to run elections, as outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation went into effect Friday.

At their most recent meeting on June 15, members of the commission narrowed their search to two finalists. Both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience, according to Hidalgo.

See here and here for the background. Again, I would like to know who (besides the presumably still-testing-positive Judge Hidalgo) was unable to attend and why, and I would like to know when we might reasonably expect the next meeting to occur. We may be at risk of losing out on one or both of these candidates if we don’t move forward, and that would be a catastrophe. I want to see this done by the end of next week. Please!

No new election admin yet

Hope this delay is brief.

Harris County’s top election position remains unfilled, after a Monday meeting of the county’s election commission to select a candidate was canceled due to a lack of quorum. Their final pick will face a narrowing time frame to prepare for his or her first test: Early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24, less than three months after the new administrator’s likely start date.

The tight schedule adds to an already daunting job in a sprawling county with more than 2.5 million voters, an adversarial political climate with frequent election lawsuits, and a startlingly high rejection rate of nearly one out of five mail ballots in this year’s March primaries under the state’s new voting laws.

Only two of the five members of the commission were able to attend the Monday meeting in person, a day after County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. The commission has not yet rescheduled the meeting.

With outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation going into effect Friday, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim administrator until the new hire begins, which Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said is likely to be Aug. 1. The new administrator’s appointment will be voted on at a later meeting after the selected candidate meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code.

The commission was slated to hold a closed-door executive session to interview two finalists for the position and take “possible action” to name the administrator at Monday’s meeting. Both finalists have prior experience running elections and are located out of state, according to Hidalgo.

See here for some background. I agree with Campos, it would have been nice to know who besides Judge Hidalgo (who had a perfectly good excuse) didn’t show up and why. May have been valid reasons, but the clock is ticking and we deserve to know. I get the impression that there’s no real dissension on the committee, they just need to finish the job.

The target date to have the new admin in place is still August 1. That’s a brief time to get up and running, but if they are hiring an experienced person and the operational staff is in place – and hopefully we have a way forward on the ballot collection question for Election Day – then I think we’ll be fine. So with that in mind, let me comment on this:

At the commission’s most recent meeting on June 15, Rob Icsezen, deputy chair of the Harris County Democratic Party’s primary committee, presented a letter to the commission signed by around 100 members of the public, many of them current or former Democratic election workers, asking that Longoria be reinstated as elections administrator. One of the reasons they cited was the time frame left until the November election.

“Any new elections administrator would have the same challenges as Ms. Longoria, without the benefit of a year and a half of hands-on experience,” the letter stated. “In short, they would be starting from scratch. November is rapidly approaching. The voters of Harris County do not have time for this.”

This will not be the first time an administrator has overseen a major Harris County election on relatively short notice. In June 2020, Chris Hollins took over as county clerk shortly before the November election, after outgoing clerk Diane Trautman resigned her position, citing health concerns during the pandemic.

“On my first day as County Clerk in 2020, we had just four months to figure out how to administer an election in pandemic conditions for the first time in Texas history,” Hollins said in a statement. “That included acquiring the necessary protective equipment, recruiting the election workers we needed, and creating and training our team on new safety procedures.”

Hollins benefited from an unprecedented budget to administer the 2020 election, after Commissioners Court approved $27 million — much of that coming from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund his plan, which included additional polling locations, up to 12,000 election workers and an extra week of early voting.

“Many core planning items (e.g., number and location of voting centers) should be well under way by August, but the new EA will need to ensure that solutions are in place for issues that have arisen in recent elections, as well as problems created by the recent voter suppression law,” Hollins said. “These include record rejection rates for mail ballots, which we saw in March, and intentional disruption by partisan poll watchers, which will be something we face for the first time in November.”

I was contacted by Icsezen and a couple of other folks, all people I respect, with this pitch. I did not join them. I like Isabel Longoria and I totally get where Icsezen and the others are coming from, but I just think that ship has sailed. It didn’t work out. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Let’s get the new person in there, give that person all of the support and financing they will need to run a successful election, and do everything we can to help. At least COVID ought to be a much smaller issue this time around. We can do this.

We have finalists for the Election Administrator job

Good.

The director of voting for Harris County will become the interim elections administrator, officials said Wednesday as the county elections commission narrowed its search for the permanent job to two candidates.

Following a closed-door executive session of the Harris County Elections Commission, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience. The commission will schedule another meeting to make its choice to replace Isabel Longoria, the outgoing elections administrator whose resignation takes effect July 1.

[…]

In the meantime, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim elections administrator until the new hire begins, which Hidalgo said is likely to be on Aug. 1.

That will give Longoria’s replacement less than three months to prepare for his or her first test: early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24. The fall ballot will include several high-profile state and local races, including those for governor, attorney general and Harris County judge.

See here for the previous update. It would have been nice for this person to have a longer runway, or a lower-profile election in which to get themselves acclimated, but this is the hand we’re playing. I certainly hope that whoever these folks are, they have a lot of experience doing this job. They’re going to need to change the narrative about how elections are run in Harris County, sort out the best way to collect and transport election night returns (at last report, the Supreme Court has still not issued any ruling on that writ of mandamus the local Republicans filed), and probably deal with a slavering horde of Republican poll-watchers in November. Godspeed and keep a stiff upper lip, whoever you are.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

Harris County leaders will begin discussions Tuesday about whether to add a bond election to the November ballot.

The bond would be a hybrid measure to raise money for roads, parks, flood control, and public safety. It’s unclear how much the bond would be for, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office said it could come in the ballpark of $1 billion.

Garcia, who asked the county budget office to look into the possibility of a new bond, said Commissioners Court will first have to hear from the office on whether the county’s finances can sustain new borrowing.

Garcia, a Democrat, is up for reelection this fall.

“I’m in favor of putting it on the same ballot that I would be on,” he said. “I think it’s important to show the folks that we’re working on their behalf, we’re making investments, and we need their support to make the investments that they want to see done.”

[…]

Garcia’s office says the commissioner is flexible on the bond amount, as he’s hoping to win bipartisan support from his fellow commissioners to put it on the ballot.

There was the post-Harvey $2.5 billion flood bond election in 2018, a bond package in 2015 that passed easily, and the 2013 joint inmate processing center referendum that just barely passed (the “save the Astrodome” item on the same ballot went down). That was a sort-of sequel to a series of bond issues in 2007 that included one for jail construction, which was defeated. So yeah, there’s room for a new issue. Obviously, what would be in it needs to be defined, and it would need to be approved by Commissioners Court for the ballot by mid-August or so. We’ll see what they come up with. The Chron has more.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.