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Local politics

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

On Judge Hidalgo’s principles and politics

This op-ed about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo looks at her background and her style as an elected official to explore her political future.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The question remains, is Hidalgo so focused on being a benevolent wonk that she ignores the risk — both pragmatic and political?

It’s a mistake to assume that she doesn’t care about politics or isn’t learning to play the game. Political observers point to her reliance on consultants and her passionate championing of social issues, which surely pleases her base but saps precious political capital she’ll need to influence Republicans on the balkanized court.

Still, Hidalgo’s sense of principle is what led her to implement protective lockdowns that are unpopular and cause real economic suffering. It’s what led her to support bail reform and changes to the criminal justice system that will be used as a cudgel against her.

Even if Democrats rally around her to hold off challengers, the right Republican can still put up a fight.

Hidalgo defeated Emmett by fewer than 20,000 votes, a smaller margin than what the Libertarian candidate pulled in.

“Harris County is not Dallas County, it’s not Travis. It’s still in play,” Siegel, the head of the Harris County GOP, said. “She’s going into areas that are not good for the county or its citizens.”

What’s undeniable is that Hidalgo is running the county as she said she would — and the only way she knows how.

“We’re willing to ask the question, ‘What does the evidence say we should do?’ Rather than taking the easy political route,” she said.

She doesn’t give out turkeys and she won’t take them, either. Hidalgo refuses contributions from those who have business with the county, which she recognizes makes her political future more difficult, limiting a source of legal funding that most local officials don’t think twice about securing.

She wants to run for a second term but says she has no interest in county government beyond that, an unusual admission for a politician that in and of itself leaves her vulnerable to challenge.

“I don’t want to be in the county for 30 years. I’m afraid that if I did that, I would kind of lose that fresh perspective. I just don’t know how much more value I would add,” she said. “But I definitely want to be able to see these things through.”

Sorry, Cindy Siegel, but after three straight shutout elections, Harris County is blue until proven otherwise. I get that this is an off year, and we’re now under a Democratic President, and the two elections like that before 2018 sucked for us, but I stand by that assessment. As such, I believe the larger threat to Judge Hidalgo’s re-election in 2022 is a primary challenger, a subject I’ve discussed before and don’t have anything to add at this time.

I guess I find the continued dissection of Judge Hidalgo’s unconventional history and policy-over-politics approach interesting but ultimately kind of pointless. She’s been very consistently and genuinely herself, and I just don’t think the average voter cares that much about this. She does a good job, she has helped enact policies that have benefited people and that have significant support among voters, and she has been an effective communicator in difficult times. There’s not a whole lot of mystery here.

Finally, as far as her future beyond 2022 is concerned, her answer is a more blunt version of “I’m just focused on what’s in front of me now, and don’t care to speculate beyond that”, which is actually a pretty normal answer. She has said she’s running for re-election, she’s deflecting the chatter that exists that she might run for higher office, and she’s leaving her options open for what comes next. She’s just using more direct words to say that, which may be confusing if you were expecting the usual kind of obfuscatory response. I don’t see where the vulnerability is in that.

Commissioners Court approves funds for new voting machines

Long awaited.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $54 million deal to replace the current eSlate machines with ones featuring touch screens, a paper backup and features that make voting more accessible for seniors and residents with disabilities.

The new machines allow voters to select candidates or ballots measures on a touchpad instead of the rotating wheel, now derided by critics as a clunky feature that some voters mistakenly have used to cast ballots for the wrong candidate.

After voters complete and review their ballots, the machines will print out the selections, at which point voters again can review their ballots for any erroneous choices. They then will take the printed ballots to an electronic ballot box that will record the votes and store the paper ballots, in case the election is called into question and needs to be audited.

“Really, the utility of the paper record is, instead of having to program our machines to spit out receipts, we are getting the record as the voter sees it, into a ballot box that, should we need to count or recount or pull something back later, we can pull it up,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said Wednesday.

The election results will be stored on two separate hard drives for each voting machine, one of which can only be accessed with a special key provided to Longoria’s office. The new safeguards are expected to provide stronger security than the current system, in which votes are recorded on mobile memory cards that are brought to a central counting site, uploaded onto a computer and tallied.

Longoria also said the new machines may provide faster election results, as votes can only be tallied under the current system using an outdated computer processing software with slower processing speeds than what is widely available today. Harris County election nights have famously stretched well past midnight during previous elections due to the pace of the election results being uploaded.

[…]

Under the contract approved Tuesday, Hart will provide Harris County with 12,000 machines and an assortment of other election equipment, including voting booths and ballot boxes.

Among the other upgrades are what officials say will be a more robust voting system for residents with disabilities. Longoria described the existing setup as “primitive,” in which voters use red and green “paddles,” or buttons, that replace the scrolling wheel and enter button.

“Now you’ll have, essentially, a remote control attached to the machine that has directional arrows and multiple buttons, so that folks with a different kind of physical need will have the same access to voting,” Longoria said.

The elections administrator’s office will receive the first shipment of devices by March 1. Longoria and her staff will start familiarizing themselves with the machines and decide whether to use them for the May 2021 local elections. If they opt to wait, the machines would be in place for the March 2022 primaries.

“The really big deciding factor for me is, how long will it take to train all of our internal staff on these new machines to feel comfortable with them? And then the turnaround time for us to develop those training materials so that we can really safely and fairly train up the different clerks and judges that will have to use these on Election Day,” Longoria said.

See here for my previous update on this topic, here for a Twitter thread from the Election Administrator’s office, and here for their press release. I asked Isabel Longoria some questions about this when I interviewed her, but she was not yet in a position to discuss the details. From what we’ve seen, it sounds like the new machines have everything we’ve been wanting, and it all sounds pretty good to me. Other counties such a Tarrant use the same machines, so we can learn from their experience. It would be nice to have them in place for the May elections, but given that 2021 is an off year for the city, November will be a low-turnout affair that can serve as a test run as well. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what our new machines can do.

That new Harris County vaccine signup page sure is popular

If you didn’t get through on Day One, keep trying.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More than 49,000 people have managed to get onto Harris County’s new COVID-19 vaccination wait list Tuesday despite technical issues that diminished access for some to the county’s website.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said 49,287 people were able to sign up as of 4:30 p.m.

Health officials said there has been an “overwhelming amount of people” trying to use the website at ReadyHarris.org.

“It’s down. It’s been down. We have had it crash several times,” said Martha Marquez, a spokesperson for Harris County Public Health said earlier Tuesday. “I know that, as we speak, they’re working on it.”

See here for the background. I assume this was mostly a first-day crush, but 49,000 people is roughly one percent of the Harris County population, so there could be quite a few more busy days ahead. I also assume that they’ll be able to scale the site up as needed, which in today’s world should be easy enough to do. In the immediate term, lack of vaccine supply is a looming problem, but that should be addressed in the slightly longer term. Has anyone tried this yet? How’d you do?

Our petty Governor

Sheesh.

Gov. Greg Abbott met with hospital executives in Houston on Tuesday to discuss the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, while appearing to snub city and county officials who are overseeing a bulk of the distribution.

The Republican governor said the county, and specifically Houston Methodist Hospital, is leading the state in vaccinations, with more than 250,000 doses administered through the weekend. Dallas County is second for the most shots given, he said.

“Houston Methodist has helped Texas become a national model for the vaccination program,” Abbott said, following a closed-door meeting with executives at the hospital.

[…]

In a tweet over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said city and county health officials had not been invited to participate in the governor’s meeting.

“Any roundtable conversation in Houston about vaccine distribution in Houston, Harris County region should include diverse representation to ensure there is equitable vaccine distribution to at risk, vulnerable communities,” Turner wrote.

Abbott has been repeatedly at odds with Democratic municipal leaders including Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who have asked for stricter emergency restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic. The state has recorded more than 32,000 coronavirus deaths since March, and remains in the midst of a massive second surge.

The city and county are currently receiving about 17,000 vaccine doses each week, combined.

Asked about why municipal health leaders were excluded from the discussion, Abbott said state agencies are in “constant communication with local officials, and that process will continue.”

Abbott’s gonna Abbott. Remember how back at the beginning of the pandemic he was happy to let Mayors and County Judges lead when they were doing the hard and unpopular work, and then later he just cut them completely out of everything once he caught some heat from the wingnut faction over masks and quarantines? It’s who he is and what he is, and we shouldn’t be surprised. No wonder Mayor Turner is asking for more direct control of vaccine doses.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

Still waiting on that sewer consent decree

Should be ready soon, once the federal court signs off on it.

Help finally could be on the way in the form of an agreement between the city of Houston and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at upgrading the city’s embattled sewer system.

The proposal would cost an estimated $2 billion over 15 years and could increase water rates as soon as next spring.

Houston’s hundreds of sewage overflows each year, often caused by broken or clogged pipes, contaminate streams in violation of the Clean Water Act, and drew the EPA’s attention a decade ago.

Rather than fight the violations in court, the city and EPA negotiated a “consent decree” mandating actions Houston must take to reduce spills across its more than 6,200 miles of sewers, 384 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

City Council approved the agreement last year. Federal officials spent months responding to comments on the proposal, and then, in August, asked a federal judge to approve the document and put it into effect. No ruling has been issued.

“After its review of the motion to enter, we expect that the court will approve entry of the consent decree,” said Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones.

The nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper has asked the court to withhold its approval until the agreement is improved, arguing that, among other deficiencies, it does not sufficiently address historical inequities.

A Houston Chronicle analysis four years ago found that a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur in low-income communities of color. And an analysis of Houston 311 service requests from the last two years shows historically Black southside neighborhoods such as South Park, South Acres and Sunnyside are among the most likely to report sewer problems even though high-income neighborhoods, in general, are more likely to call 311.

Kristen Schlemmer, Waterkeeper’s legal director, said her group feels the decree is needed but that it must deliberately prioritize repairs in historically neglected communities and require more transparency about the spills that occur there.

“What we would have liked to see the city do is to start with the impact on low-income communities and communities of color and craft its consent decree around that,” she said. “Instead they came up with their whole plan and when we raised the issue of environmental injustices, they’re like, ‘Well, completely incidentally, we’re addressing some of those issues.’”

EPA officials declined comment, citing the pending court action. In court filings, attorneys for Houston and state and federal regulators have said the decree is citywide and will not overlook any area. They also have noted that it requires the city to publish annual reports on the decree’s implementation and monthly reports tallying the location of each spill.

“Low-income communities are not being neglected,” one August filing stated. “Rather, low-income communities, especially those communities with higher numbers of (spills) and aging infrastructure, are being addressed with the ‘worst first’ prioritization.”

The decree would force Houston to clean its 5,500 miles of gravity-driven sewer pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to invite blockages by pouring grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

The agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing, cleaning and repairing the city’s sewer system, and prioritizes fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms, including the area around Mama Seafood.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. This will likely cause your water bill to go up, though we don’t know yet by how much. That wouldn’t be necessary now if we had been doing this all along, but here we are. If you don’t like it, go build yourself a time machine and travel back to, I don’t know, 1985 or so and yell at Kathy Whitmire about it. Otherwise, just know that there will be fewer sewer overflows in the future. That’s worth a few extra bucks a month on your water bill.

Do we still have to worry about the Elections Administrator’s office?

I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but…

Isabel Longoria

This year, Harris County began the process of consolidating the two offices that have historically handled elections — the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office — under one roof.

Isabel Longoria, a special advisor on voting rights to the county clerk, was sworn in to lead the new office last month.

“Fundamentally the office is shifting from being reactive to proactive,” Longoria told the Signal. “Under the tax office and county clerk offices, since elections and voter registration were just one part of what they did, it was always kind of like, ‘oh shit elections are coming, now what’ or ‘oh shit, we’ve got to register voters, now what’ — now we have the capacity to say that this is our focus year-round.”

Harris County voters are already benefiting from some new practices, some they can see and some they can’t. Election results in the county are now updating every thirty minutes, and behind the scenes, election officials are working more closely together. For example, Longoria said the heads of both the voter registration and elections department were in the same room at NRG on election day.

[…]

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Harris County informing them that Longoria’s newly created office did not exist. Paxton argued that the county violated Texas election code by creating the office without the proper timing and without appropriately informing the Texas Secretary of State. He gave the county two weeks to take “corrective action” before his office would intervene.

Harris County Commissioners Court was unmoved by the threat, the county attorney replied to Paxton detailing the paperwork, and nothing has come of it since. And business as usual has continued at the elections administrator’s office, Longoria said.

“I think he just wanted to make sure we filed our paperwork, and we did,” Longoria said. “That’s it. It’s one of those things where… yeah… nothing happened.”

That story was published on December 14, right after the District B runoff, which was the first election fully administered by the new office. It was also two weeks after Ken Paxton’s temper tantrum about the slow notification of the office’s creation and the appointment of Longoria as the chief. It’s now been four weeks since Paxton raised the possibility of taking Harris County to court if they didn’t take “corrective action” within two weeks. I guess Vince Ryan’s email to Paxton settled the matter, which suggests that maybe Paxton was making a much bigger deal over a minor boo-boo than he needed to make. Of course, he’s been a pretty busy man since then, what with being raided by the FBI and trying to overturn the election and all, so maybe he just hasn’t gotten back around to this. Sometimes these things just take longer than you think they will, you know?

Please shut up, CM Travis

And delete your Facebook account while you’re at it.

CM Greg Travis

The mayor, city activists and some of District G Councilmember Greg Travis’ colleagues are denouncing offensive comments he made online about former first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

On Facebook, Travis posted a meme that shows a photo of Obama, speaking demonstratively while sitting down, next to a photo of current First Lady Melania Trump, who has her legs crossed. Travis wrote, “Yep. Just saying,” on the post. In comments, he said affirmative action, the program that gives minorities preference in university admissions, was the reason Obama was admitted to Harvard Law School.

“It’s called Affirmative Action. Doesn’t take much—she was born with her qualification,” Travis wrote. “She isn’t the brightest bulb in the lot.”

Travis also wrote that Harris’ career was owed to a former romantic partner. Without him, Travis said, “she’d be working in an office cubicle.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “would be nothing without Bill,” he wrote.

Ashton Woods, a founder and leader of Houston’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, said on Twitter the comments are evidence Travis “hates black women” and wrote: “DEMAND HIS RESIGNATION,” with a call for people to sign up to speak at the next city council meeting on Jan. 5.

“It’s enough. We don’t need to talk representation at city council, because if he says things like this what other ideologies is he taking with him to work… with the most women ever elected to Houston city council,” Woods said. “It says to me that he has a problem with well-educated Black women.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said he asked Travis to take down the post and comments, which it described as “offensive.”

“The mayor is disappointed by the post and has no other comment at this time,” Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director, said.

Travis is unapologetic. He said the post was a meme that has circulated for years, and the comments represented his opinion. He only deleted them because the mayor asked him to do so “as a friend.”

The Press has screenshots, if you missed seeing the posts in question. No question that CM Travis is an idiot and a waste of space on Council, but there’s literally nothing anyone can say or do that will get him to resign, and he’s in his second term so he won’t face the voters again. CM Tiffany Thomas called for Travis to be censured, citing the precedent of then-CM Jim Westmoreland, who was censured in 1989 for his egregiously racist statements about the late Congressman Mickey Leland. I’m fine with that, but we should recognize that things like censure only work on people who are capable of feeling shame and remorse. Maybe the Council members who are justifiably angry about this can find a way to shun CM Travis until he expresses some regret for his actions. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but it’s a thought.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Nielsen resigns

Better late than never, I guess.

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

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

Nielsen did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

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

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

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

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

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

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

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

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

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

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

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

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

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

This part puzzles me even more:

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

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

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

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

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

More like this, in other words.

CM Abbie Kamin

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

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

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

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

CM Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

A different kind of COVID tracking

Hope this works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And speaking of official statistics:

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

The state of the county 2020

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

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County approves early childhood development funds

Nice.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet your new Election Administrator

Solid choice.

Isabel Longoria

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Here comes a charter amendment effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t park in a bike lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Kelly: Voting Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a Clerk who values democracy matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder why.

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

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

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

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

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

We need a better word than “controversial”

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

Al Hartman is not shy about his beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to be concise here.

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

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

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

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The swan song for eSlate machines

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still code red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post-Harvey flood control march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new COVID testing strategy

Sounds promising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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