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January 4th, 2020:

Mayor Turner’s second term begins

He’s on the clock now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Freshly sworn in Thursday morning, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner promised to make significant strides in street repairs and flood control while boosting services for the city’s homeless in his second term.

He also called on private businesses and nonprofits to be more generous in their giving, saying they are crucial to helping the cash-strapped city fund his signature initiatives, including the Complete Communities neighborhood program.

“We ask financial institutions, businesses, developers, nonprofits and endowments to leverage their resources with the city and with one another to share the risks and expedite the transformation,” Turner said his inaugural speech at the Wortham Center. “Though many have stepped forward to assist, we are still missing that level of support, the investments that will serve as game-changers for those under-served communities in our city.”

Turner easily prevailed in the Dec. 14 runoff election over second-place finisher Tony Buzbee. In a post-election interview with the Chronicle, Turner promised to make transformational changes in his final term, including restructuring the fire department, accelerating the city’s permitting process and repairing streets as top priorities.

See here for some background. Turner is the first Mayor to have a four-year lame-duck term, but being in one’s last term has not been a hindrance to getting big things done in the past. Mayor Parker shepherded HERO through in 2015 (yes, that subsequently went south, but it was still passed by Council) and Mayor Brown oversaw the completion of the Main Street light rail line and the passage of the 2003 referendum that led to more light rail being built in his last year. I don’t think anyone will perceive of Mayor Turner as being in his last term until the candidates for the next Mayoral race begin to make themselves known. So barring big external events that force themselves onto the priority list (you know, like another big flood) I’d expect him to have the opportunity to get more big things done. He should have a fairly amenable Council, and at least some of the items on his list will have broad support. We’ll see how he does.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

The robo-umps are coming

Not right away, but you can see it from here.

Computer plate umpires could be called up to the major leagues at some point during the next five seasons.

Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game on July 10. Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.

The Atlantic League experimented with the computer system during the second half of its season, and the Arizona Fall League of top prospects used it for a few dozen games this year at Salt River Fields.

MLB has discussed installing the system at the Class A Florida State League for 2020. If that test goes well, the computer umps could be used at Triple-A in 2021 as bugs are dealt with prior to a big league callup.

[…]

It is not clear whether the Major League Baseball Players Association would need to approve computerized ball and strikes.

“We are aware the umpires and MLB are in negotiations over a new CBA,” said players’ union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman. “MLB will have their negotiation with them, and they will need to discuss with us.”

See here for the background. Everyone agrees that robot umps are coming, at least for ball/strike calls, we’re all just arguing about the timeline. One of the things we’ve learned from the Atlantic League’s experience, is that the low-and-away part of the rulebook strike zone is generally not called a strike by human umpires but is by the robo-umps, and there’s a good argument that the automated system should be adjusted to be more like the human umps. Another thing we’ve learned is that accurate height data for the players is needed, else the automated zone, which is calculated based on those measurements, is not a true reflection of what it should be. There are still refinements to be made, and there’s no rush to get there. I’ll be a little surprised if we have this system in place in five years, but I’ll be even more surprised if we don’t in ten years.