Dispatches from Dallas, June 7 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week, in news from Dallas-Fort Worth, we have a short post due to the weather, which is one of the major items in this update. We lost power twice, once for a day and a half on Tuesday a week ago immediately following the storms in Dallas proper, and a second incident where Oncor had to turn our power off for seven hours and change to remove tree branches from the line on our street. The storms hit on election day, which is our other big topic this week. A number of voting centers were closed because they had no power Tuesday, but polls were open until 9pm at centers with power. Election results were available Wednesday morning, as expected, but they were one of the few things that turned up on time last week.

This week’s post was brought to you by the music of Cyndi Lauper, who is coming to Dallas and other cities on her farewell tour in November. I got my tickets on presale, but the regular onsale date is Friday.

Let’s start with the weather news. As you may know, there were tornadoes across the US and specifically north of Dallas and Fort Worth here in Texas on the Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Seven people were killed and many more were injured in north Texas. The Dallas Observer has photos of the devastation: demolished homes and commercial buildings, overturned large vehicles, blown out signs.

Local folks had about breathed a sigh of relief that no more was coming when thunderstorm and tornado warnings went off at about 6 am on Tuesday morning, which was election day for the primary runoffs. In our part of Dallas, the rain was severe and the winds were high. While we didn’t have the sustained wind effect of a tropical storm or hurricane, the effect was similar over the quarter to half-hour that the worst was happening. By the time it had blown its way out of the metro area, more than half a million people were without power, branches were down everywhere in the city, property damage was widespread and traffic lights were dead everywhere. While the winds had subsided, rain continued to fall, causing concerns about flooding. The severity of the storms received national coverage (Washington Post; USA Today). It continued to rain all week and through the weekend, with the sun peeking through, as Oncor struggled to bring power back and the city’s drainage system struggled to deal with the runoff from the rain on soaked ground. Several high water rescues were necessary as city workers checked out the damage.

As the DMN explains, and Houstonians know well, it’s hard to predict storm severity before the storms form. In this case the timing of the formation overnight hampered readiness. We were asleep right up until the tornado warning from our phones woke us up. And while we were aware we were still in tornado season, at bedtime Monday the storms had been predicted to show up Tuesday afternoon. Historically, May is the biggest month for tornados in the Metroplex, but tornadoes have happened as late as July.

Some things we found out the hard way: Food in the refrigerator spoils after only four hours without power but a fully stocked freezer can hold out for two days. Local nonprofits also lost food with the power outages but did their best to continue serving their communities. KERA notes that unsurprisingly Oncor will not reimburse us all for the spoiled food. Oncor had both local and out-of-state workers removing trees from power lines. As Houstonians know, this is a job for the professionals. In Arlington, two people were killed in separate incidents while trimming trees following the storm. Complete cleanup from the storms will take months.

Unsurprisingly, Dallas County joins several others as part of a federal disaster area following the storms. The city is starting to recover: local radio is back on the air; there are plans to replace trees in parts of South Dallas that lost a lot; the zoo and the Arboretum are figuring out what’s next; and an eaglet that fell out of its nest at White Rock Lake has gone home. Traffic lights are still coming back on line slowly for reasons explained by the DMN so we’re still chanting “treat it as a four-way stop UNH!” a lot when we run errands.

Currently the Metroplex is in line for its sixth wettest year since we’ve started keeping records. Meanwhile, in the Panhandle, storm chasers found a hailstone six inches in diameter.

With the weather sort of under control, let’s talk about the election:

  • As I mentioned, the polls were open until 9 PM on Election Day to compensate for the loss of the voting centers that had no power. I don’t have a link for this to hand; I got the news from a text sent by the Dallas Democratic Party.
  • If you want detailed coverage of the results, you can pick your source: the DMN; the Star-Telegram; or KERA.
  • For a brief analysis of the runoff results, especially on the Republican side, you can check out the Dallas Observer, the DMN, and the Texas Tribune, all of which cover the runoffs where Paxton-endorsed candidates primaried House members who voted for impeachment. In north Texas, team Paxton seems to have won the day, perhaps unsurprisingly given his power base.
  • On the Democratic side of the runoff, incumbent Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown trounced her old boss Lupe Valdez 69%-31%. I had no strong sense of where this race was going to go until I saw the results. I did receive several texts from Valdez supporters that did not appear to have campaign sanction that accused Brown of terminating prisoner programs willy nilly, like nothing happened in 2020 that might have stopped jail programs of all sorts. They were a little fishy even before I thought about the lack of a campaign endorsement or an opt-out. Whoever sent them did Valdez no favors. The Texas Tribune has more about the race.
  • This Bud Kennedy op-ed in the Star-Telegram tells an interesting story about the HD 97 Republican runoff. That’s Craig Goldman’s old seat, which he left to run for CD 12, Kay Granger’s seat. Apparently a PAC in the area ran attack ads against Goldman that backfired and also lifted John McQueeney over Cheryl Bean in HD 97. The theory is that Goldman and McQueeney were proxies for Abbott and the business Republicans and John O’Shea (Goldman’s primary opponent) and Bean were proxies for Ken Paxton and the MAGA crowd. The signs were apparently awful and bigoted, so be aware if you click through. Good thing Fort Worth voters saw through them.
  • Last, but not least, Heider Garcia has a problem with his poll workers: they’re not getting paid promptly. Apparently their checks were supposed to be issued three weeks after the last election but still have not arrived. The article doesn’t say whether the troubles have anything to do with the payroll delays from last year; either way Garcia needs to get those payments out to the hardworking folks at the polls.
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Firefighter deal details released

Just in time for the start of budget talks.

Mayor John Whitmire

A proposed settlement between Mayor John Whitmire and the city’s firefighters union could result in major changes to the Houston Fire Department beyond the deal’s $1.5 billion cost.

Under the terms of the deal released Monday, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association would be allowed to pick half of the civil service commissioners who often serve as the final word on discipline. The deal also would boost incentive pay for paramedics, prohibit random drug testing and set up a new labor-management committee designed to address health issues.

Many of the changes were included in a draft version of the agreement that has been circulating in political circles for weeks, but City Council members received formal confirmation when the Whitmire administration shared the final version less than 48 hours before a vote set for Wednesday.

The final version of the five-year contract drops a controversial provision requiring the mayor to pick the fire chief from within department ranks, but City Council members at a Tuesday hearing said they still had concerns about the agreement’s details and cost.

[…]

The 123-page collective bargaining agreement was signed and released to council members Monday. [Firefighters union President Marty] Lancton said it hews closely to a previous contract that expired in 2017.

There are some significant changes, however, one of the most prominent being to civil service rules.

The city’s existing Civil Service Commission includes three members and three alternates who step in when regular members are absent. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the union and mayor will each pick half of the commission’s members.

The agreement also states that “All terminations and demotions must achieve a unanimous vote by the commissioners present if placed before the civil service commission.”

That provision effectively gives the union nominees veto power over major discipline, according to a plaintiff’s attorney who has represented firefighters suing the city in the past.

“To me it’s just bizarre. They’re just basically putting their thumb on the scale,” said lawyer Joe Ahmad. “It would be hard to imagine many situations where they would allow discipline and terminations to go forward.”

Ahmad represented a female firefighter who sued the city over severe sexual harassment from her colleagues at one of the city’s fire stations more than a decade ago, eventually resulting in a $275,000 settlement. He predicted the civil service rule change could lead to more settlements.

“Ultimately, it’s the city that gets held responsible for failure to discipline for things like harassment and discrimination,” he said. “It’s going to lead to bad behavior, because it’s a feeling of immunity.”

Lancton said critiques of the civil service changes are overblown. As it stands now, firefighters typically appeal terminations through a separate arbitration process rather than the commission, he said. Giving union appointees half of the commission seats is designed to correct an “anti-labor” bias under former Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration, he said.

“It’s meant for labor to have a voice, and ensuring that you don’t have a stacked deck of anti-labor people,” he said.

The fire union contract could set a precedent for the Houston Police Officers’ Union negotiations set to begin next year. HPOU President Doug Griffith said the inclusion of fire union appointees likely would force the city to split its combined civil service commission, which currently hears matters from both departments.

Griffith said the unanimity requirement struck him as “kind of crazy … All it takes is one person to go in there every time and say ‘nope, nope.’”

See here for the previous update. I’m glad that the provision about requiring the fire chief to come from the department is gone, it was a bad idea and it seemed needlessly targeted at the current Chief. As for the provision about requiring unanimous votes by the civil service commission, the characterization of it as “kind of crazy” by the president of the police officer’s union is more eloquent than anything I could add. We’ll see what Council makes of it next week, after it was tagged on yesterday’s agenda. The Chron has more.

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Paxton asks SCOTx to dismiss the disciplinary lawsuit against him

I’m just surprised it took him this long.

Still a crook any way you look

State Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court ruling that kept active a disciplinary proceeding and potential future punishment for his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to a Tuesday filing.

Initiating a punitive administrative action in 2022, the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a standing committee of the State Bar of Texas, is seeking to reprimand Paxton for his “dishonest” attempt to prevent the certification of election results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Michigan that were favorable to President Joe Biden.

Previously, Paxton has argued he is immune from punishment for actions taken in his official capacity, thus rendering the complaint against him invalid. Meanwhile, the State Bar and attorneys who filed amicus briefs argue Paxton is subject to the same rules, standards and ethics as other attorneys and that his election fraud push before the U.S. Supreme Court lacked merit and credibility.

A three-justice panel of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas in a 2-1 ruling in April agreed that Paxton is encumbered by legal and ethical considerations, and it allowed the punitive case to move forward by rejecting the attorney general’s immunity argument.

Now, Paxton is asking the state’s highest civil court to reconsider the lower court’s decision, claiming the State Bar’s effort to punish him and the appeals court ruling as an “abuse of the legal system” and “politically motivated lawfare.”

“The State Bar’s attempt to sanction the Attorney General is an unconstitutional violation of the Texas Constitution’s Separation of Powers Clause and violates his sovereign immunity,” Paxton’s office said in a news release Tuesday. “Nevertheless, over an erudite dissent, a sharply divided court of appeals permitted the Bar’s lawsuit to go forward.”

Despite Paxton’s argument over previous legal filings that he cannot be punished by the State Bar in his official capacity, the appeals court viewed the issue differently, finding instead that it would be a violation of separation of powers to lend blanket immunity to the attorney general.

“Every attorney admitted to practice in Texas, including those representing a government agency, is subject to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, both promulgated by the Texas Supreme Court,” said the majority opinion issued in April by appeals court Justices Erin Nowell and Nancy Kennedy.

See here for the previous update. I suppose this is a different argument before, and thus might have required more time to file than the cut-and-paste job he was originally able to make. I can’t say I’m optimistic – the Supreme Court is made up entirely of Republicans, who need to win Republican primaries to be able to continue to serve on the Supreme Court, and they all saw what happened to their colleagues on the Court of Criminal Appeals after they tried to apply the law and the Constitution to Ken Paxton – but who knows. It is what it is at this point. Texas Public Radio has more.

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“Like ‘Succession’ with turkey legs and jousting”

All right, I guess I should watch that HBO doc on the Texas Renaissance Festival and its founder, George Coulam.

To label George Coulam eccentric is such an understatement that it’s like calling Houston summers hot. Yes, it’s true, but it doesn’t convey the sheer exhaustion of the experience.

Coulam, 86, is the founder of the annual Texas Renaissance Festival in Todd Mission, 55 miles north of Houston, and the man who claims to have turned it into the largest festival of its type in the country. He’s a man known for living in kitschy rococo splendor while running his kingdom with an iron fist, one that compels so much obedience among underlings that when they call him King George, it seems as if they truly believe him to be some medieval monarch who somehow ended up on the Texas prairie instead of on the British throne.

But he’s also a man who has an assistant who maintains his profiles across a sea of dating sites and whose main question to the 20-something women he meets for lunch at a nearby Olive Garden is, “Are those your natural breasts?” (And woe unto you, if you say no.)

He’s a man who tells a festival employee, who has requested a meeting with him, to “get your ugly (expletive) in here, shut up and sit down.”

And he’s a man who says he wants to retire. Yet he continues to oversee a multimillion-dollar enterprise in which three of those who work for him are angling to take over and push him out to pasture before he may be ready.

At least that’s the picture painted in “Ren Faire,” a sometimes fanciful and always compulsively watchable, three-part HBO documentary beginning June 2 that’s directed by Lance Oppenheim (“Some Kind of Heaven”) and co-produced by the directing team of Josh and Benny Safdie (the Safdie brothers). Like “Tiger King,” “Cheer” and the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries, it pulls back a curtain on a backstage world that most only know as members of a cheering audience. But what’s beyond the footlights is more likely to elicit gasps than applause.

I mentioned this briefly in last week’s blog roundup. Quite a bit has been written about Coulam and his, um, distinctive habits. Here’s the Press on a 2020 harassment lawsuit against him (I’m sure they have more in their archives but they may be lost to the various moves and buyouts), here’s Texas Monthly with a 1999 story that would have coincided with TRF’s 25th anniversary, and here’s a post I did in 2019 about Coulam, who was also the Mayor of Todd Mission, worrying about the future of the RenFest as Houston continued to sprawl outward.

I’m an infrequent attendee of TRF – it’s been at least 20 years for me now, I like it but don’t care for the long drive and the aimless schlepping around. I have plenty of friends for whom it’s a lifelong obsession. I get it, it’s just not really my thing. The reviews of the doc all seem pretty positive, and I’ll bet plenty of folks who have no idea about this will be gobsmacked by it, so I’ll probably watch. What do you think?

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Texas blog roundup for the week of June 3

The Texas Progressive Alliance says “GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!” as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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A look at recent trends in early, mail, and Election Day voting

I’ve noted before how I completely overestimated Election Day voting totals in the November/December 2023 and March 2024 races, based on recent past data from similar elections. I’ve tentatively concluded that even for races where a lot of Election Day voting was still the majority of the vote, early voting including voting by mail is the undisputed heavyweight now. I wanted to take a minute and do a more comprehensive review of this for the spate of elections we’ve had since last November, and see what that might tell us. So without further ado, here’s the relevant data.


Election   Mail    Early    E-Day    Total
==========================================
Nov 23   16,655  224,321  210,844  451,820
Dec 23   13,769  118,089   66,639  198,497
Mar 24D  18,116   87,603   72,083  172,522
Mar 24R   7,133  102,273   93,321  202,727
May 24   15,005   19,512   22,455   56,972
May 24D  11,386   16,453   17,617   45,456


Election   Mail%    EIP%  Early%    EDay%
=========================================
Nov 23     3.69%  49.65%  53.33%   46.67%
Dec 23     6.94%  59.49%  66.43%   33.57%
Mar 24D   10.15%  50.78%  61.43%   38.57%
Mar 24R    3.52%  50.45%  53.97%   46.03%
May 24    26.34%  34.25%  60.59%   39.41%
May 24D   25.05%  36.20%  61.24%   38.76%

All results are based on the election archives at HarrisVotes plus the last early vote report file sent out by the Clerk’s office following the May 28 runoffs. I added up the votes cast plus undervotes and (for mail ballots) overvotes to get each total, which is consistent for each countywide race. I did not include the small number of provisional ballots for each election, just for the sake of simplicity. My “Total” will therefore be slightly off from the official turnout total given by the Clerk on each election result page.

“Early” refers to the early in person votes cast for each race, and “E-Day” is the in person vote total for that election day. The percentages given are for Mail, Early In Person, Early Total (which is Mail + EIP), and Election Day. “May 24” is the May special election, and “May 24D” is the May Democratic primary runoff. I skipped the Republican primary runoff since it was not countywide.

A couple of things stand out to me. One is that outside of the Republican primary, the total number of mail ballots cast is remarkably stable. It’s not at all proportionate to the overall turnout of a given election, it’s more of a function of the number of people who receive a mail ballot for that race. Which itself is relatively stable, in that one can request a mail ballot for all elections in a year at the beginning of that year. If you want evidence that allowing more people to vote by mail would lead to a general boost in turnout, there you have it.

What this means is that especially in a low turnout context, mail voters are very important. Kathy Blueford Daniels won her race for HCAD Position 1 because of mail voters. She took almost 63% of the mail vote, which gave her an absolute edge of over 4400 votes, then held on as she got a just-under-50% plurality in early in person votes and lost Election Day by eleven points.

The other HCAD races are harder to say anything about because I daresay many voters didn’t know who the candidates were, or more specifically what party they represented. Dems collected 70% of the mail vote in HCAD2, split among all of the non-Kyle Scott candidates, while Pelumi Adeleke and J. Bill got just over 27% of the mail vote in HCAD3. Another way to think about it is this: The three endorsed Republicans (Frazer, Scott, Lacy) all got about the same number of mail votes. Ericka McCrutcheon was the wild card in HCAD3, as she has been a candidate before and as a Black woman probably got a nontrivial number of votes from Dems who didn’t know her party affiliation

I think the single best thing that Democrats can do in the HCAD runoffs is remind all of the regular Democratic mail voters that Melissa Noriega and Pelumi Adeleke are their candidates. It’s important in each race but almost certainly vital in HCAD3, where Adeleke is the less-known candidate. We’re probably going to get about half of the turnout of the May election on June 15, so the mail ballots could easily be the biggest share of the total, possibly even a majority of them. Win the mail vote, probably win the overall vote.

This only goes so far in a high-turnout context. Mail ballots were 10.8% of the total in November 2020, and 5.5% of the total in November 2022. They were still the most Democratic component of the total in each case. We have this effective tool at our disposal, and it’s extra effective in smaller races. This is our chance to really use it. If you’re looking to help Melissa Noriega and Pelumi Adeleke win on June 15, join an effort to call the Dems who have mail ballots and get them to send them in.

UPDATE: There were 2,946 mail ballots received on Tuesday, Day Two of early voting, which is almost double the Day One total and the sort of thing you’d expect to see if the normal pattern of ballots being mailed in was disrupted by the proximity of the two elections. This is an encouraging sign, but we need it to continue.

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Harris County seeks a new direction for HART

Hopefully a solid reset and restart. Possibly even with the same vendor, if they can make the best offer and no other questions come up.

Harris County officials on Tuesday began making new plans to extend a program that sends social workers instead of sheriff’s deputies to some non-violent 911 calls, an effort that was cast in doubt last week due to questions about the contractor running the program.

Commissioners voted narrowly last week to withhold about $270,000 in payments to DEMA Consulting & Management for its work on the program in February and March, citing an ongoing audit sparked by questions about the company’s billing practices.

Harris County health officials said last week that would effectively end the Holistic Assistance Response Team program because the company would not be able to pay its employees. However, HART has continued responding to calls, and staff members told the Chronicle they were still being paid as of Friday.

Since 2022, the team has diverted about 11,500 911 calls to mental health providers.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to approve those funds, which the Harris County Auditor’s Office said followed the terms of the contract, and began discussing how to move forward with the program. The four Democrats voted in favor of approving the funds, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, the lone Republican, voting against it.

The court also voted along party lines to approve a seven-part plan from Commissioners Lesley Briones and Rodney Ellis for the program’s future. That plan includes instructing the county attorney to bring an amendment to the county’s contract with DEMA that would require enhanced invoicing and documentation. The court will consider that amendment at its next meeting on June 25.

Commissioners Court also voted to instruct staff to begin crafting two separate proposals for how to continue the program beyond July: Bring the program “in house” to Harris County Public Health, which would cost at least $11 million; or put out a new request for proposals from contractors interested in taking it over.

The remaining motions included enhanced monthly reports from the health agency on HART metrics, a 911 call analysis and project management services.

[…]

The Harris County Auditor’s Office stopped short of finding wrongdoing in a preliminary memo to commissioners sent on May 24. It said there was “a lack of detailed documentation to support the billings to Harris and Sonoma counties.”

Harris County Auditor Mike Post told commissioners on Tuesday that Sonoma County officials felt they were being double billed for the same hours worked by the same seven employees, including Patino herself.

Post said his office’s investigation suggests that for some of the roles the company was billing based on availability: The medical director, for example, was available for calls from both counties, and both were billed.

For others, the company provided timesheets that aligned with the hours billed to both counties. Patino herself logged 412.5 hours from Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, or about 12 hours a day; she billed Harris for 200 of the hours, and Sonoma County for 212.5.

For three other positions, Post said the timesheets amounted to about half of the hours billed to the county. He is still waiting on answers from the company about whether there are outstanding timesheets somewhere, or if they were billing those positions based on availability as well.

See here for some background. The audit here doesn’t seem to have found anything terrible, but the questions about DEMA in California remain, and that’s sufficient to make some changes and have another go at this. The important factor is that the program has been a success and needs to continue in some form. The details will be worked out and that’s fine. The big thing was keeping something like this going, and that is what happened. Houston Landing has more.

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Shepherd-Durham project back on track

First, I got this in my inbox, from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor John Whitmire and the Memorial Heights TIRZ have reached a compromise on the design of the Shepherd Durham Phase II project that maintains the terms of the Federal Grant, preserves general mobility, and creates transportation options while enhancing drainage and wastewater infrastructure.

This latest development was data driven utilizing an updated traffic analysis and INRIX Trip Analytics. The Mayor appreciates the TIRZ providing additional data to move the project forward for the benefit of Houstonians. The next step is for City Council to approve an interlocal agreement in the coming weeks.

The project preserves the standard widths of general-purpose lanes on Shepherd and Durham, and the number and width of these lanes for two blocks of 11th Street. It also re-establishes four lanes on 11th Street for one block east of Shepherd, while adding bike lanes and 6-foot-wide sidewalks for the entire project. Additionally, left turn lanes are strategically included at specific locations based on data analysis to improve traffic flow.

See here for the background. My initial reaction to this was that it sounded positive. I then got this in my inbox, from the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority (MHRA):

The Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority (MHRA) expresses gratitude and support for Mayor Whitmire’s decision to proceed with Phase 2 of the Shepherd Durham Reconstruction Project. We appreciate the administration’s willingness to work with MHRA to address concerns and to maintain the project’s benefits and grant funding.

The Shepherd Durham project promises significant benefits for a transportation corridor that has not seen any attention since the 1960s. Upgraded storm sewers will address issues caused by undersized and failing lines, while new water and wastewater utilities will ensure reliable service. Modern sidewalks, dedicated bicycle lanes, and improved intersection design will significantly reduce accidents and improve accessibility and mobility for all users. This investment also supports economic growth by facilitating commercial development in the corridor.

We thank Mayor Whitmire for recognizing the importance of this project and for his dedication to addressing our city’s infrastructure needs. MHRA looks forward to continued collaboration with the mayor’s office, the Houston Public Works Department, and all stakeholders as we move forward to deliver critical improvements efficiently and effectively.

For weekly construction updates, visit www.shepherddurham.com.

A subsequent followup from the MHRA included this additional information:

Based on the improved traffic information provided by the INRIX Origin/Destination data and our discussions with the mayor, we have updated our plans to better serve the needs of the community. Key changes to the project include:

  • Shepherd and Durham Drives: The plans will now include three, 11-foot through lanes on both Shepherd and Durham drives, replacing the current design of three lanes of eleven, ten and eleven feet wide.
  • 11th Street: The updated plans will retain two through lanes in each direction between Shepherd and Durham, significantly enhancing the level of service at this critical intersection by nearly 50%. Additionally, 11th Street will transition to one lane in each direction at Dorothy.

The TIRZ will conduct an additional traffic signal analysis 6-12 months after the project’s completion and will provide this analysis to the City to ensure the best optimization for final traffic signal adjustments.

Basically, it sounds like the project will continue in a very similar form. There are some positive reactions on Twitter, and in the late-breaking Chron story.

Marlene Gafrick, a senior adviser to Whitmire for transportation and planning, said the changes will keep it all within the current right-of-way, improve mobility in the area and will not require a total redesign of the project.

“This is data-driven,” Gafrick said, noting that a new traffic study showed where turn lanes and preserving two lanes in each direction along 11th were needed.

An important change was maintaining that all three lanes of both streets will be 11 feet wide, saying the widths were important for maintaining speeds and safety for drivers, Gafrick said.

The Memorial Heights TIRZ, which planned and managed the $100 million project to redo the streets from Washington Avenue to Loop 610, said the agreement allows for needed work to happen.

“The Shepherd Durham project promises significant benefits for a transportation corridor that has not seen any attention since the 1960s,” the authority’s board said in a statement.

Gafrick said city and TIRZ officials “are pushing” to keep the start of construction in late 2024 or 2025.

TIRZ officials said they would have more specific design details later this week. Whitmire’s office said an interlocal agreement would come to City Council for agreement in the coming weeks.

[…]

Agreement also ends what was a sometimes bitter back and forth where many in the community accused Whitmire of stymying a long-planned project with one phase already complete simply because commuters raised objections.

Those who supported the project and worried the pause could take the middle out of a much larger redesign of Shepherd and Durham applauded the progress.

“This project is in the community’s best interest,” District C Council Member Abbie Kamin said. “Thats why we fought so hard for it.”

Kamin credited the work on data and more input for preserving the project’s benefits while keeping focused on making sure funding for the work was not in jeopardy. A protracted pause could have risked money for the work.

“I appreciate the mayor’s deference to the data and the overwhelming neighborhood support for this project,” Kamin said. “His team worked hard to get to today.”

[…]

“It’s great to see the mayor acknowledge the extraordinarily broad community support this transformative project enjoys,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.

I’m basically happy with this outcome. I could have done without the drama, but I’m a results guy, and this is a good result. I want to add one more data point to all this, which is a before-and-after view of the streets in question that was sent to me recently. If you’ve driven along Shepherd or Durham between 11th Street and the Loop, you know what I’m talking about, but if this is not your normal turf or if it’s been a minute since you’ve been there, take a look at what the area looked like before construction, and now after construction, from March and April. I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a city that has the streets from those After photos. We’ll be getting more like that now that this construction will continue. Kudos all around. Houston Landing, which has another positive reaction to the agreement, has more.

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June HCAD special election runoff early voting Day One: Yeah, we’re doing this again

Current mood:

Here’s your Day One report for the runoff. It’s fair to say that the voters, fresh off of last week’s primary runoff, have yet to catch up to the present situation. A grand total of 3,130 votes have been cast so far, of which 1,428 were in person and 1,702 were by mail. This is not great for the Democratic candidates in the runoff, as mail votes have been an increasingly significant part of the Democratic GOTV strategy. That said, there’s usually much more of a lead-in to the start of mail voting, so we may get an oddly-shaped curve for the daily rate of return of these ballots. That will be something to keep an eye on. Over 38K mail ballots were sent out for this election, which is right in line with the total number sent for the first round in May. There’s room for a lot of growth here, is what I’m saying.

I will have a deeper dive into early and mail voting patterns from recent elections tomorrow. I will get out ahead of this a little to say that if you are a Democrat, the best thing you can do right now to affect the outcome of this election, beyond voting yourself, is to join an effort to call the regular Dems who have a mail ballot for this election and get them to fill it out and stick it in the mail ASAP. Don’t sleep on this, the final day to receive the ballots is Runoff Day on June 15. Let’s get that number up.

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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee says she has pancreatic cancer

I wish her all the best for a full and speedy recovery.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, the congresswoman shared in a Sunday statement on social media platform X.

“My doctors have confirmed my diagnosis for pancreatic cancer,” Jackson Lee said. “I am currently undergoing treatment to battle this disease that impacts tens of thousands of Americans every year.”

Jackson Lee, 74, represents Congressional District 18, a seat she has held for 30 years. In March, she defeated challenger Amanda Edwards, a former Houston City Councilwoman, in the most competitive primary of her congressional career. Prior to the March primary, Jackson Lee had only drawn four primary challengers, and she defeated all of them by significant margins. She’s been in Congress since 1995.

In her statement, Jackson Lee said she will “likely be occasionally absent from Congress” as she undergoes treatment but that she plans to continue to serve her constituents with the services they “deserve and expect.”

“I am committed to working with our Congressional Leadership including Leader Hakeem Jeffries and the Speaker of House to serve this nation and be present for votes on legislation that is critical for the prosperity and security of the American people,” the statement said.

Jackson Lee previously battled breast cancer. In 2012, she announced that she was cancer free after having been diagnosed the previous year.

“I look forward to having many more years to enjoy my family, friends and to serve our community and nation,” she said at the time.

I’ll say again, I wish her all the best. Pancreatic cancer is no joke. Please note in the story that the Harris County GOP put out a kind statement wishing her well. If you have something to say here, please follow that example.

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Runoff endorsement watch: One for two

The Chron revisited their HCAD endorsements for the runoff, with one needing a change since their first choice finished third last month.

Pelumi Adeleke

For the Place 2 runoff, voters have a choice between two qualified candidates, Kyle Scott and Melissa Noriega. Scott, a 46-year-old Republican and entrepreneurship professor at Sam Houston State University, lost a 2022 election for Harris County Treasurer and was among the Republicans who challenged vote counts in court. All but one of those cases were dropped or thrown out by the judge. He received our endorsement for his ideas on auditing tax abatements and regularly evaluating the chief appraiser. Noriega, 69, is a Democrat and former state representative, Houston City Council member and non-profit leader who’d make an excellent board member as well.

Our pick for Place 3 didn’t make the runoff but another candidate who impressed us did. Pelumi Adeleke is a 39-year-old Harvard Business School graduate and leader at Amazon Web services. At a minimum, she wants greater transparency. How do appraisers decide how much a house or skyscraper is worth? “I have training in accounting and taxes, and I didn’t understand the process,” she told us. A Democrat backed by the AFL-CIO, her idea is to use basic information on when a building was built and its square footage to calculate the appraised value, but not to incorporate the underlying land value. That kind of dramatic change could bring about more fairness in some cases, and unintended negative consequences in others. We doubt that a single board member could bring about such a change, but even raising the idea could help the appraisal district learn how to explain to property owners how the current system works.

The other candidate for Place 3, Ericka McCrutcheon ran unsuccessfully twice for Houston City Council. The 62-year-old owner of a construction and remodeling company, and a church co-pastor, she is endorsed by several Republican lawmakers including Bettencourt and state Rep. Valoree Swanson. Her website states that she wants to “ensure that taxation is clean, level, and uniform according to the law,” but she did not attend either of two candidate screenings or speak to us by phone to share a specific approach with us. In contrast, Adeleke’s professional expertise is relevant and the big questions she’s asking could improve appraisals over the long-run.

See here for the Round One endorsements. Maybe it’s just me, but endorsing election deniers seems like it’s bad for democracy. Having some possibly interesting ideas about auditing tax abatements shouldn’t be enough to erase that stain. Call me old-fashioned, if you must. As a reminder, here are my interviews with the candidates you should vote for:

Melissa Noriega, HCAD Position 2
Pelumi Adeleke, HCAD Position 3

Early voting continues through next Tuesday. Don’t miss out.

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One year of the HISD takeover

It’s been a year since HISD was officially taken over. Where do we stand on the things that matter, the schools’ and students’ performances? Early data is mostly positive, with a lot of caveats.

According to early data, HISD appears to be making initial progress with complying with state and federal special education requirements and improving student outcomes, which are both key requirements to ending the intervention. However, several education experts said one year of data is not enough time to indicate whether the district is heading in the right direction and more work still needs to be done to ensure students receive an equitable education.

During this first year of takeover, HISD has reported higher levels of teacher and principal turnover compared to prior years and job cuts in nearly every department due to a $528 million budget shortfall, which have led some to question the long-term sustainability of Miles’ reforms as he plans to spend millions of additional dollars expanding the NES model to about half the district’s campuses next year.

[…]

Toni Templeton, a research scientist at the University of Houston Education Research Center, said that the teacher turnover at HISD is part of a troublesome increase in attrition across the state, where more than 10% of teachers have left education altogether in recent years. Campus climate — an area in which Miles’ administration has been criticized — can often play a factor, she said.

What increasingly concerns researchers, however, is the growing tendency of school districts to replace departed educators with uncertified teachers who tend not to stay as long as those with traditional training. HISD data indicates the district hired at least 839 uncertified teachers, or about 7% of its teaching workforce, to start the year.

“It’s problematic because there’s an actual science to teaching and learning — the preparation, the clinical practice, that’s all been linked in research to lower attrition and better performance, so we are really alarmed by what we’re seeing statewide,” Templeton said.

While teachers have been leaving in the greatest numbers, the forced resignations of several HISD principals in recent months have rallied thousands in the community against Miles, especially at some non-NES schools — including two that boasted recent Principals of the Year — where families were more than happy with their principal’s leadership.

HISD hasn’t yet released records indicating how many principals were let go in May, but their departures came on the heels of widespread principal turnover throughout the year. At least 71 principals left or were removed from their positions between June and March, with that number expected to rise significantly as more data from the spring is released.

[…]

There is limited data on student academic performance and progress during the state takeover so far since the results of several exams taken at the end of the academic year, such as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, will not be publicly released until summer.

One of the few available data points is HISD students’ beginning- and middle-of-year scores on the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress Growth assessment, or the NWEA MAP. Miles introduced the national exam for the first time in HISD to monitor students’ academic progress throughout the year.

HISD elementary and middle school students took exams in reading, math and science in September, January and May, although several campuses struggled to provide adequate heating to students during January exams and air conditioning during the May assessments. The tests measure both academic achievement and growth using a RIT, or Rasch Unit, score ranging from 100 to 350.

The middle-of-year exam results showed that students at NES campuses saw more growth in math and reading than students at non-NES campuses, although the raw RIT scores remain lower for students at NES schools, which largely consist of Hispanic, Black and low-income students, according to data obtained by the Chronicle.

Average districtwide scores for each grade, however, are a few points below scores from the “norm group,” which is a separate large group of diverse students from across the U.S. who have also taken the test. Miles told the Chronicle in January that the test results show HISD is on the right path and the NES reforms are paying off, but HISD still has “a long way to go.”

“One set of data does not a trend make, I get it, but you can see that we’re headed in the right direction,” Miles said. “You can see that what we said was going to happen to the NES schools happened. Kids who are behind get more supports.”

According to district data, about 60% of NES students met their expected growth targets on the middle-of-year MAP reading exam, compared with 54% of non-NES students. On the math exam, approximately 61% of NES students met their expected growth targets, compared with 59% of non-NES elementary and 55% of middle school students.

Overall, MAP scores at NES schools jumped from about 190 points to 195 points in reading and about 183 to 188 in math, while scores at non-NES schools generally remained consistent at about 201 on the reading exam and around 194 on the math portion.

HISD students were originally scheduled to take the end-of-year Measures of Academic Progress Growth assessment in mid-May, but the district pushed testing dates for most students to May 28 to 30, meaning test results are not available.

Erin Baumgartner, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, said it’s good for students at NES campuses to be reporting more growth, but it’s too soon to determine if it’s a sign that the model is working or not. She said more data is necessary to determine why the growth is happening, if it’s connected to the NES reforms and if it is sustainable in the long-term.

“Getting the full school year’s worth of information will be very helpful, but it’s also important … to see how this continues into next year and how this progress happens,” Baumgartner said. “For some students, there was a complete shift in their education experience, and so that really might have done a lot to boost them initially, but can we keep those that boost going?”

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. The Chron has a series of articles marking the one year anniversary, and of those the other that drew my interest was this collection of quotes from various stakeholders, looking back on the year that was. I’d put it at two to one, maybe even three to one negative. The early numbers may be trending positive, but the vibes most definitely are not.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I think Mike Miles has done some good things, things that will make academic performance and outcomes at HISD better overall. Changing how we teach reading was necessary and overdue, and likely happened more quickly and with less fuss via his edict than via a trustee-driven process. Bringing more resources and attracting better teachers to the initial NES schools, many of which have been long underserved by HISD, was a good and needed accomplishment. He deserves credit for these things.

But the negatives are overwhelming, and they threaten to swamp what good there has been. I don’t want to relitigate everything here, but I do want to focus on what I think is the main issue, which is Miles greatly overstepping his initial mandate, which has led to most of the conflict and controversy that we see now and which I believe threatens to undermine the progress that is being made. Miles came in with a mandate to improve a relatively small number of underserved and underperforming campuses, with a short amount of lead time before the school year was scheduled to begin. He did that, and then very quickly pivoted to implementing the same kind of changes at a much larger number of schools that were not within that mandate, before we had any idea how well his changes would work and without the input or feedback from the schools that suddenly found themselves in his scope.

This to me is a mistake on multiple levels: There was no time or effort made to get buy-in from the community. There was no evidence that any of the reforms were working. Many of the reforms he had in mind, for things like teacher and principal evaluation, were based on unproven data and methodology and relied on small samples that were naturally subject to a great deal of volatility. Increasing the focus of his mission necessarily meant paying less attention to the initial subjects of the mission and created distractions by generating the controversy that they did. High-profile firings of well-regarded teachers and principals were made without warning or justification and came at the same time as other staff reductions were being made, which gave the whole process a chaotic and arbitrary feel, which led to even more public dissension. And all of this was happening as Miles himself continuously gave a my-way-or-the-highway response to criticisms.

The bottom line is that Miles is a leader who has lost the confidence of the people he was brought in to lead, people who had no say in his selection and no mechanism for holding him accountable. It’s a mess of his own making, and it not only puts the much-needed bond issuance in jeopardy, it threatens to make HISD’s long-term demographic issues worse. I fear that people who have the means to pull their kids out of HISD for next year will do so, which will exacerbate its fiscal position, reduce its political clout, and make Houston seem like a less-desirable place to live. How much better off is HISD if academic scores notch up a bit but its enrollment for 2024-25 falls to 150K or something like that? How much better off would we be instead if Mike Miles had even a basic ability to listen and be empathetic?

Maybe I’m overestimating the problem here. Maybe the STAAR and accountability scores we get will show a big step forward, which will not only be great for the students but also make the eventual departure of Mike Miles that much more tangible. Maybe things will calm down over the summer and people will send their kids back as usual. All I’m saying is that we could have gotten the good things with far less of the bad, if not for Mike Miles’ actions. And if the first thing that a reinstated school board and its newly-hired Superintendent do is throw out most if not all of the changes Mike Miles made in an effort to close the door on a deeply painful chapter of HISD’s history, we’ll know the reason why.

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Another Speaker contender

I suspect this list will get longer. Whether they all make it to the actual vote for Speaker is another story.

Rep. Shelby Slawson

State Rep. Shelby Slawson announced Thursday she is running for Texas House speaker, becoming the second member to challenge the chamber’s current leader, Dade Phelan, for control of the gavel.

Slawson, R-Stephenville, launched her candidacy in a letter to fellow House Republicans, telling them she began last year’s session as a supporter of Phelan, only to grow disillusioned by what she described as his “tight-fisted, top-down leadership.” She slammed Phelan’s inner circle as an “arrogant leadership cadre” and said they had run the House in a way that “continually overshadows our wins and puts us at odds with our grassroots supporters, other electeds, and our own members.”

“Our reform-minded members outnumber the status-quo supporters, and our ranks have grown with new energy this election cycle,” Slawson wrote. “We are collectively up to the task of decentralizing the power structure in the House and wholly changing the culture that throttles us instead of empowers us.”

[…]

Slawson, a 47-year-old attorney, is in her second term serving in the lower chamber. She joins state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, who was the first to announce a challenge to Phelan. Oliverson, also a former Phelan ally, responded positively to Slawson’s announcement.

“I welcome another reformer into the race for Speaker of the Texas House and applaud [Slawson] for her honest appraisal of the status quo, and optimism for the future,” Oliverson posted on social media. “The movement is growing!”

Slawson ranks among the House’s most conservative members. She is perhaps best known as the lead sponsor of Texas’ 2021 law, known colloquially as the “heartbeat bill,” that banned most abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, before many patients know they are pregnant. It also opened the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers.

The bill, enacted before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, banned the procedure once an ultrasound could detect what lawmakers defined as a fetal “heartbeat” — a term medical and legal experts say is misleading because embryos don’t possess a heart at that developmental stage.

Slawson was one of 23 House Republicans who voted against Paxton’s impeachment — distinguishing her from Oliverson, who missed the vote, and Phelan, who backed the effort. The move has caused Phelan more heartburn than any other over the last year, making him a top target of Paxton and his allies, including former President Donald Trump.

Slawson also is a proponent of private school vouchers, having voted against an amendment last fall that stripped a voucher program from a broader education funding bill. She is one of 20 House Republicans who last year voted against impeachment and for school vouchers; of the 17 who sought reelection, all won their primaries.

See here for some background. Look, all of these people suck. You would need very sophisticated instruments to be able to determine which one sucks the most. Perhaps you’ve heard me say this before, but there’s only one way out of this mess, and that’s to start winning more elections. This year would be a good time to get on that.

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Houston janitors win new contract

Good for them.

Houston janitors agreed Saturday to ratify a new union contract with building contractors that will see wages for full-time workers reach $15.

Full-time janitors will see their wages increase to at least $15 during the course of the four-year contract. Janitors with more than five years of experience will earn $15.50 by the end of the contract.

Part-time workers will see their wages increase to a minimum of $14.10 an hour.

“These janitors have not seen this type of victory since they organized in 2006,” Service Employees International UnionTexas President Elsa Flores said. “Obviously, they love every contract that they’ve gotten. They know that you know they got as much as they could get. But let’s recognize that this time around, they were able to get significant improvements on the wages.”

Wages will increase by 20% for part-time workers and 16-17% for full-time workers.

SEIU representatives came to a tentative deal Thursday night, one day before its two-year contract was set to expire.

As part of the deal, janitors will also receive an extra floating holiday and 70% of the janitors will have at least a 25-hour workweek by the end of the contract instead of the current 30%.

[…]

Houston janitors have gone on strike twice in 2006 and 2012. Flores said the difference from 12 years ago compared to now is that more people see the value of workers like janitors, which puts more pressure on the contractors.

See here and here for more on those previous strikes, and here for a CityCast Houston interview with Elsa Flores, the President of SEIU Texas. I would certainly hope that people are more likely to see the value of the janitors. Certainly if you work in an office building, you should know. I’m glad they were able to resolve this and get a good deal without a strike. Houston Public Media has more.

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Weekend link dump for June 2

For no particular reason, you should watch this video. You’re welcome.

Sure has been a rough couple of years for ol’ Rudy Giuliani. That sound you hear is my heart breaking for him.

“But regardless of how swiftly Trump and his team backtracked on the remarks, the idea of restricting or even banning contraceptives is not a new platform for Republicans.”

“But did I find the answer I sought: why Lehrer gave it all up? I am not sure. What I can tell you is that Tom Lehrer is a prodigiously talented man who has no interest at all in money for its own sake, or in money to wield power. He wants enough to be comfortable and to do the few things he wants to do, and he has that.

“The viewers may not like it, but they’ll accept it.”

“The Live Nation lawsuit carries on this approach. The feds lament the way Ticketmaster, by far the biggest player in concert ticketing, piles costs that “far exceed fees in comparable parts of the world” onto concertgoers’ laps. But the suit is really about an ecosystem, about how Live Nation’s control of a ticketing giant contributes to its control of venues and event promotion and worsens the whole enterprise. Artists have less freedom to promote their work as they see fit and perform in ideal venues. Promoters miss out on lots of business if they don’t play by Live Nation’s rules. And concert venues are at risk of not getting good acts if they don’t work within a ticketing system that (for one thing) sucks and (for another) may not enable them to maximize their revenue and keep their patrons happy.”

“Meet the guy who single-handedly took down North Korea’s Internet.” That’s a podcast episode, the article it’s based on is here.

“‘We’re Here’ Needs To Be Here More Than Ever”.

“The fact that so many shows could jump between limited/anthology and either drama or comedy (and have!) makes me wonder: Have we moved past the point of “limited” making sense as a category? Remember when “miniseries” used to be a particular kind of longform? Now, we’re just putting more TV shows in the limited category when they could just as well be in the drama field.”

“For Industrial Emissions, These Bricks May Be a Game Changer. Yes, Bricks.”

“You can disagree on foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy — take your pick. But I think the most important thing in this election is health and health care — and under another Trump administration it will get more expensive and less accessible, especially for those at the margins. It’s not being discussed enough.”

RIP, Caleb Carr, novelist best known for The Alienist.

RIP, Johnny Wactor, actor best known for General Hospital.

RIP, Dog Ingle, lead singer and co-founder of Iron Butterfly, best known for the song “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vita”, which he co-wrote.

RIP, Bill Walton, basketball Hall of Famer, two-time NCAA champion, two-time NBA champion, longtime broadcaster, general free spirit. People had some strong feelings about him as a broadcaster but I liked him, especially later in his career when he’d sit in on a non-basketball game and just be goofy. He was one of a kind and he’ll be missed.

“Ángel Hernández, the polarizing veteran umpire who has drawn the wrath and exasperation from players, managers and fans alike over three decades, is retiring from Major League Baseball”.

RIP, C. Gordon Bell, engineer and inventor of the minicomputer, which was a bridge between the mainframes of the past and the modern personal computer.

Ugh, Richard Dreyfuss. Well, now we all know to avoid any events he’s at in the future.

“So I’d strongly disagree that the right and left are in comparable positions. Moreover, the idea that they *are* roughly equivalent seems to be a deliberate smokescreen by partisans to hide the real story, which is one of the unprecedented radicalization of the right in service of a minoritarian political project.”

Greenland has applied to become a member of CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, the Football Association of Greenland said on Tuesday.” This is slightly complicated by the fact that Greenland is technically a part of Denmark, but it’s not been allowed into UEFA. I’m rooting for CONCACAF to take them here.

Everything you wanted to know about Negro Leagues statistics being incorporated into the official MLB statistical database.

“What’s really going on here is that conservative Christians are treating [Taylor] Swift the same way they’ve been treating female [Contemporary Christian Music] pop stars since the 1970s.”

“Some people just want to be in that Fox News rage spiral. They’re riding a rollercoaster of fear, paranoia, and hate. And people enjoy that. They enjoy sitting in their homes and being angry at the world. I don’t understand that mentality at all. But that’s what Fox provides them.”

“In closing, normal, reasonable people—obviously not Democratic senators or any other American who has dared to question Alito’s ability to be impartial—can see this is totes no big so screw you.”

I question the classification of Shōgun as “Dad TV”. Sure, I loved it, it was a beautifully written and acted and filmed production. Calling it “Dad TV” strikes me as saying it’s a niche product, which I would dispute. (The others listed, fine. Ironically, none of them appeal to me.) I think Shōgun had broad appeal, which to be sure includes the dad contingent. I’m just quibbling with the label. Your mileage may vary.

RIP, Marian Robinson, mother of Michelle Obama.

Resign, Alito. Democrats, don’t take No for an answer.

“Because he won’t withdraw from the race, Democrats and the rest of us should follow the logic of his conviction wherever it leads. Trump should be denied classified candidate briefings, just as felons are disqualified from classified clearance. Trump should be denied the right to vote in his home state of Florida, and if Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans try to create a special exception for him, Democrats should challenge it. They should feel free to demand he be punished to the full extent of the law.”

“Here’s a dirty baker’s dozen of Trump pals, all of whom have been convicted or pleaded guilty to a felony charge. Any of them should be happy to commensurate with Trump over his conviction. That is, if they’re out of jail. And if they’re allowed to associate with felons.”

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County Clerk announcement on HCAD runoff early voting

From the inbox:

Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth announces that early voting for the June 15 Uniform Runoff Election begins on Monday, June 3, and runs through Tuesday, June 11. During early voting, 26 vote centers will open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Tuesday, except Sunday noon to 7 p.m. On Election Day, Saturday, June 15, vote centers will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In two of the three Harris Central Appraisal District (HCAD) Board of Directors contests on the May 4 Uniform Election ballot, no candidate received the required fifty percent plus one vote to win. As a result, the June 15 Uniform Runoff Election will feature the top two candidates from the May 4 Uniform Election for HCAD Board of Directors, Place 2 and Place 3.

“The Harris Central Appraisal District is the largest appraisal district in Texas and one of the largest appraisal districts in the United States,” said Clerk Hudspeth, the county’s chief election official. “If you own property in Harris County, this election will impact you.”

Although the HCAD Board of Directors is not directly responsible for assessing property values, the newly elected members will have significant administrative responsibilities. Their role includes hiring the chief appraiser, appointing members to the appraisal review board, setting the district’s budget, and communicating with external stakeholders. The winner of each contest will assume office on July 1, 2024, and serve until December 31, 2026.

“Every election is important, and I hope Harris County voters keep up the vote during the June 15 Runoff Election,” added Clerk Hudspeth. “Even if you did not vote in the May 4 Uniform Election, you still have an opportunity to ensure your voice is represented.”

The following forms of photo ID are acceptable when voting in person:

  • Texas Driver’s License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate issued by DPS
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS
  • Texas Handgun License issued by DPS
  • United States Military Identification Card containing the person’s photograph
  • United States Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph
  • United States Passport (book or card)

Voters who do not possess and cannot obtain one of the approved forms of photo ID may fill out a Reasonable Impediment Declaration (RID) at a Vote Center and present another form of ID, such as a utility bill, bank statement, government check, or voter registration certificate.

Additional election information is available on www.HarrisVotes.com. For news and updates on social media, follow @HarrisVotes.

I’m doing this again because I know how weird this all is. We’re really not used to voting in June around here, but that’s what we’re doing. Note where those 26 vote centers are, this is not an election where you can just assume you’re a few minutes away from a polling location. Turnout is going to be abominably low, probably around one percent, so at least wherever you go there won’t be a line. Cast your votes for Melissa Noriega and Pelumi Adeleke and tell everyone you know to do the same.

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HISD asks for $4.4 billion in bonds

That sure is a lot.

Houston ISD unveiled a $4.4 billion bond proposal, the largest in HISD history and likely the largest package any Texas school district has taken to voters.

Much of the bond, $2.05 billion, would go to school upgrades. The district defined this as rebuilding, renovating and modernizing facilities. The district identified more than 40 campuses with “urgent facility needs.”

The district would invest $1.35 billion into making “safe and healthy campuses,” which would include updating HVAC systems, securing campuses, and testing whether school grounds, air, water and buildings meet environmental standards, according to materials distributed at the district’s first public meeting about the bond Thursday night.

And $1 billion would go to career and technical education, early childhood education and district technology investments. Improving district technology includes securing student data, expanding broadband access, and accessing AI, according to a district meeting handout.

The district said it intends to fund the bond without raising the tax rate.

[…]

Because a dozen years have passed without maintenance and repairs, the district identified roughly $10 billion in overdue upgrades, according to a May 22 press release. The district announced that day 28 members of a Community Advisory Committee that will host five public meetings on the bond over the next few weeks. The committee includes parents, educators, community advocates and elected trustees.

Former HISD board president Judith Cruz, former Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman, and retired president of H-E-B Scott McClelland will serve as committee co-chairs.

The committee’s in-person meetings will be at 6 p.m. June 4 at Fondren Middle School, 6 p.m. June 5 at Fleming Middle School and 6 p.m. June 10 at Forest Brook Middle School. The bond committee will also hold a virtual meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday. Community members can share feedback in small group workshops and learn about the district’s facility needs at the meetings.

See here and here for a bit of background. I absolutely agree that a bond of at least this size is needed. I think the Community Advisory Committee has some quality people on it. And I think HISD is going to have a rough time getting this approved.

Leaders of Houston’s NAACP branch spoke out Thursday against the more than $4 billion bond that state-appointed HISD leaders are expected to ask voters to approve and repeated their calls for state and federal investigations into possible wrongdoing in the district.

“We all agree that the present chaotic conditions and structure of apartheid at HISD disqualifies them to seek a bond proposal in the upcoming election cycle,” Houston NAACP President James Dixon II said at a press conference. “Presently, HISD is a graphic demonstration of taxation without representation.”

U.S. Rep. Al Green and the NAACP Houston Branch on Thursday called for a federal investigation after Spectrum News reported that a charter school network funded by now-Superintendent Mike Miles moved funds from Texas public charter schools to Colorado campuses.

[…]

The Houston branch of the historic Black civil rights organization hosted a Thursday press conference, joined by state elected officials, teachers union leaders, community leaders including Ruth Kravetz of Community Voices for Public Education, and Daniel Saenz of LULAC Council 60, part of the national Latino civil rights organization.

Dixon said the Texas Education Agency is failing Houston children and called on the public to act now. Dixon supported U.S. representatives’ calls for a federal investigation.

The press conference comes ahead of the district’s first public meeting Thursday about an proposed school bond. The district last week gave the bond’s approximate amount between $4 billion and $5 billion, and it said that the bond will be largely devoted to upgrading the district’s aging campuses.

But community leaders are upset with the lack of transparency among state-appointed leaders of HISD.

“And finally there is no bond. There is no bond as long as we have a rubber stamp Board of Managers at HISD with no accountability to the community,” State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, said.

See here and here for the background on that charter school allegation. I haven’t seen any further news on it, which may mean there’s nothing more to be found or may mean that further news will require more digging. There’s one obvious way to get people on board with the bond proposal, and that involves Mike Miles and a U-Haul truck. Failing that – and let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen – we’ll just have to see. Even the idea of negotiating over this means having to be willing to walk away from the table and vote against the bond, which is a very big position to take and one that wouldn’t clearly hurt anyone but the students and teachers. I feel deeply strange about not being fully supportive of this bond, but we live in deeply strange times. Doing interviews for this one is going to be quite the experience.

Posted in Election 2024, School days | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Here’s your state flood plan

We have a lot of people living in flood-prone areas. That’s not going away.

More than 5 million Texans, or one in six people in the state, live or work in an area susceptible to flooding, according to a draft of the state’s first-ever flood plan.

The plan by the Texas Water Development Board is an effort to reduce the risk for those people by recommending solutions to harden Texas against floods and rising sea levels. The board was required to create the plan in a 2019 state law passed in response to Hurricane Harvey.

The public can make comments on the plan during a May 30 meeting in Austin and have until June 17 to submit comments online.

The plan, released in early May, estimates that close to 1.3 million Texas homes are in flood-prone areas.

Sarah Kirkle, the director of policy and legislative affairs for the Texas Water Conservation Association, which represents water professionals including water districts, water authorities and groundwater conservation districts, said the plan is significant because it gives the most complete picture yet of which areas of the state are most at risk for flooding.

The plan used existing flood data to create the maps that served as a baseline, but many state regions either didn’t have flood maps, or used outdated maps.

Local water managers filled the gaps with their knowledge and the TWDB contracted flood risk modeling data company Fathom to help.

“When the plan is approved, it’s going to be a historic moment for Texas,” Kirkle said. “This will be a really critical piece in understanding the topography and where you have higher and lower elevations in order to properly plan for which parts of the state are going to be subject to the risk.”

Climate change is increasing flood risks in Texas, bringing warmer temperatures that cause more water to evaporate from the land and oceans, leading to heavier rainfall. Climate change also intensifies hurricanes and sea level rise — all of which may cause river floods to become larger and more frequent.

[…]

Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the plan is an impressive effort, but does have some limitations.

He said the modeling used for the plan to predict how often floods can occur is outdated and looks at historic climate variability as opposed to future climate variables.

“What we thought was a one in 100 chance of flood, or one in 500, they may be much more frequent than we were thinking because the climate is changing,” he said.

It’s a 267-page document, if you’re in need of a little light reading. The Trib story does a good job summarizing the effort and its challenges, so maybe read that instead. As noted you have until June 17 to submit a comment. The final doc will be presented to the Lege in September.

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SCOTx upholds abortion ban in Zurawski lawsuit

I don’t know if the Supreme Court intended to bury the news of this stinker of a ruling on a Friday, but boy howdy if that was their intent did they ever pick the right Friday to do it on.

The Texas Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the most significant challenge to Texas’ new abortion laws yet, ruling Friday that the medical exceptions in the law were broad enough to withstand constitutional challenge.

The case, Zurawski v. Texas, started with five women arguing the state’s near-total abortion laws stopped them from getting medical care for their complicated pregnancies. In the year plus it took to move through the court system, the case has grown to include 20 women and two doctors.

In August, a Travis County judge issued a temporary injunction that allowed Texans with complicated pregnancies to get an abortion if their doctor made a “good faith judgment” that it was necessary. The Texas Office of the Attorney General appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court overturned that ruling Friday, saying it “departed from the law as written without constitutional justification.” While the opinion was unanimous, Justice Brett Busby issued a concurring opinion that left the door open to a broader challenge to the law.

Zurawski v. Texas was a pioneering case in post-Roe America, the first challenge to a state’s abortion bans on behalf of women with complicated pregnancies. At least three other states have followed suit, and it led to a related case, in which Kate Cox, an actively pregnant woman in Dallas sued to be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected Cox’s plea in December, which many saw as a likely foreshadow of how the court might rule in Zurawski v. Texas. On Friday, those suspicions were confirmed when the court offered a ruling very similar in nature to the Cox case.

“A physician who tells a patient, ‘Your life is threatened by a complication that has arisen during your pregnancy, and you may die, or there is a serious risk you will suffer substantial physical impairment unless an abortion is performed,’ and in the same breath states ‘but the law won’t allow me to provide an abortion in these circumstances’ is simply wrong in that legal assessment,” the court wrote.

[…]

For the first time since before Roe v. Wade, a judge intervened to allow a competent adult woman to terminate her pregnancy.

“The idea that Ms. Cox wants desperately to be a parent, and this law might actually cause her to lose that ability is shocking and would be a genuine miscarriage of justice,” state District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble.

Paxton appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, which put it on hold. He also sent letters to Houston area hospitals threatening them with legal action if they allowed Dr. Damla Karsan, Cox’s OB/GYN, to perform an abortion at their facility.

While the court deliberated, Cox’s condition deteriorated to the point that she needed to travel out-of-state to get an abortion, her lawyers said.

The court ultimately rejected Cox’s request for an abortion, ruling that while “any parents would be devastated to learn” of a fetal diagnosis like this, “some difficulties in pregnancy…even serious ones, do not pose the heightened risks to the mother the exception encompasses.”

The court did call on the Texas Medical Board to issue guidance to help doctors better understand when they can perform an abortion in the eyes of the law. That guidance, which has not yet been finalized, has been criticized for offering little reassurance and, in some cases, confusing the issue further.

In Friday’s ruling, the court ruled that only one of the 22 plaintiffs in the Zurawski suit had standing to sue — Karsan, the Houston OB/GYN who had agreed to perform Cox’s abortion.

“We conclude that the Attorney General directly threatened enforcement against Dr. Karsan in response to her stated intent to engage in what she contends is constitutionally protected activity,” the justices wrote. “A state official’s letter threatening enforcement of a specific law against a plaintiff seeking relief from such enforcement is a sufficient showing of a threat of enforcement to establish standing to sue.”

The trial court ruled in the injunction that a doctor should be allowed to perform an abortion when they deemed it necessary in their “good faith judgment.” Friday’s ruling found the trial judge overstepped, and said the way the law is written — allowing abortions based on a doctor’s “reasonable medical judgment” — is clear enough.

While the Center for Reproductive Rights raised concerns in the lawsuit that a doctor would have to defend their reasonable judgment against a panel of other doctors who might have decided differently, the court said it was actually the opposite — to bring a case against a doctor, the state would first have to “prove that no reasonable physician would have concluded” that the abortion was the right call.

In the ruling, the justices acknowledged the tragedy of these cases, but agreed with the state that the laws are clear — and it was doctors who were misinterpreting them.

“With a diagnosis based on reasonable medical judgment and the woman’s informed consent, a physician can provide an abortion confident that the law permits it,” they ruled. “Ms. Zurawski’s agonizing wait to be ill ‘enough’ for induction, her development of sepsis, and her permanent physical injury are not the results the law commands.”

The trial court also ruled that Texans should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies if the doctor has determined the fetus would not survive after birth. The supreme court rejected that argument.

“As painful as such circumstances are, that the law does not authorize abortions for diagnosed fetal conditions absent a life-threatening complication to the mother does not render it unconstitutional,” they wrote.

See here, here, and here for the basic outline of the Zurawski case; here, here, here, and here for the Cox case. The SCOTx opinion is here, the concurring opinion by Justice Lehrmann is here and by Justice Busby is here.

I’m going to keep this simple: Fucking cowards, every last one of them. They’re perfectly happy to not only let Ken Paxton freely threaten doctors and hospitals, they’re blaming the doctors for feeling threatened. They do not care at all about the women who are being harmed – it’s just not a part of their calculus. If you’re not fully invested in throwing these bums out, three at a time, you’re doing it wrong. But not just them – every Congressional and legislative election should be about this as well. And not just about the Cox and Zurawski cases, either – there are so many other examples of the law gone crazy post-Dobbs to talk about. Everyone from convicted felon Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on down needs to feel the heat. And we’re the ones that have to generate it. That’s what the next five months are about. The 19th and the Chron have more.

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Metro Chair seeks to nullify 2019 election

I’m so mad about this I’m having a hard time seeing straight.

Metro is beginning to steer in a different direction under Mayor John Whitmire and his appointed chair of the transit agency, pulling away from a planned expansion of bus rapid transit approved by voters, and moving toward increased roadwork instead.

“I’m here to let everyone know this is a new beginning. We’re not going to tolerate broken infrastructure, whether it’s our roads and streets or our drainage,” Whitmire said during the groundbreaking for a Metro project to repave all lanes of Westheimer from the 610 West Loop to downtown. “We’re going to fix Houston.”

An increased focus on road repairs is just one part of the new direction of Metro. In addition to putting off the bus rapid transit expansion, the agency appears ready to scrap plans for a bikeshare program.

When it comes to expansion of public transit, Whitmire and new Metro Board Chair Elizabeth Gonzalez Brock are placing their hopes in microtransit, such as expanded shuttle service and rideshare.

“Uber has set the standard for what transportation should look like in the future,” Brock said recently.

Whitmire’s approach to the Metropolitan Transit Agency of Harris County echoes his moves on transportation projects in Houston, where he has paused multimodal street development and narrower designs in favor of preserving more lanes for traffic.

[…]

The week before the Westheimer press conference, Metro took down the webpages for the University, Gulfton, and Inner Katy bus rapid transit projects. The trio of projects would have added 75 miles of BRT as part of the agency’s METRONext program. That program was at the center of a $3.5 billion bond election approved by 68 percent of voters in 2019.

Brock points to Whitmire’s election last November, where he took just under 65 percent of the vote, as an endorsement of the mayor’s transportation plans. The mayor nominates – and City Council approves – five members of Metro’s nine-member board.

“The public authorized (the bond), they didn’t mandate it,” Brock said. “The public expects us to be very nimble and expects us to be responsible with taxpayer dollars.”

Brock is reluctant to issue the voter-approved bonds for projects that Metro leaders see as questionable investments. If the agency does issue the bonds, she said the money would be used for public safety, infrastructure, and microtransit.

Both Whitmire and Brock said the bond election occurred before changes in technology and work habits changed Houston’s public transit needs, but microtransit programs and technology are not a new development in transit technology.

“Microtransit-type operations have been around for 10, 15 years,” Eccles said. The option was considered during planning for METRONext, he said, resulting in the agency’s current curb-to-curb shuttle service.

Brock and Metro’s interim CEO and President Tom Jasien said the BRT pages were taken down due to information they thought leaned more into the side of advocacy about the projects rather than facts.

Metro did not commit to putting the webpages back up, although an update could come soon. Brock said expanding BRT still is an option, but only if it makes sense in terms of ridership and financial viability.

“Is ridership there today? I don’t think so,” Brock said, calling ridership the all-encompassing “north star” for the new Metro board’s decision making.

See here and here for some background. The utter arrogance of that statement about the public just “authorizing” the bonds is infuriating. It’s gaslighting of the most insulting kind. I don’t know what Elizabeth Brock was doing in 2019, but I’m old enough to remember that election. Metro asked the public for their vote to authorize those bonds so they could then be used to build more rail and BRT lines. They were very explicit about it. That’s why almost 68% of the voters, over 223K people, gave them their votes. Which, if you’re going to point to Mayor Whitmire’s election results, both exceed what he got last December. By a lot in the case of the raw votes.

Jesus Christ. I’m also old enough to remember the 2003 Metro referendum, which was the first time we voted to build the Universities line. That got stopped in its literal and figurative tracks by a now-former member of Congress who decided that what he wanted was more important than what the voters wanted. When we finally got rid of that asshole in 2018, I thought maybe finally we’d get the thing we had voted for 15 years before. Never in my weirdest dreams did I think the next obstacle to this long-overdue project would be a Metro Chair. What the hell do we have to do to get what we voted for?

I can’t leave this alone either:

During Metro’s May committee meetings, staff indicated that increasing bus service in Gulfton remains a goal this summer. That is unlikely to include a commitment to the bus rapid transit line.

Whitmire and Brock took issue with the METRONext BRT projects being presented as drainage projects, with the mayor specifically saying that Gulfton does not flood.

Sandra Rodríguez, the Gulfton super neighborhood council president, disagreed, having been involved with METRONext planning since 2017.

“We do flood, and when we have heavy rains, like everywhere in Houston, we can’t get where we need to go,” Rodríguez said, citing the impact that Hurricane Harvey had on the area. She pointed out that Gulfton was one of two communities selected to help develop a citywide toolkit around sidewalk drainage, and questioned why Gulfton would be selected if the area does not flood.

“These BRT projects are street improvements, improving the infrastructure in the city of Houston,” Eccles said. “That’s what I thought we wanted Metro to be doing more of.”

The mayor, however, took it a step further following the Westheimer press conference, questioning whether Gulfton residents actually want access to an area like the Galleria.

“They’re largely undocumented immigrants. They just want basic services. They don’t want to be part of the Galleria,” Whitmire said. “You think they’re going to be welcome in the Galleria?”

The comment rankled Rodriguez.

“I don’t know who he’s been talking to in the Galleria that they don’t want people from Gulfton,” she said, pointing out that many Gulfton residents work in the Galleria as she once did. Beyond that, Gulfton residents still are consumers who shop in the Galleria.

“I really thought we were past that,” she said. “What I’m seeing, it feels like the community’s voice doesn’t matter. That all these years that we’ve invested and put into these projects and these planning efforts doesn’t matter.”

Emphasis mine. That’s just straight up racist. It’s embarrassing on many levels. And as is usually the case when the Mayor gives some “I talked to this guy who agreed with me” justification for opposing a non-car transit matter, he is at best misinformed. LINK Houston surveyed Gulfton residents in 2022 about what they wanted. Not that Mayor Whitmire has any interest, it seems. Well, at least the people who are vocally supporting the Montrose and Durham-Shepherd projects can console themselves with the knowledge that the Mayor isn’t listening to other neighborhoods, either. If you’d like to hear more about this, listen to Friday’s CityCast Houston and this week’s Good, Bad, and Ugly on Houston Matters, in which I had a few things to say.

Posted in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Venice of the South” sounds like an optimistic outlook to me

Just a reminder, Galveston is going to be mostly under water in the not too distant future.

Galveston artist Jessica Antonelli’s painting “Martini 2100” imagines what the city might look like after climate change transforms it into “The Venice of the South.” (Jessica Antonelli/Culture Clash)

In a city that once built a 17-foot seawall to keep Mother Nature in check, Galveston is slowly but steadily bracing itself against the inconvenient truth of climate change and the rising seas that result. But the clock keeps ticking, and time can be cruel.

Last week the Washington Post released the results of its analysis of tide-gauge and satellite data measuring sea levels since 2010, which found that the Gulf of Mexico’s have risen twice as fast as the global average. Apart from the North Sea off Great Britain, “few other places on the planet have seen similar rates of increase,” the article reported.

And of all the locations recorded in the study, Galveston had by far the biggest increase. Its 8.4 inches easily outpaced other locations along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, including Charleston, S.C. (7.1 inches); Wilmington, N.C. (7 inches); and Jacksonville and Miami, Fla. (both 6 inches). The Post’s data jibes with a NASA study last year that found sea levels on the island could rise as much as 18 inches by 2040, according to the Galveston County Daily News; and see more than 200 days of flooding per year a decade after that.

The rate of sea-level rise since 2010, according to the Post, is almost double that of the preceding 40 years. And yet the strategies many local officials are counting on to mitigate the effects of cataclysmic weather events are almost diametrically opposed to researchers’ ‘death by a thousand cuts’ theory as laid out in the article.

“While much planning and money have gone toward blunting the impact of catastrophic hurricanes,” the Post authors reported, “experts say it is the accumulation of myriad smaller-scale impacts from rising water levels that is the newer, more insidious challenge—and the one that ultimately will become the most difficult to cope with.”

See here for more on that NASA study. Just for a bit of context here, we are farther away in time from the invention of the iPhone than we are from 2040 and those up-to-18-inches of sea level rise in Galveston. Galveston is taking some steps to hopefully mitigate against that, but the concern is that it’s not enough, and what it would take to perhaps be enough far outstrips the island’s capacity to pay. Both our state and federal government could do more to assist in this matter, but neither our state government nor the idiot who represents Galveston in Congress are likely to do a damn thing at this time. So maybe that “Venice of the South” thing, as envisioned by local magazine Culture Clash and island artist Jessica Antonelli, is what we should be hoping for. At this rate, it seems more achievable.

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Early voting for the HCAD runoffs starts Monday

I mentioned this yesterday, and I will say it again before Monday.

  • Early Vote Centers will be open from Monday, June 3, 2024 – Tuesday, June 11, 2024 (Mon-Sat: 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Sun: 12 p.m. – 7 p.m.)
  • Vote Centers will accept voters from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. on Election Day, Saturday, June 15.
  • Visit our “What’s on my Ballot?” page and enter your name or address to see all the contests and candidates you are eligible to vote on! (You can bring handwritten notes or printed sample ballots to the voting booth; just be sure to take it with you when you leave.)
  • The deadline to apply for a mail ballot is June 4. Click here for the application. Please fill it out, print it, and mail it to our office before the deadline.

Yes, I know, we’ve done a lot of voting lately. It is what it is, and this is no time to give up. We have two good Democrats to elect here, each running against conservative Republicans. Go listen to my interviews with Melissa Noriega and Pelumi Adeleke, make a plan to vote, and absolutely tell everyone you know to do so as well. I’ll have more over the weekend once the full EV info is available.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Judge Hidalgo will run again in 2026

In case you were wondering.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday she plans to seek a third term in office in 2026.

Hidalgo told the Chronicle during a live virtual event that she is “really excited” to run for reelection. The county executive, who took a leave of absence last year for treatment of depression, said if she can tackle her mental health challenges, she can tackle another campaign cycle.

“Now, I feel I can do anything,” she said.

Hidalgo also said she still has work to do – work that has been interrupted by a series of disasters Harris County has faced since she took office.

“There’s some big things I want to get done, particularly on the flooding piece,” she said.

The judge’s comments come amid political speculation that she may have sought a statewide position or an appointment in the federal government if President Joe Biden wins reelection in November.

There has certainly been speculation about various other possibilities for Judge Hidalgo, and there is now the confirmed possibility of a contentious primary fight with former Mayor Annise Parker. All I can say for now is that I prefer to take my elections one at a time. Right now, I’m concentrating on the HCAD runoffs, and after that my full attention will be on this November. After that, when people start filing paperwork and raising money, I’ll start thinking about 2026. Until then, lots of things can happen. Right now, it’s all hot stove league stuff. That has its place, just keep some perspective about it.

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A brief overview of flying taxis

This was written by the executive director of the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education, and it answers at least one of my questions about our flying taxi future.

In the near term, once eVTOLs are certified to fly as commercial operations, they are likely to serve specific, high-demand routes that bypass road traffic. An example is United Airlines’ plan to test Archer’s eVTOLs on short hops from Chicago to O’Hare International Airport and Manhattan to Newark Liberty International Airport.

While some applications initially might be restricted to military or emergency use, the goal of the industry is widespread civil adoption, marking a significant step toward a future of cleaner urban mobility.

[…]

Establishing a “4D highways in the sky” will require comprehensive rules that encompass everything from vehicle safety to air traffic management. For the time being, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is requiring that air taxis include pilots serving in a traditional role. This underscores the transitional phase of integrating these vehicles into airspace, highlighting the gap between current capabilities and the vision of fully autonomous flights.

The journey toward autonomous urban air travel is fraught with more complexities, including the establishment of standards for vehicle operation, pilot certification and air traffic control. While eVTOLs have flown hundreds of test flights, there have also been safety concerns after prominent crashes involving propeller blades failing on one in 2022 and the crash of another in 2023. Both were being flown remotely at the time.

The question of who will manage these new airways remains an open discussion – national aviation authorities such as the FAA, state agencies, local municipalities or some combination thereof.

See here for my past blogging on this topic. One question this answers for me is what the service will actually look like, at least in the near term. We may call these things “taxis”, but they’re not going to pick you up at your home or office, and they’re not going to drop you off wherever you want. You will have to go to a designated location to get on, and it will only take you to one or two pre-determined locations, mostly airports in the beginning. (The links about the Archer service in the first paragraph made this clear.) I figured this had to be the case just because it wouldn’t be possible for these things to land except at places that can handle them, which is to say places that could also handle a helicopter. Among other things, this will have an effect on both the cost of the trip – you have to get yourself to the takeoff location, which will either involve a ride or a parking lot – as well as the time of the trip, since you now have two separate pieces to your journey to the airport. Just something to think about, that’s all I’m saying.

The other thing is the safety and regulation of these things. The thought of a flying taxi, or just some pieces of one, falling out of the sky ought to be at least a little terrifying. We would like to minimize the chances of it happening. And who gets to set the rules for where and when these things can operate, and who can operate them, and so forth? If Joby or Archer or whoever wants to make like Uber and just set up shop in Houston, do we have any say over that or are we completely at the mercy of the feds and the Legislature? This doesn’t answer that question, it just points it out in a way I haven’t seen in other writing. We’re expected to get some form of these things here for the FIFA World Cup in 2026. I sure hope Mayor Whitmire has a close personal relationship with whoever will have authority over this, because we’re gonna need it.

Posted in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A couple of followups on the runoffs

Sen. Molly Cook gets some deserved attention.

Sen. Molly Cook

State Sen. Molly Cook appears to have narrowly defeated state Rep. Jarvis Johnson in the Senate District 15 primary runoff for the second time this month, setting the stage for her to hold on to Houston Mayor John Whitmire’s longtime seat in the upper chamber.

Cook led Johnson by 74 votes, with all precincts reporting according to unofficial results — well within the margin for a recount. The total also does not count late-arriving mail-in ballots.

Cook’s victory marked the second time she has defeated Johnson this month. Cook beat Johnson 57% to 43% on May 4 in a special election triggered when Whitmire resigned to step into the mayor’s office at the start of the year. She was sworn in on May 16 to serve out the term, through the end of the year. Now, Cook will appear on the November ballot for a chance to win a full term representing a diverse cut of Harris County.

Cook is the first person other than Whitmire to hold the seat since 1983. She is an emergency room nurse and community organizer who is the first openly LGBTQ+ member to serve in the Texas Senate.

[…]

Like the runoff, the special election earlier this month was a head-to-head matchup. Johnson appeared to be the frontrunner in the special election, having taken 36% of the vote to Cook’s 21% in the March 5 primary.

Following their special election loss, Johnson’s team explained that the campaign failed to turn out its base. Johnson’s campaign manager, Chris Watson, said the campaign did not spend its resources to combat what he called “misinformation” from Cook’s allies.

Johnson’s team said they were preserving their resources for this race, which queues up the candidate who will likely win a full term.

“We did not expend our resources,” Watson said. “We think our opponent did spend her resources wholly because this is a race you wouldn’t want to lose three times in a row, so I think it was more important for her than for us at this point.”

Cook, the relative newcomer, flipped the fundraising lead in the race after the March 5 round of the primary.

She outpaced Johnson’s fundraising largely thanks to contributions from Leaders We Deserve, a D.C.-based PAC co-founded by activist David Hogg to elect young, progressive lawmakers nationwide. The PAC spent $200,000 on Cook ahead of the special election and an additional $110,000 between the special and primary runoff elections.

Leaders We Deserve will also support former Miss Texas Averie Bishop in the House District 112 general election against state Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, one of Democrats’ best opportunities for a flip in the House in November.

Johnson leaned on his experience during the race. Johnson served on the Houston City Council from 2006 to 2012 and succeeded former Mayor Sylvester Turner in the Texas House of Representatives.

Cook says her regular contact with emergency room patients — from those with pregnancy complications to victims of the 2021 winter storm — and her background in grassroots organizing would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the upper chamber. She has also sought to position herself to Johnson’s left, attacking him for supporting certain Republican-backed legislation. Johnson said he has at times voted for GOP bills he opposes because, in return for his support, Republicans allowed him and other Democrats to amend the bills to make them more palatable.

I’ll be honest, when I went to bed Tuesday night I figured Cook had lost. The margin wasn’t much, a couple hundred votes, but at that point there just weren’t that many votes left to count and she would have needed to dominate them. Seems that’s what happened, so congratulations to her and her team, who all worked very hard. There could well be a recount with a margin this close, and thanks to other recent developments it could go on after that as well. I don’t think that will happen, but this is the world we live in now.

Also, for those who may be (shall we say) less than thrilled with how the Mayoral election has turned out, the idea that the person who challenged Mayor Whitmire in 2022 and made a pretty competitive race out of it will be his successor is satisfying. I’ll leave it at that.

There were no such doubts about Lauren Simmons’ win.

Lauren Ashley Simmons

Simmons, 36, had been working as a union organizer, organizing Black and migrant women around healthcare, living wages, and LGBTQ rights before deciding to run for Thierry’s seat. As a former organizer for the Houston Federation of Teachers and parent of a child in Houston ISD, she gained name recognition when a video of her taking state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles to task went viral on social media. In the days leading up to the runoff, Simmons protested alongside parents calling for an end to the state takeover of the school district.

Apart from Simmons’ deep ties to Houston’s communities, Thierry had already dug her own political grave when she decided to not only align with Republicans to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, but take the House floor with a 12 minute speech and then a Fox News broadcast defending her vote. Thierry doubled down on her anti-LGBTQ rhetoric when she told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that Simmons was supported by the “gay ones” among her House Democratic colleagues. In early May, 50 Black pastors held a press conference with Thierry praising her vote to ban gender-affirming care for youth. But it wasn’t enough for Thierry, whose own colleagues decided to support Simmons.

Eight Democrats who currently serve with Thierry, as well as former State Representative Garnet Coleman and U.S. Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett, endorsed Simmons. “She ain’t never had y’all’s back,” Crockett said of Thierry when blockwalking for Simmons.

At the end, Thierry turned to GOP big donors to fund her campaign. She failed to file a campaign finance report for the last quarter, but up until the March 5 primary elections, conservative public school defunders like the Legacy 44 PAC, Charter Schools Now PAC, and the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC and its founders Doug and Darwin Deason largely propped up her campaign, with at least a total of $124,000, or a third of total contributions at the time Thierry last filed.

I will stipulate that before last year, Thierry’s record was basically fine. She did good work on maternal mortality, and to the best of my recollection was usually a good soldier. Her heel turn came out of the blue for me, and was sufficiently flagrant that it deserved the response it got. In one of the runoff preview articles, I forget which, there was something about a geographic divide in HD146, that one side was mostly white liberals and the other side was more Black. The implication being that perhaps Simmons’ support would be limited as a result. Well, she won by almost 30 points. I’m sure Thierry had her pockets of support, but you don’t win by that margin without having a broad base. I’m very happy about that.

(UPDATE: This Chron story includes a map showing how the vote went in SD15 and HD146. As expected in a race with a wide margin of victory, Lauren Simmons carried nearly all of the voting precincts in HD146. Very cool to see.)

Two other items of note. One is that I got an email in my box yesterday from Rep. Tom Oliverson’s campaign, reminding us all that he’s still in for Speaker. Dade Phelan may still be a member of the House, but that’s as far as it’s likely to go. It will not surprise me if he decides to call it quits after the next session. He’d have 12 years of service at the end of his next term, which means he’d qualify for the full pension. I can’t imagine this next session will be much fun for him, and that’s as good a sweetener as one will get.

And two, Monday is the first day of early voting for the HCAD runoffs, for which election day will be June 15. Don’t be tired of voting just yet, because you’re not done. I’ll have more on this soon.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Whiny loser election redo set for next May

Pending appeal, of course.

One of Harris County’s 2022 judicial races could be back on the ballot in May 2025 after a visiting judge from Bexar County ordered a redo earlier this month.

Voters are set to go back to the polls for a rematch in the 180th District Court judicial race over two years after Republican candidate Tami Pierce lost by just 449 votes to Democratic Judge DaSean Jones.

[…]

After ordering the new election, Peeples was tasked with deciding when the election should be held and whether it should be scheduled at all before the appeals process has concluded.

Ultimately, Peeples ruled that the new election will take place on May 3, 2025.

One reason behind Peeples’ decision is that Jones is already on the November ballot as the Democratic nominee running for Texas Supreme Court Place 2 against incumbent Republican Jimmy Blacklock.

“The court cannot put this election on the November 5, 2024 ballot because Judge Jones is seeking a higher office on November 5, and he cannot be on the ballot for two offices at the same time,” Peeples wrote in his ruling.

See here for the previous update. The Republicans wanted the election ordered for this November, which I’d approve of if Jones weren’t already on the ballot for SCOTx. Judge Peeples, correctly in my view if you’re not going to wait on the appeals court, decided against that. Jones of course wanted the ruling deferred until the appeals court weighed in, at least on that matter. Whatever the case, he will remain on the bench pending the outcome of both his elections.

You know how I feel about this, so let’s game out the possible scenarios:

1. Jones wins his race for Supreme Court in November. Unlikely, I agree, but possible. If it happens, he steps down from his current bench, Greg Abbott appoints a replacement (we can probably guess who), and the bench comes up for a vote again in 2026 as normal, with Abbott’s appointee as the incumbent. No special election needed, so the May special is cancelled. I assume the current appeal would be mooted, but the argument that Judge Peeples was wrong in how he decided this case may be sufficient to pursue it. I’m completely out of my depth here.

2. The appeals court has two items two decide: Whether there should be an election before they rule on the merits of Jones’ appeal, and the appeal itself. The first ruling is likely to come fairly quickly, but the second one could take many months. If they put the election off but subsequently rule against Jones, we could maybe see this redo race get pushed back to November 2025, or even later. Whatever the appeals court does, I’m sure SCOTx will also be asked to weigh in. That could also take many months, so if we are ultimately waiting on SCOTx to settle this, it’s not clear to me that we could have a redo before the next scheduled election. Or maybe not, who knows. I suppose these courts could act sufficiently quickly if they want to.

3. Alternately, the courts could allow the redo election to occur as the merits appeal progresses, which would mean next May as scheduled, and which would also presumably moot any further appeals from Jones if he wins. Pierce, as the winner at the district court level, would have no further recourse if she loses again in May. Assuming she doesn’t sue to overturn that election too, which is a road too dark for me to go down at this time.

What happens if Pierce wins in May and Jones wins on appeal is a can of worms I’d rather not open at this time. The simplest scenarios are Jones wins a seat on the Supreme Court this November, and Jones wins the rematch in May. Jones winning his appeal on the merits would also be nice and simple, but I doubt that would or even could happen before May. Everything else…is complicated.

Oh, and if we do have that election in May, I will go on record now and say it will have much higher turnout than the HCDE elections did. People will be much more aware of it and the stakes involved, there will be more time to lead up to it and with much more coverage – I’d bet there are national stories that would be written about it – and there would be much more money spent. It still wouldn’t be like a November election, but it won’t go unnoticed, that’s for sure.

Posted in Election 2022, Election 2025, Legal matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Whiny loser election redo set for next May

True The Vote continues to be trash

Item one.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

True the Vote, the right-wing conspiracy theorist group that spread lies of ballot stuffing in the 2020 election is focused on perpetuating a new lie ahead of 2024: the myth of non-citizens voting in elections.

The group, which last year admitted before a Fulton County Judge that they had no evidence of any kind to support their baseless ballot stuffing claims that were used in the widely-debunked Dinesh D’souza film “2000 mules,” released a 44-page “advocate handbook.” In it, the group warns against the supposed threat of non-citizens casting ballots in the 2024 election and trains followers on how to combat the issue, which rarely happens in U.S. elections.

But, the handbook — and the larger initiative, which the group calls “The 611 Project,” named after federal law 18 USC 611, which expressly outlaws non-citizen voting in federal elections and outlines criminal penalties for those who do so — is riddled with errors, deliberate omissions of facts, and most glaringly and unsurprisingly, zero evidence to suggest claims that there was or will be non-citizens voting en masse in the upcoming election. True the Vote did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment.

This new “handbook” from the MAGA group is just one layer of election deniers’ and conspiracy theorists’ revived fixation on non-citizen voting heading into the 2024 election, as Donald Trump and his supporters set themselves up to challenge the election if Trump loses. Last month, House Speaker Mike Johnson and former President Donald Trump promoted a new “election integrity” effort by holding a big press briefing at Mar-a-Lago to announce legislation that would stop non citizens from voting — which is already illegal under federal law.

David Becker, the executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, told TPM that True the Vote’s recent efforts are merely a way to cast doubt on the integrity of another election.

“It’s an attempt to create a false narrative about the security and integrity of an election again, that they think they’re going to lose,” he said.

It’s also a provably false narrative. Non-citizens have been prevented from voting in federal elections for a long time, and those laws have been augmented by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, passed in response to the 2000 election, which requires all new registrants to provide identification at the polls.

“Our voter lists are more accurate, more secure, more reflective of the eligible voting population than they have ever been in American history,” Becker said.

Item 2:

True the Vote is enlisting private citizens to help it overwhelm under-staffed and under-resourced election offices with voter roll challenges ahead of election day.

“An IV3 user out of Pennsylvania is sorting through 17k ineligible records identified in her County! Great work!,” the right-wing election denying group True the Vote posted on Twitter Sunday. The tweet, which has since been deleted, then calls for voters to register to use IV3 so that they too can “get to work on the voter rolls” in their respective counties.

The post is the perfect encapsulation of a concerning effort by MAGA groups like True the Vote to recruit private citizens to sift through thousands of voter registrations to identify what they believe are ineligible voters in the voter rolls ahead of the 2024 presidential election in the fall. The effort to patrol voters with tools like IV3 — a technology that purports to identify ineligible voters — is also evidence of the way that voter roll maintenance is — as Alice Clapman, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights Program, describes it — “getting swept up in the broader election denial of doubting election outcomes based on a variety of myths about how elections are run.”

“Everyone agrees that states and localities should do their best to maintain accurate voter rolls,” Clapman said, “but we have a set of professional administrators who have a set of professional practices they use to make sure that that is done responsibly.”

So a few losers with time on their hands can baselessly challenge thousands of voter registrations, with the people being challenged not necessarily even knowing about it in a timely fashion. We have a lot of work to do to actually and genuinely protect the integrity of this election. There’s a lot more at both stories, so check them out.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance wishes everyone a happy unofficial start to summer as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading

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Primary runoff results: Harris County

So this happened:

That was quite the storm, though after what we’ve already experienced just this month it’s not as impressive as it might have been. It was even worse in North Texas, where some polls stayed open until 9 as a result.

Be that as it may, over 300K CenterPoint customers were without power yesterday afternoon (we were thankfully not among them), and as of that disturbance about 7K people had voted. While it was no doubt a pain in the butt for anyone trying to vote at that time, the number of people doing so was probably small.

As of 10 PM, with about a quarter of the Tuesday votes in, I feel confident saying that Lauren Simmons will win in HD146, Annette Ramirez will win Tax Assessor, Velda Faulkner will oust Justice Jerry Zimmerer on the 14th Court of Appeals, Vivian King will win for Criminal District Court 486, and Jerome Moore will win for Constable Precinct 5. Jarvis Johnson was leading for SD15 and Charlene Ward Johnson was leading for HD139, but in both cases the margin was close enough that it could change by morning.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it for tonight. I’ll update in the morning.

UPDATE: And overnight, Molly Cook has taken the lead in SD15. That article itself is a bit out of date, as Cook’s lead grew all the way to 74 votes as the last voting centers came in. Meanwhile, Charlene Ward Johnson maintained her lead in HD139.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Primary runoff results: Harris County

Primary runoff results: Statewide

Unlike Harris County, most of the races of interest here were on the Republican side. We’ll start with the race against House Speaker Dade Phelan, which the Speaker has won by a narrow margin.

Rep. Dade Phelan

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, the top electoral target for a far-right faction of Republicans intent on controlling the Legislature, declared victory Tuesday over a well-funded challenger endorsed by Donald Trump and his allies.

Phelan defeated former Orange County Republican Party chairman David Covey, who also had the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi. In doing so, he avoided the ignominious fate of becoming the first House speaker to lose a primary in 52 years.

With all precincts reporting, Phelan was up 366 votes — within the margin that Covey can call for a recount.

Phelan, 48, who has seen his popularity plummet among Republicans since he backed the impeachment of Paxton on corruption and bribery charges exactly one year and one day ago, was defiant in his victory speech at JW’s Patio in Beaumont.

“I will be your state rep for HD 21 and I will be your speaker for the Texas House in 2025,” Phelan said to a raucous crowd of more than 100 supporters. “This was a true grassroots effort — not the fake grassroots.”

I’m sure there will be a recount, and the way these jackals are I won’t be surprised if there’s a lawsuit – I mean, at this point, why not? – but for now at least, Phelan has avoided ignominy.

The pro-voucher ghouls made more progress.

Three House Republicans who opposed school vouchers last fall were losing through early returns in their primary runoffs Tuesday, putting Gov. Greg Abbott on track to secure a tentative majority in the lower chamber on his signature issue.

With ballots still being counted across the state, anti-voucher GOP state Reps. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Justin Holland of Rockwall and John Kuempel of Seguin were losing to their runoff foes. All three would need to dramatically reverse course in election day returns to overcome their early deficits.

A fourth GOP voucher holdout, state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, led runoff opponent Chris Spencer through early returns and a fraction of election day results.

By Abbott’s count, voucher supporters headed into Tuesday’s runoff needing to net just two votes to gain a majority in the House, the chamber where a firewall of Democrats and rural Republicans has shot down past attempts to provide taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

[…]

Ahead of Tuesday’s runoff, voucher supporters had already knocked off six of the GOP holdouts. They were also poised to nominate at least four pro-voucher candidates to fill seats vacated by retiring voucher opponents, netting a total of 10 seats before the overtime round.

Another seat that was vacant at the time of last fall’s voucher vote is all but certain to be filled by a pro-voucher member next year. That put voucher supporters at 74 votes in the 150-member chamber heading into Tuesday — assuming all pro-voucher Republicans hold onto their seats in the November general election.

Most of Texas’ House districts have been drawn to heavily favor Democrats or Republicans, making most seats unlikely to change hands this fall. But Democrats are eyeing at least one seat Abbott is counting as a voucher pickup: San Antonio’s House District 121, where state Rep. Steve Allison lost to an Abbott-backed primary challenger, Marc LaHood, in March.

You know what I think about that. If we’re not reaching out to the Republicans that Abbott screwed over, and we’re not contesting as many of these seats as is even marginally plausible, I don’t know what we’re doing.

Finally, State Rep. Craig Goldman won in CD12, and Rep. Tony Gonzales appears to have held on in CD23. Now tell us more about that laundry list, Tony.

Not really anything interesting on the Dem side outside of Harris County. I’ll do that in the next post.

Posted in Election 2024 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Primary runoff results: Statewide

Houston will get some World Baseball Classic games

Very cool.

Houston will be one of four host cities for the World Baseball Classic when the international tournament is next played in 2026, Major League Baseball announced on Thursday.

Minute Maid Park will host group stage games and a quarterfinal round, MLB announced. Miami, Tokyo and San Juan, Puerto Rico, will also host group stage games. Miami will host the other quarterfinal, the semifinals and the final at Loan Depot Park, home of the Marlins.

The tournament is scheduled for March 2026. Houston will be a WBC host city for the first time. This will be the sixth iteration of the WBC, which was introduced in 2006.

“We are excited and honored to be hosting World Baseball Classic matchups for the first time,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a statement. “Houston is a global city with the best baseball fans, and we are proud to welcome fans from across the globe to watch international competition at Minute Maid Park.”

See here for the background. I’m definitely going to want to get some tickets. Sports-wise, at least, 2026 is shaping up to be a great year for Houston, with this and the FIFA World Cup coming. I’m looking forward to it. CultureMap has more.

Posted in Baseball | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

We’re just not allowed to have close elections anymore

That’s my takeaway from this.

A judge’s decision to order a new election in a close Harris County race from 2022 is putting election officials statewide on notice: Any type of error — large or small — has the potential to trigger a challenge and disqualify votes if the margins are narrow enough.

Some of the problems that prompted the judge’s order occur frequently around the state, especially in high-turnout elections, election officials told Votebeat. With the prospect of election outcomes being negated because of paperwork errors, they said, there’s now added pressure to train election workers and strictly follow procedure.

“We have been stressing the importance of paperwork needing to be filled out properly,” said Trudy Hancock, elections administrator in Brazos County. “We emphasize to our workers how important this is, that we get public records requests, and that we’re already being questioned about why something wasn’t done properly. We’re telling our workers that people are looking at this.”

In the Harris County judicial race in question, the original margin of victory was 449 votes. Judge David Peeples ruled that there were enough questionable votes to put the true outcome in doubt.

Peeples, a visiting judge from Bexar County who had upheld Harris County election results against other challenges, found that more than a thousand votes in Harris should not have been counted because, in most cases, there were deficiencies with two types of forms that some voters have to fill out at the polls.

One is a statement of residence form, filled out by voters who tell election workers at polling places that they have moved. The other is a reasonable-impediment declaration form, filled out by voters who don’t have proper identification and must explain why by listing an allowable reason.

In some cases, the voters filled out the forms with information that the judge found should have rendered them ineligible to vote. For example, the judge found that hundreds of voters wrote on the statement of residence form that they did not actually live in the county. Other forms were technically deficient because they were incomplete — in some cases entirely blank — or missing the signatures of the polling location supervisors, which are required.

Half a dozen election officials counties across the state told Votebeat that the problems with the forms are likely tied to insufficient poll worker training, which would be exacerbated by the loss of experienced poll workers. In almost every county, such problems loom especially large during midterm and presidential elections, when turnout is high.

“We need to make sure those forms are completed, that they’re reviewed before the voter is processed, because that didn’t happen in these cases,” said Bruce Sherbet, the elections administrator in Collin County.

[…]

To avoid being put on [the suspense] list, voters should update their voter registration information when they move. But many voters cast a ballot only every two years — during midterm and presidential elections — and they don’t always update their voter registration information promptly.

That leaves election judges and clerks at the polling site to deal with address discrepancies and review the forms. If it’s a statement of residence form, poll workers have to be familiar with their county’s geography and boundaries to ensure the addresses entered by the voter qualify them to vote in that polling location; they don’t have access to an automated way to verify that. If the election worker is reviewing a reasonable-impediment form, they also have to be versed on what’s required by law.

Poll workers on Election Day already handle many other prescribed tasks as well as unexpected issues, such as troubleshooting equipment. In Harris County, the third largest county in the nation, election workers are processing thousands of voters at some busy locations.

Harris County’s 2022 election was troubled in several respects. Less than three months before the election, the county hired a new elections director from out of state. Some polling locations had ballot paper shortages, malfunctioning equipment, and late openings that led to long wait times.

In a hectic environment, it is not unusual for things to get overlooked and for some of the issues Peeples pointed out in his ruling to fall through the cracks, Sherbet said.

“There’s no way to avoid this kind of thing,” Sherbet said. “And Harris is such a huge county, and so you’re going to have these kinds of situations occur in every election. Also because you have human beings that are handling this process and they make mistakes, and voters make mistakes.”

So you take complicated and frequently changing laws that are designed to make voting hard, a bunch of novice election workers, large turnout, limited time, all kinds of pressure, a close election, and a judge who doesn’t understand math, and this is what you get. It’s almost as if the whole thing is designed by a party that only cares about its own power to reduce faith in the democratic system.

In the meantime, Judge DaSean Jones remains on the bench, for now.

While Judge David Peeples ordered a new election for what was a narrow judicial race, his ruling didn’t strip Jones of his position — and it didn’t undo any of the myriad decisions Jones has made in innumerable cases that have come before him since he took office in January 2023.

That may not stop lawyers from trying to overturn the outcomes of cases over which Jones presided if there is a new election that ousts Jones, according to political observers.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly would happen to those cases,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “This is not a test that has a legitimate grounds of an appeal. I think we don’t know what precisely this would look like.”

But any potential challenges would be unprecedented — and likely become a question for the legal system to answer. And Peeples’ ruling was aimed squarely at how Harris County elections counted ballots in the race — not at anything Jones did.

“This is a pretty unprecedented situation, but I would be surprised if it was anything that affected any cases that he tried, as far as them being overturned or anything like that,” said Murray Newman, a defense lawyer who also serves as the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

For Jones, another potential political wrinkle is a rule that limits judges from running for two seats at the same time, said Rottinghaus, the political scientist. Jones will be on the ballot in November for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. It is not clear what would happen if the order for a new election for the district court’s judicial seat is upheld and also scheduled for November.

Boy, I forgot that he was running for Supreme Court, which he could normally do since this wasn’t a year in which he’d expect to be on the ballot otherwise. He’d be a strong favorite to win re-election if he had to be on the ballot for his District Court seat, but what about his statewide race? My guess is he’d have to choose one race or the other. If he manages to delay the question until after November – he could also win his appeal, which would be nice; I for one hope his lawyer brings up the math question in their appeal – then we’d have another weird countywide special election. For that one, I’d bet there’d be a lot more attention, at least. If it comes to that. Which I hope it doesn’t. But here we are.

Posted in Legal matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Firefighter settlement officially approved

The legalities are mostly over, but there are still a bunch of items to handle.

Mayor John Whitmire

A state district court judge has signed off on a settlement between the city of Houston and the firefighter union, clearing one obstacle for a $1.5 billion deal that remained a work in progress on Thursday.

With little fanfare, 234th District Court Judge Lauren Reeder on Tuesday signed a final judgment approving the settlement – and potentially bringing to a close the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association’s seven-year legal battle with the city.

If all goes well, the fire union hopes to have raises for firefighters kick in July 1. By the end of that month, members would receive back pay settlements that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

The settlement still must win approval from City Council and survive a legal challenge from Houston Fire Department command staff who were left out of the settlement, however. Meanwhile, there also are a “handful” of provisions in the union’s proposed five-year contract that have yet to be finalized, according to City Attorney Arturo Michel.

The settlement still has skeptics on Council, as a Thursday budget hearing made clear. The settlement’s practical effect on department operations also remains uncertain, with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña acknowledging that the back pay could have the unintended consequence of sparking a short-term exodus.

[…]

Reeder’s judgment is only one step in a complicated sequence that must be finished in order to put the settlement into effect by July 1, according to the city legal department. Council must approve refunding bonds for the back pay, along with the collective bargaining agreement and the overall budget that funds it. The city also must secure approval from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office that the refunding bonds meet legal standards.

Despite Reeder’s “final” judgment, a group of current and former high-ranking Fire Department officials are trying to throw a wrench into the settlement.

The settlement specifically excludes command staff members from receiving back pay, which the group alleges unfairly excludes the assistant fire chiefs nominally represented by the union.

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on April 30 denied the command staffers’ request to block Reeder from issuing a judgment, but the group’s larger appeal remains pending.

Citing the confidentiality of the settlement negotiations, the city has for weeks declined to release drafts of the proposed collective bargaining agreement.

At the fire department’s annual budget hearing Thursday, [CM Abbie] Kamin posed pointed questions about what the collective bargaining agreement contains.

Kamin said that by her reading of the agreement, Mayor John Whitmire would be forced to oust Fire Chief Samuel Peña.

Peña has served through the transition from former Mayor Sylvester Turner to Whitmire despite the enmity of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which backed Whitmire on the campaign trail last year.

Kamin on Thursday asked Peña if the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the firefighters union included a provision that “effectively writes you out of a job as Houston’s fire chief.” Peña said that would have been the case with the initial draft.

Their discussion appeared to focus on a widely-circulated draft of the agreement, which states that the city’s fire chief “shall be selected from the current or retired rank-and-file of the Houston Fire Department having served at least 15 years.”

That language would not apply to Peña, City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Thursday.

“I don’t think it requires his departure,” Michel said, adding that the final language in that section of the agreement still is being hashed out.

See here, here, and here for some background. I confess, I either missed or lost track of the part of this agreement that seems to force Chief Peña out of a job. The Chron goes into that.

One notable provision under consideration would require the mayor to select future fire chiefs from current or retired Houston Fire Department rank-and-file members with at least 15 years of service.

Peña, who served as El Paso’s fire chief before former Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed him in late 2016, does not meet this criterion. He said during a Thursday City Council hearing that, depending on the final agreement, he might be disqualified from his job.

Union president Marty Lancton and City Attorney Arturo Michel told the Houston Chronicle that the proposed clause, if approved, would not apply to Peña but only to future chiefs. Under Houston law, they said, it will still be up to Mayor John Whitmire to decide who leads one of the nation’s largest fire departments.

At the same time, Lancton said Peña’s lack of familiarity with Houston’s operations is a key reason the union is pushing for the change. Having a fire chief who came from another Texas city, Lancton said, has contributed to “years of unrest and the worst morale we’ve ever seen.”

“Houston’s challenges are unique to Houston,” Lancton said. “If there were to be a new fire chief, we absolutely believe that it needs to come from the inside, otherwise we are going to be in the same position.”

Whitmire’s team has not yet released a draft of the labor agreement, prompting complaints from some City Council members about the lack of transparency, but Michel said the administration is still considering whether to include the provision on the fire chief’s appointment.

Whitmire told the Chronicle that he does not think the clause should be in the agreement because although he believes the fire chief should come from the department, he does not want any restrictions to limit his ability to select his preferred candidate.

“We’re not going to allow a contract to mandate to me or the next mayor who you can hire or fire,” he said.

Regardless of whether the clause makes it to the final draft, by law, “the chief could remain for as long as the mayor would like,” Michel said.

Whether this agreement would force Chief Peña out or not, it seems like a bad idea to me to mandate that future Chiefs must come from within the ranks. That strikes me as a recipe for stagnation and an obstacle to change. Every organization at some point needs to break out of its old ways, and every organization needs to be able to learn from its peers. I suppose one can do that while remaining completely insular, but it sure seems like that would be the hard way to do it. I hope Council has some questions about that.

Posted in Local politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lone Star Rail revival

Maybe now is finally the time.

Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai and Travis County Judge Andy Brown have jointly launched a committee of political heavyweights to explore the decades-old idea of connecting Austin and San Antonio via passenger rail.

The new, 24-member Central Texas Passenger Rail Advisory Committee held its first meeting earlier this month. Members including former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, District 6 San Antonio Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda and Amtrak Government Affairs Director Todd Stennis reviewed a draft charter for the group.

“The fastest-growing metros must leverage this moment to build a modern transportation system to serve the economic, environmental and public safety needs of all central Texans,” Brown said in a statement.

The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 3.

Sakai and Brown first teased the idea of working together to find a solution to traffic along the dreaded I-35 corridor in a December social media video. In that clip, Sakai said he and his northern counterpart were “working together so that we can get Travis County and Bexar County to get all the fans to watch the San Antonio Spurs without going through IH-35.”

The committee’s inaugural meeting also comes after pro-rail advocates, including San Antonians for Rail Transit, RESTART Lone Star Rail District and the Texas Rail Advocates, have lobbied local lawmakers to re-explore the idea of connecting the two fast-growing metros.

It’s fair to say that the idea of this rail line has been around for decades; I’ve been blogging about it since 2009. It makes sense for many reasons, and has also utterly failed in every attempt for many reasons. The last attempt died in 2016, but because it’s such a compelling idea, it has never gone away.

Some more details from KXAN.

The committee is looking at more options to connect San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston.

“So instead of one trip a day, it’d be five to 10 trips per day. We’re working with Union Pacific to see, because it’s their track — and we have to work with them. Bright Line is a private company in Florida that has passenger rail on a freight line there,” he said.

Joseph Black, WSP director of rail operations and also a member of the committee, told KXAN he is exploring other options.

“Frankly, we can’t possibly pour enough concrete to keep up with the growth,” Black said.

Unlike efforts in the past, this committee gathers leadership from across cities and states to work toward a unified goal.

“The more space we give to the highways, the less space we have for other kinds of human activities,” Black said. “Despite all of the kind of the enthusiasm was a political champion, I think like a true political champion, who would be willing to take this to the legislature to other elected officials in the way that Judge Brown has been doing such a great job with so far.”

Whether it is any different this time around remains to be seen. The necessity of sharing tracks with Union Pacific was a big part of the reason it failed last time. Here we have a deeper bench of interested parties, a federal government that’s all in on rail projects (pending the outcome of the November election, of course), and an even more intractable situation with I-35. You can call this idea a fantasy, but it’s hardly any less realistic than the idea that we can somehow build enough lanes on I-35 to make it something other than a parking lot. I wish them the best, and hope some day to be able to ride on that train.

Posted in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment