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Adrian Garcia

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

New bail bond rule survives again

On to the appeals.

A judge rejected a second attempt by a bail bonding business to put an end to a Harris County rule requiring defendants accused of violent offenses to pay a minimum 10 percent fee to secure their release from jail, officials said Monday.

55th District Court Judge Latosha Payne ruled Aug. 9 against a temporary injunction stemmed from civil litigation lodged in April against the Harris County Bail Bond Board that attempted to prevent the premium policy from taking effect. A judge blocked the initial attempt as well.

All About Bail Bonds owner and plaintiff Sunya Claiborne argued in the lawsuit that the policy jeopardizes her business — calling the minimum fee requirement “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation.” The lawyer for the plaintiff, Kevin Pennell, said he plans this week to appeal the judge’s order.

Without the minimum fee, Claiborne planned to “offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” according to court documents.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office — whose attorneys were unaware of the judge’s ruling until the order was uploaded Monday to the Harris County District Clerk’s Office — defended the Bail Bond Board against the lawsuit. The policy was prompted by a Commissioners Court resolution urging the board members to adopt rules regulating the minimum fee that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release on violent charges.

“People accused of violent crimes should not get any discounts while they await trial,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who proposed the fee minimum to county commissioners, said in a statement. “This affects no one accused of the most minor, nonviolent offenses who would be stuck in jail because they aren’t able to pay.”

See here and here for some background. The original hearing was in the 269th Civil Court, and the second hearing was to have been on May 6. I don’t know why the change of court and I don’t know if the second hearing was delayed or if it just took that long for a ruling, but here we are. I thought the “price fixing” argument was weak and as such I’m not surprised at this outcome. I don’t see the appeals being successful, but maybe there’s some technical point of law on which they can get a rehearing. Given the speed of the appellate process, expect it to be a long time before the next update.

EPA to investigate TCEQ over concrete plant permits

Well, this ought to be interesting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the subject of an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency following complaints that the state agency violated civil rights laws in its permitting of concrete batch plants.

The Harris County Attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, alleged that the state environmental agency discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency through a revised permitting process to build new concrete batch plants.

Their complaints, filed with the EPA earlier this year, said TCEQ failed to provide information in Spanish and insufficiently protected communities of color who live in areas where concrete facilities are predominantly located.

The concrete plants are subject to permits that aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter and crystalline silica — which have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer — but independent testing of concrete facilities by the complaint’s authors indicate that pollution levels exceed health-based limits.

Last year, TCEQ approved an amendment that included exemptions for emission limitations for concrete batch plants, in response to an application to construct a plant by a Fort Worth concrete company. Area residents had fought the company’s application, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t adequately study the impacts of pollutants. TCEQ later passed the amendment and approved the company’s application after what it called a “clerical error.”

The EPA’s civil rights compliance arm announced the investigation last Wednesday. The investigation will focus on whether the adoption of the amendment — and the permitting process — is discriminatory, and whether the state agency failed to seek meaningful public comment.

The Chron adds some more details.

County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star lawyers alleged in separate complaints to the EPA earlier this year that the state agency discriminated against Black and Latino residents when they didn’t adequately ensure communities would be protected and didn’t appropriately seek input from people who aren’t fluent in English.

Local, state and federal leaders celebrated the EPA’s decision to look at the discrimination claims Tuesday. They saw it as a chance to win long-sought relief for people who have suffered from batch plants. Facility operators say the plants are safe and need to be close to construction sites. People near them, concerned for their health, plead for them to go far away.

“Time and again, the TCEQ has approved permits for additional plants in these very same neighborhoods, and failed to ensure that the pollution that comes out of these plants does not harm human health and the environment,” Menefee said. “We’re here today because the TCEQ failed to address these issues when it had the chance.”

[…]

Applications are frequently submitted to start up concrete batch plants in the Houston area. They elicit strong backlash from residents who often already know what it’s like to live by one. Residents in Aldine recently packed a room to tell TCEQ not to approve another new plant — only to find out that the deadline had already passed to ask the state agency to escalate the dispute to the next level.

EPA stepping in signaled a shift in that fight for residents who have little more than emotional appeals on their side, and what help they can get from frustrated government representatives.

“This is important to us,” said Huey German-Wilson, president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, “and now we have someone to hear us loud and clear, for the small Black and brown voices in communities that have not been heard.”

Politicians at the news conference slammed the state environmental agency for valuing the needs of industry over the health of people. They said that it took President Joe Biden — a fellow Democrat — winning the White House for federal regulators to put pressure on this issue in the conservative Lone Star State. Recent bills proposed in the state legislature largely floundered.

Neighborhoods with batch plants lack deed restrictions and zoning to protect them, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said. And facilities are often in communities of color — not wealthy, white River Oaks — making what has been happening clear environmental racism, state Sen. Borris Miles said.

Menefee’s office asked the EPA to stop any new standard concrete batch plant permits from being issued until the investigation is finished, he said. A public meeting has been scheduled later this month for residents to weigh in on a plant that’s been proposed in Simonton, a small city west of Houston in rural Fort Bend County.

This isn’t a lawsuit, it’s an investigation. I have no context to guess how long it may take, though I’d expect that if the state doesn’t like what the EPA says we’ll get a lawsuit afterwards. Until then, we wait. Here’s a Twitter thread from Chron reporter Emily Foxhall with more quotes.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Happy Mid-Year Campaign Finance Reporting Day to all who celebrate. Today we’ll be looking at the races of interest in Harris County, which thankfully for me has a lot fewer candidates to review than the last time we did this in January, before the primaries. I also did this roundup in July 2021 if you want to go that far back. You know the drill here, so let’s get to it.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo       1,150,804    569,065    1,400  1,983,697
Mealer          764,544    404,802    6,000    455,927

Ellis           543,900    241,714        0  3,805,232

Garcia, A       787,949    675,976        0  1,897,179
Morman           63,144     19,585        0     69,638

Ramsey           34,869     69,290        0    549,707

Cagle           388,332    209,368        0  1,231,540
Briones         126,038     98,547        0     90,720

Hudspeth         18,265     18,145        0     13,952
Stanart           3,407      5,583        0      6,729
Burgess          16,070     15,864    5,207     15,049
Daniel           20,600      9,619   25,000     12,144
Wyatt             2,085      6,082        0      1,092
Scott             2,309      5,340   23,000        719

With the much-smaller field of candidates now that we are fully past the primaries, everyone who is on the November ballot in these races has a current finance report online. Note that for some candidates, the report covers the period from February 20 through June 30 – these are the candidates who won their March primaries outright – and for some it covers the period from May 15 through June 30. These are the candidates who had to win in their runoff, a list that includes Alexandra Mealer, Jack Morman, and Lesley Briones. Mealer’s amount raised total is a lot more competitive with Judge Lina Hidalgo’s given the smaller amount of time that her report covers, but as John Coby points out, she got more than half of that total from four donors who each gave her $100K.

It’s interesting to me that Morman, who was a County Commissioner for eight years before Commissioner Garcia nipped him in 2018, has had such anemic fundraising. I’m not sure what that says, other than maybe not enough people think he can win. Lesley Briones still has a significant cash deficit against Commissioner Jack Cagle, but she’s been considerably more proficient at fundraising. She is unlikely to catch up to him in that department, but she’ll be more competitive.

Not much else to say, as the other offices tend to have little fundraising capacity, and these reports present no surprises. Eric Dick also filed a report for his current office of HCDE Trustee, in which he again reported zeroes across the board. Given Dick’s past propensities, I wouldn’t take any of that as gospel, but it is what he reported.

UPDATE: My bad, I had the wrong Republican candidate for Treasurer.

Hollins and Edwards report big Mayoral fundraising numbers

Yes, we’re going to need to start paying attention to this.

Chris Hollins

Houston’s next mayoral election is not for another 18 months, but the early contenders already are raising heaps of cash.

Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has taken in more than $1.1 million in the first five months of his bid, according to data his campaign released Thursday. And former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards has raised about $780,000 since launching her candidacy on March 23, her campaign announced.

Both of those numbers far exceed what City Hall contenders historically have reported this far out from the election, as the November 2023 campaigns get off to an early start.

Five candidates already have announced their campaigns to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner when his second term ends in January 2024: Hollins, Edwards, state Sen. John Whitmire, attorney Lee Kaplan and police officer Robin Williams.

Despite the strong fundraising starts from Hollins and Edwards, Whitmire will be the financial heavyweight in the race. The state senator, who has served in the Texas Legislature since 1973, has a war chest of more than $9.7 million in his state account, according to his latest filing.

When Turner made the jump from the Legislature to a mayoral campaign, he was allowed to transfer $900,000 of his funds, even though an opponent argued it was forbidden by city ordinance. City attorneys said at the time that Turner could transfer the first $5,000 from each donation to comply with the city’s more stringent cap on contributions. It is not yet clear exactly how much Whitmire will be able to transfer when he launches his mayoral campaign officially, likely this fall.

Amanda Edwards

Finance reports for declared candidates are due Friday and cover the first six months of this year. Williams and Kaplan have not publicly disclosed fundraising numbers yet.

[…]

The numbers set a new bar for fundraising this early. At this stage in the 2015 race, then-state Rep. Sylvester Turner reported raising $166,600 in donations and had $366,351 in the bank, although he had yet to formally declare his mayoral candidacy. Hollins has raised more money so far this year than Turner reported in all of 2014: $824,000, according to the mayor’s state filings at the time. Turner later would begin his mayoral candidacy in 2015 with $900,000 that he transferred from his state account.

Among other candidates that year, former Kemah Mayor Bill King and then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia did not report any contributions in July 2014, and had not announced candidacies at that point. The black-out ordinance still was in place at that point, and Garcia was barred from transferring his county account. Then-City Councilmember Stephen Costello reported $215,600 in contributions, with about $308,325 on hand. Each of those candidates would break the million-dollar threshold in the actual election year.

Eighteen months before his re-election, Turner reported $585,000 in contributions, though he had a campaign account of $2.2 million at that point. He broke the million-dollar threshold in both January and July 2019, and raised $1.7 million in the month between the 2019 general and runoff elections.

I will of course have a post on the city of Houston finance reports for July, along with those for Congress and Harris County and probably some state races. It’s going to be a busy weekend. Also, Adrian Garcia could not have announced any fundraising numbers for Mayor in 2014 because he was still Sheriff, and had to resign as Sheriff as soon as he announced his candidacy. That happened in early 2015. I knew that Mayor Turner had transferred money from his state account to his city campaign, but I’d forgotten what constraints he had. I suspect that Sen. Whitmire will still be able to move a fair amount of his existing treasury, and will have no trouble raising more. How much, we may soon see.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

Keep your hands off of the Harvey money, H-GAC

Seriously. You’ve done enough already.

First, a regional council of government officials left Harris County and most of its cities out of a plan to distribute $488 million in federal flood mitigation funds stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

As justification, the Houston-Galveston Area Council — a regional planning board covering 13 counties — cited a separate, $750 million allotment proposed for Harris County itself.

Now, H-GAC wants to control that $750 million, as well. The council’s board voted Tuesday to ask the Texas General Land Office, which manages the relief money, to route the $750 million to H-GAC instead, allowing it to divide the pie among the broader region.

The resolution has no practical effect, unless the GLO decides to grant the request. It would require the GLO to submit an amended plan for federal approval, a process that often takes months. The GLO has been waiting for approval of its latest amendment, including the $750 million allocation to Harris County, since November.

[…]

Houston At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the board, was the lone vote against the resolution. She said the entire debate is moot until the GLO addresses the HUD decision, which likely would change the amount of funds headed to Houston and Harris County. She said the mitigation funding has shown that “the HUD-to-GLO pipeline is broken.”

“We’re not talking about the right pot of money. We need to wait until the GLO deals with the issues presented in the (HUD) letter,” Alcorn said. “The city and county were originally planning on both getting a billion…. We’re going to try everything to get the money we deserve. It’s too bad it’s taking so long.”

The city’s other representative, At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, did not attend the meeting.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the county, also was absent, but sent a scathing letter about the resolution. He said he was not sure “whether my attendance would be welcome, anyway.”

“The resolution considered today serves no practical purpose other than to send a message. And I am not sure it is the message H-GAC wants to send,” Garcia wrote. “The message HGAC will be sending, loud and clear, will be to (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), and it will be that HGAC is a willing partner in the GLO’s scheme to deprive the most impacted, most racially diverse jurisdictions of funds that Congress intended.”

[…]

Last month, H-GAC, citing the $750 million allotment, scrapped Harris County and all of the cities it includes from its plans to distribute a separate $488 million allotment the GLO gave the regional council. City and county officials lambasted that move, as well. H-GAC’s decision was based on the assumption that Harris County would share the $750 million among cities within it.

The council now is saying it wants to add the $750 million to the $488 million it originally received, and then divide that $1.2 billion among the broader region with a formula that does include Harris County, Houston and other cities within county limits.

That formula would leave Harris County itself with $266 million, about a third of what it is set to receive in the direct allotment. Houston, currently slated to receive nothing from the GLO and about $9 million from H-GAC to address parts of the city outside Harris County, would get $445 million. Those two numbers together add up to $711 million, still short of the direct allotment.

Smaller allocations to other cities in Harris County — including about $25 million for Pasadena, $8 million for Bellaire — would bring the total sum within Harris County to about $790 million. H-GAC argues that means its formula would represent an increase of about $40 million for the entire county.

It would, however, take decisions about how to divide the money out of the county’s hands and put that power in H-GAC, instead.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder that the process that the GLO used to award that $750 million to Harris County and zero to Houston was found to have been discriminatory. H-GAC’s new math here is an illusion and an insult, and once again I question why Houston and Harris County remain a part of this unrepresentative organization. I’m sure it had a useful purpose in the past, and as a theoretical matter we certainly need regional coordination and cooperation. But that ain’t what we’re getting here. What we’re getting here is screwed, and we can and must do better.

2022 primary results: Harris County

There were some issues, as there always are. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I vote early – less time pressure in case something happens. There was also an issue with reporting the early ballots.

The Harris County Elections Administration has requested an extension on the 24-hour deadline to report the results of Tuesday’s primary elections, according to Texas Secretary of State John Scott.

State law requires that counties report results from both early voting and Election Day within 24 hours of the polls closing. Just after polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Scott’s office said that they were informed by Harris County election officials that the county would not be able to count and report the results.

“Harris County election officials have indicated to our office that the delay in ballot tabulation is due only to damaged ballot sheets that must be duplicated before they can be scanned by ballot tabulators at the central count location,” Scott said in a statement.

Failing to meet the deadline is a Class B misdemeanor, Scott’s office said.

“Our office stands ready to assist Harris County election officials, and all county election officials throughout the state, in complying with Texas Election Code requirements for accurately tabulating and reporting Primary Election results,” Scott said.

Don’t know what happened there, but I get a PDF of the results in my inbox every time they get posted to the web, and the first one arrived at 7:25, so whatever the delay was it didn’t take that long to fix it. Other places had their issues as well, often because of missing election judges. And I can’t wait to see how long it takes Potter County to finish its count.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo was headed for an easy win in her primary; she was at almost 70% of the vote in early voting. Erica Davis was just shy of 15%. Alexandra Mealer and Vidal Martinez were the two top Republicans. Marilyn Burgess was winning for District Clerk, but Carla Wyatt had a nearly identical lead for Treasurer over incumbent Dylan Osborne. You just can’t tell with these things sometimes.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia was also on the way to an easy win in Precinct 2, while Lesley Briones and Ben Chou were leading in Precinct 4. Jack Morman and Jerry Mouton were the top two for Precinct 2 on the Republican side.

Multiple District Court judges were losing their primaries. The ones who were leading included Hilary Unger, Chris Morton, Dedra Davis, Natalia Oakes, Leah Shapiro, and Frank Aguilar, the latter two by smaller margins that could vanish overnight. Amy Martin was trailing Melissa Morris by a small margin as well. Jason Luong was in second place and headed to a runoff against Andrea Beall, Chip Wells was in a similar position against Teresa Waldrop, while Greg Glass and Scott Dollinger were out of the running, with Glass’ opponents in a runoff and Tami Craft leading the field in Dollinger’s race. Veronica Nelson was above 50% in the three-way race for the new 482nd Criminal District Court.

The County Court judges were doing a bit better, with four out of seven leading their races. For the open benches, Juanita Jackson won in Criminal Court #10, Porscha Brown was above 50% for Criminal Court #3, and Monica Singh was leading for Civil Court #4, with second place too close to call between David Patronella and Treasea Treviño.

For the JP races, Sonia Lopez was leading in Precinct 1, with Steve Duble slightly ahead of Chris Watson for second place. Dolores Lozano won in Precinct 2, incumbent Lucia Bates was over 50% in Precinct 3. Roderick Rogers was winning in Precinct 5 and Angela Rodriguez was winning in Precinct 6.

That’s all I’ve got, with results trickling in. I’ll follow up tomorrow.

UPDATE: We’re going to be waiting for results for the rest of the day due to issues with the paper receipts and the printers.

On naming a replacement for Judge Briones

I have three things to say about this.

Lesley Briones

Three years ago, Bill McLeod lost his spot on the civil county court-at-law bench in Harris County due to a paperwork snafu.

McLeod, a Democrat, had been presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4 in 2019 when he filed paperwork indicating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His filing triggered an obscure — but reasonable — provision of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial bench an automatic resignation. He was required to step down as soon as a new judge was named.

Despite McLeod’s protests, Harris County Commissioners Court swiftly moved to replace him. At the time, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reasoned that keeping McLeod as a holdover judge would invite conflicts of interest that could require him to recuse himself from some cases. A week later, Hidalgo and the two other Democrats on the commissioners court — Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace him.

“Judge, this is something we did not create; we wish we weren’t in this situation,” Hidalgo told McLeod during that meeting. “Voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent as he was elected to be.”

Briones’ speedy appointment rankled the two Republican county commissioners, who voted against her, calling the vetting process unfair and opaque. It appeared as if the Democrats were ramming through their preferred candidate, the kind of behind-the-scenes scheming that Democrats used to accuse Republicans of when they were in charge.

Now in a twist of fate, or hypocrisy, another potential conflict has emerged, this time involving Briones.

Like McLeod, Briones is running for office. She’s a candidate in the March 1 primary aiming to take on GOP Commissioner Jack Cagle in the November general election. Her November campaign announcement also triggered an automatic resignation from the bench — but unlike with McLeod, the Democrats who run the commissioners court are in no hurry to replace her. She’s kept her bench even as she campaigns.

The commissioners’ rationale for letting her stay in her seat defies logic. Let’s roll the tape.

[…]

Commissioners Court has convened seven times since Briones technically resigned. These meetings are typically all-day, marathon sessions that include scores, or even hundreds, of agenda items. Naming a replacement for Briones has been conspicuously absent from their to-do list. In effect, the commissioners’ indecision on Briones’ replacement leaves her collecting a county salary to run for political office.

While we commend Briones for doing her part by recusing herself from certain cases, this predicament reeks of hypocrisy. The Democratic majority’s excuses for the delay don’t pass the smell test.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Hidalgo, said in a statement that the county judge “is not leading the search for a replacement judge given that Judge Briones is deftly and efficiently carrying out her full workload of cases, while avoiding conflicts of interest,” adding that she “remains open to recommendations by her colleagues on a person to fill the position.” Both Ellis and Garcia noted in statements that it’s been a challenge finding someone who is not only qualified but also willing to take on what would be a temporary job, since voters will elect a new judge for Briones’ seat in November.

Really? When Judge Erica Hughes of Criminal Court at Law No. 3 was appointed to a federal immigration bench in December, county commissioners had no trouble finding not one, but two qualified candidates to fill her seat in a short amount of time. They appointed Hughes’ replacement, Porscha Brown, at the next possible meeting on Dec. 14. When Brown declined the appointment, commissioners named Ashley Mayes Guice to the bench at the very next meeting on Jan. 4.

1. I don’t understand the reason for the delay, either. It’s not a good look for Judge Hidalgo or Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. At the very least, give a better explanation for the delay. And in addition to the issue of Judge Briones having to recuse herself for matters involving the county, there are surely lawyers appearing before her now who may be supporting one of her opponents for the Commissioners Court nomination. That can’t be a comfortable experience.

2. That said, I kind of suspect that their ultimate preference would be to name the winner of the primary for this seat to the bench, as that would minimize turnover in the event that candidate wins in November. The main problem with that is that it’s a three-way primary, meaning that a runoff is likely, and thus we wouldn’t get someone named until late May. Briones herself may still be campaigning for the nomination to Commissioners Court through that time, as she too is in a multi-candidate race, or she may have been knocked out of the race. None of this is a desirable outcome.

3. Greg Abbott, of course, appoints judges all the time in a fashion that takes advantage of the election calendar. His appointees are expected to be the nominee for the next election, though they sometimes draw primary opponents. That’s been a thing for a long time, going back well before Abbott. This doesn’t excuse or justify what the Commissioners are doing here, but it is another reminder of my point that a judicial appointment system is no less inherently political than a system of electing judges. You can’t take the politics out of a political process.

Endorsement watch: Commissioners Court and Treasurer

The Chron makes another obvious call and endorses Commissioner Adrian Garcia in Precinct 2.

Adrian Garcia

Among the frequent criticisms we hear about Harris County Commissioners Court is that it’s an opaque repository for political insiders, an entity with limited authority beyond building and maintaining roads, shepherding flood control projects, and rubber-stamping budgets.

When Democrat Adrian Garcia challenged Republican incumbent Jack Morman in 2018 for Precinct 2 commissioner, he set out to break that mold. Garcia, 61, a former Houston police officer, city councilman and Harris County sheriff ran as an advocate for criminal justice reform, environmental justice, and for people without health insurance. He pledged to direct resources to long-neglected neighborhoods in his district, which spans eastern Harris County, North Houston and leafy suburbs such as Friendswood.

As commissioner, Garcia has fulfilled many of those promises and deserves a chance to defend his seat this fall against Morman, who wants it back.

While Republican county commissioners attempt to undo the county’s existing misdemeanor bail reform agreement, Garcia has been a steadfast advocate of staying the course on bail reform since signing on to a consent decree to settle the Harris County litigation in 2019. In a precinct where some county residents are 56 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, Garcia secured funding for air quality monitors. Garcia partnered with the Baylor College of Medicine to bring SmartPods — a one-stop shop for health care services, including clinic spaces, pharmacies and biosafety labs — to medically under-served residents in Pasadena and Aldine. He was the driving force behind bringing a $7.6 million park to Northeast Harris County for children and adults with disabilities, an all-inclusive jewel for an area desperate for green space.

“I have been working tirelessly on all fronts to address all the things that I campaigned on and that my constituents have focused on,” Garcia told the editorial board.

I advocated for Garcia to be the Democratic challenger to Morman in 2018, and I have been happy with him in office. The Chron gripes about a couple of things, including his support of the new map for Commissioners Court, to which I say that setting a good example has gotten Democrats exactly nothing these past few years. If the Republicans in the Legislature and the US Senate want to do something about redistricting, we’re all ears. Until then, I see no point in unilaterally disarming. If I were in Precinct 2, I’d be delighted to cast my vote for Commissioner Garcia. I did not do interviews in this race, but I did interview him in 2018, and you can listen to that here.

Over in Precinct 4, it was a much tougher choice, for which the Chron landed on Lesley Briones.

Lesley Briones

The Democrats running for Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner make a far stronger field than in previous years. And there’s a reason for that: The Democratic majority on the current Commissioners Court significantly altered the precinct and gave it more blue voters, to the potential detriment of incumbent Republican Jack Cagle.

Democrats in the new Precinct 4 — which encompasses much of western Harris County and some territory inside Loop 610 — have a tough choice in a race that’s drawn several impressive candidates.

We settled on Harris County Court at Law Judge Lesley Briones, 41.

The Laredo native graduated from Yale Law School, and then practiced law at Vinson & Elkins LLP before working as general counsel and chief operating officer of the Arnold Foundation. Beginning in 2019, Briones served as a civil court judge before resigning to run for commissioner.

She’s been endorsed by several local elected officials and several groups including the Texas Gulf Coast AFL-CIO and Harris County Young Democrats, and has raised more than $339,000.

Among her ideas, Briones said she’d create a response team that residents could call for ditch maintenance, similar to programs set up for potholes. She’d prioritize constituent services and bird-dog already-funded flood bond projects to make sure they get completed.

[…]

Along with Briones, two other candidates stood out: former Texas Rep. Gina Calanni and Ben Chou. All three offered concise, detailed platforms and plans.

Calanni, 48, is a battle-tested former representative in House District 132. We endorsed her in 2018 and again in 2020. She’s an accomplished legislator, despite only serving one term: she authored or co-authored 11 bills that became law in the 2019 session. She rejected the notion that Commissioners Court ought to stick to the basics such as transportation and flooding, suggesting she’d continue the current practice of Democrats on the court of delving into divisive social issues such as abortion.

On healthcare, Calanni has an intriguing incentive plan for mothers on Medicaid, and we liked her pledge to to hold regular town halls in all the precinct’s neighborhoods.

Other priorities she mentioned, such as combating the school-to-prison pipeline, are important issues, but this is a time for anti-crime initiatives that can show more immediate results.

Ben Chou, 31, graduated from Rice and then worked for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. A former Harris County clerk employee, he touted an instrumental role in the now-banned drive-thru voting program that contributed to record turnout. Chou is sharp and knowledgable. He said he’ll guarantee fixes within 72 hours on reports of road debris and potholes and commits to attend or have a staff member at every super neighborhood meeting in the precinct.

Most impressive was his commitment to ethics. He was the only candidate to pledge not to take financial contributions from county vendors, as all four of the current commissioners do. “Disclosure, I think, is not enough. We’ve got to end the pay-to-play culture in Harris County,” he said. We agree.

I interviewed five of the seven Dems running in this race:

Lesley Briones
Ben Chou
Ann Williams
Gina Calanni
Clarence Miller

The first four listed there are the top candidates in my view, and I don’t envy anyone the decision. We’ll see who makes it to the runoff.

Finally the Chron endorsed incumbent Treasurer Dylan Osborne.

Dylan Osborne

The job of county treasurer is a bit like being a sports official in one respect: they’re usually invisible unless they mess up.

The treasurer’s basic duties are to cut checks for the county, balance its checkbook and account for funds in designated accounts. The office moved about $20 billion in 2021. Incumbent Dylan Osborne has tried since 2018 to increase the 12-person office’s visibility — without any big mistakes. He participated in the November 2020 Protect the Results rally, making the shouldn’t-be-controversial argument that vote counting and transfers of power needn’t be partisan. He also led the office to partner with Unity National Bank, one of the few Black-owned financial institutions in Texas.

He wants to work with some local schools to build programs for financial literacy training, and pitch to Harris County Commissioners Court a plan to help residents combat financial struggles.

“I run an efficient, tight ship, and we’re working hard to make this office an asset to the community,” Osborne told us.

My interview with Dylan Osborne is here and with his opponent Carla Wyatt, about whom the Chron was complimentary, is here. The Treasurer’s office doesn’t get in the news much, and that was one of the things I asked him about – basically, what have you been doing all this time? He had some good answers, so give that a listen if you haven’t. I agree with the Chron’s assessment that while Wyatt would make a fine Treasurer, Osborne has done a good job and has earned the chance to do it for another term.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You know what January means around these parts. There’s lots of action in Harris County, so that’s where we’ll begin. Here’s my summary of the July 2021 reports as a reminder. Let’s dive in.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Ahmed Hassan, County Judge
Georgia Provost, County Judge
Erica Davis, County Judge
Kevin Howard, County Judge
Maria Garcia, County Judge

Martina Lemon Dixon, County Judge
Robert Dorris, County Judge
Randall Kubosh, County Judge
Naoufal Houjami, County Judge
Hector Bolanos, County Judge
Oscar Gonzales, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge
Vidal Martinez, County Judge
Warren Howell, County Judge
George Zoes, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
George Risner, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Gary Harrison, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
John Manlove, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jerry Mouton, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Daniel Jason, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Richard Vega, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ben Chou, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Ann Williams, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Gina Calanni, County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Jeff Stauber, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Desiree Broadnax, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Stephen Kusner, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo         900,323    424,448    1,400  1,488,652
Hassan              200      2,461        0          0
Davis            50,114     10,143   21,852     59,970
Howard
Provost
Garcia, M

Lemond Dixon    196,977    109,175        0     90,294
Dorris                0         68        0         68
Kubosh           15,075      9,051   60,000      7,165
Houjami           1,390        592        0        147
Bolanos               0          0        0          0
Gonzales          2,475      3,432      500          0
Mealer           60,049     15,464        0     15,840
Martinez        514,585     86,782  100,000    516,134
Howell            1,450      7,075        0        375
Zoes

Ellis           264,000    181,904        0  4,192,308

Garcia, A       587,885    364,783        0  2,119,825
Risner            3,250      1,899        0     51,550
Harrison              5      2,191        0          0
Manlove          19,452      4,285        0     68,870
Mouton           29,100      2,916        0     26,283
Morman           45,749     66,119        0    165,834
Jason
Vega

Ramsey          236,900    185,263        0    581,035

Cagle           285,673    501,923        0  1,119,432
Chou             80,590      4,133        0     77,490
Williams          2,600      1,250    1,250      1,450
Miller            5,293     10,560        0     10,336
Briones         244,974     60,571        0    229,258
Calanni           5,540          0        0      5,540
Stauber               0      1,250        0          0

Hudspeth         26,464     10,395        0     19,376
Stanart               0      3,054        0      8,053
Burgess          24,169     26,475        0     17,222
Broadnax          9,649      9,538        0        110
Daniel           11,875      1,393   25,000     12,264
Osborne           2,440        622        0      2,202
Scott             7,900     20,489   14,000      1,410
Dick                  0      1,489        0          0
Kusner              

If you don’t see a linked report for someone, it’s because there wasn’t one I could find on the harrisvotes.com page. The information I have here is current as of last night. It’s possible someone could still file a report, these things do happen, but I wouldn’t expect much from anyone who hasn’t by now.

There are items of greater substance to discuss, but I can’t help myself: Naoufal Houjami was a candidate for Mayor in 2019 – if you don’t remember him, it’s probably because he got a total of 565 votes, for 0.2%, finishing last in the field. He has filed a finance report as a candidate for Harris County Judge, but he is not listed as a candidate for either primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Qualified Candidates page. (The Harris County GOP candidates page doesn’t have him, either.) The first two pictures I saw on his webpage were one with him and Greg Abbott, and one with him and Sheila Jackson Lee. Go figure. He is fully supporting his friend George P. Bush for Attorney General, so you make the call. This is way more than you ever needed to know about Naoufal Houjami.

Anyway. Barring an unlikely late and lucrative report from Georgia Provost, who wasn’t much of a fundraiser as a City Council candidate, incumbent Judge Lina Hidalgo outraised all of the other candidates for that position combined. Erica Davis claimed $70K raised on the summary page of her report but just $50K on the subtotals page – I suspect the $70K number was a typo. She had six total donors listed, two of whom gave $25K each, one who gave $196, and the others gave $19.12 apiece. Vidal Martinez was the other big fundraiser, though as John Coby notes, almost 70% of his donations came from 14 people who each ponied up at least $10K. For sure, it’s all green, but that’s not exactly grassroots support. As for Alexandra Mealer, I’d been wondering about her because I’ve seen multiple signs for her in my very Democratic neighborhood. Turns out she’s also my neighbor, now living in one of the historic houses. That explains a lot.

I included the two Commissioners who are not on the ballot just as a point of comparison. Adrian Garcia is obviously well-equipped for battle. George Risner presumably had a few bucks in his account from his time as a Justice of the Peace, but his candidacy for Commissioner does not seem to have drawn much support so far. Jack Morman also had some coin still in his bank and drew more support on his attempt to come back, but he’s nowhere close to Garcia. For Precinct 4, Jack Cagle raised a reasonable amount, though as you can see not an earth-shaking total, with Lesley Briones coming close to him. He has a tidy sum in his treasury, but it’s less than what he had in July thanks to how much he spent. Gina Calanni didn’t raise much – to be fair, there isn’t that much time between the filing deadline and the finance reporting deadline – but her report showed $40K in pledges, which are noted as transfers from her State House campaign account.

None of the other offices tend to raise much. Chris Daniel has a personal report as well as the SPAC report. The non-SPAC account reported no money raised and $1,151 in expenditures.

Finally, someone named Stephen Kusner filed a finance report for Treasurer in July but is not on either ballot and has no report for January. I’m just making a note of that here in case anyone who looked at my July summary is wondering what happened to him.

I’ll take a look at some state reports next, and Congressional reports later. Let me know if you have any questions.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

Another lawsuit filed over Commissioners Court redistricting

What a bunch of crybabies.

A former county commissioner is suing Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, claiming Hidalgo and the county violated state law when they met to approve redistricting maps.

Former Commissioner Steve Radack argues the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the court’s adoption of the new maps.

County Attorney Christian Menefee dismissed the suit as “meritless.” The Open Meetings Act requires governments to post public notices about meetings at least three days before they occur. Courts and attorneys general have said the notices have to be sufficiently specific to let the public know what will be addressed. It does not require them to post supporting documents, although governments sometimes do.

The county posted a timely notice of the meeting and met on Oct. 28 to take up redistricting. The lone item on the agenda said: “Request to receive public input regarding Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting plans, and consider and possibly adopt an order approving a new district/precinct plan for Harris County Commissioners Court, including any amendments thereto.”

This lawsuit was filed on December 31, just a few days after the first lawsuit was dismissed. Funny how this wasn’t an issue before then. This is another Andy Taylor joint, and how sweet it must be for him to get another ride on the ol’ gravy train. But seriously, cry me a river, fellas.

An early look at the primary for Commissioners Court, Precinct 4

I have a few thoughts about this.

With a new Harris County precinct map in place, Democrats may have their best chance in a dozen years of capturing Precinct 4. That’s set up a fierce, three-way contest in the Democratic primary to challenge the incumbent Republican, Commissioner Jack Cagle.

The Democratic primary to face Cagle includes former civil court judge Lesley Briones, former state representative Gina Calanni, former county elections official Ben Chou, and Alief ISD board president Ann Williams.

Briones joined the bench as presiding judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law Number 4 in April 2019, when Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court appointed her to fill out the term of Bill McLeod. Briones won a full term in 2020, but resigned from the bench in order to run for county commissioner.

Gina Calanni previously served as state representative for House District 132, representing portions of Katy. She served a single term, defeating Republican State Rep. Mike Schofield in 2018 but losing a rematch to him in 2020.

Ben Chou has held no elective office. He previously served in the Harris County Election Administrator’s office, overseeing 2020 voting innovations that included expansion of drive-thru voting. Before that, he worked for former governor of Maryland and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and for then House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ann Williams was first elected as Alief ISD board trustee in 2007 and has served as the board’s president for the past seven years.

“This will be a primary runoff election,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who prefaced his remarks by saying Chou was a former student of his. “I don’t think any one of these…candidates is likely to win 51% of the vote or 50% + 1.”

[…]

Even if the new map stands, Stein said, the power of incumbency means it is far too early to count Cagle out. He noted Cagle, who was first elected in 2010, has a long record of addressing flooding and road congestion problems that gives him broad appeal.

“I would think at this point,” Stein said, “if you’re going to beat an incumbent Republican, you’re going to have to have a Democrat who can draw on some Republican voters, or at least some independents.”

Stein doubted Calanni’s ability to do that, noting her record as much more progressive than her two Democratic rivals. “It remains to be seen whether Ben Chou has that, what I’d call, ideological moderate or centrist position,” Stein said. “But clearly, I would say former Judge Briones is in a strong position.”

First, there’s an error correction appended to the story that says it should have referred to this race being a four-way contest, not three. That said, there are actually seven candidates running, the four named in this story plus Jeff Stauber, Clarence Miller, and Sandra Pelmore. Stauber has run for Sheriff in 2016 and for County Commissioner in Precinct 3 in 2020. Miller and Pelmore are first time candidates as far as I know, with Miller making the pre-COVID and pre-redistricting rounds as a candidate. He has a campaign website, the others do not. I doubt any of them will get much in the way or financial or establishment support, but they are in the race and they will get some votes.

We haven’t really had a Democratic primary for a Commissioners Court seat like this before. There were multi-candidate primaries in 2020 for Precinct 3, which was open after the announced retirement of Steve Radack. The Republicans were favored to hold the seat, so their primary was a reasonably close analog for this one, and all three of their candidates were current or recent elected officials. On the Democratic side there were multiple candidates, but no electeds. I feel like the stakes are higher for Democrats than they were in 2020, since they invested capital in redrawing the Commissioners Court map, and if they fail to expand their majority they don’t really get another shot until 2026. And yes, there is a low but non-zero chance Dems could lose the majority they have now, and maybe see any chance to do more go away as Republicans would surely try to redraw the existing map.

As for Commissioner Cagle, it is true that incumbent Commissioners have punched above their weight in the past. Jack Morman ran ahead of other Republicans in 2018, even against a strong and well-known Democratic opponent in Adrian Garcia, and came close to hanging on. Garcia only took the lead in that race late at night, around the same time that Judge Lina Hidalgo was finally pulling ahead. Going back a little farther, then-Commissioner Sylvia Garcia also came close to hanging on in 2010 – again, she ran well ahead of other Dems on the ticket that year. If the environment is sufficiently favorable to Republicans, or if Cagle can really convince the muddled middle to stick with him, he could survive. That said, I say it’s Cagle who is going to have to draw on these voters, at least as much as the Democratic nominee. The whole point of the redistricting exercise was to make this precinct as favorable as reasonably possible for a more or less generic Democrat. If that’s not enough to unseat Cagle, it’s a pretty massive failure.

I’m not sure why Professor Stein singles out Calanni as less electable than any of the others. I mean, with rare exceptions (Jasmine Crockett comes to mind), freshman Democratic legislators tend to not get noticed all that much. I can’t think of anything in her record that would stand out as a clear liability. That’s not to say that she couldn’t be attacked for something that the Dems supported or opposed in the 2019 legislative session, though that was a fairly modest and serene one all things considered. But really, anything she could be attacked for, I’m pretty sure the others could be as well. I don’t quite understand this thinking.

I do think Briones has an early advantage, at least in the primary, for having received endorsements from Commissioners Garcia and Ellis. I expect that to show up in the campaign finance report as well, and that’s something that can extend to the general election also. But I would not sleep on Ann Williams as a candidate, as she has easily the longest electoral record, having been an Alief ISD Trustee since 2007. Those are very different elections, in terms of turnout and the electorate, but still. She’s the only one who’s been elected to something more than once, and I think that counts for something. Calanni also had more challenging races to win in each of her times on the ballot, and I’d say she overperformed in 2018. None of this is intended in any way as a slight to Lesley Briones, just my observation that there’s more nuance to this than what is expressed in the story.

Anyway. I hope to see a lot more stories like this one, as we are very much in the swing of primary season. It will be early voting before you know it, so let’s get to the campaign and candidate overviews. I’ll be running interviews with at least these four named Democratic candidates the week of January 10.

Lawsuit over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting tossed

Missed this over the holidays.

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

See here for the background. The lawsuit seemed pretty flimsy on its face, and it was dismissed without comment by District Court Judge Dedra Davis. The plaintiffs, which include Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey, and fan favorite attorney Andy Taylor, have filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to stop the new map from taking effect. The mandamus, which you can see here, makes the following claims:

  • The 2020 census revealed population changes among districts that required redistricting.
  • It was possible to comply with the “one man, one vote” rule by transferring 4% of the county’s population.
  • But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia chose a plan that moved 48% and overstepped their authority.
  • That plan will deprive 1.1 million people of their right to vote for commissioner in the next election and likely tip the result from Republican to Democrat in one precinct, creating a 4-1 supermajority for Democrats.

As soon as I saw that “moved 48%” of voters claim, I said to myself, where have I seen a statistic like that before? Right here:

The initial Republican proposal for redrawing Texas congressional maps calls for Harris County to once again be split into nine districts, but with major alterations to protect the region’s endangered GOP incumbents.

The shifts mean more than a million voters who live west of downtown Houston would have a different member of Congress representing them.

Ultimately, Democratic-held districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher would all become more heavily blue under the proposed map released Monday by the Texas Senate. Under the proposal, Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Troy Nehls would get more like-minded voters in their districts, too.

The proposal adds a completely new congressional district in west Harris County — District 38 — designed to favor a Republican, stitched together by cutting into four existing districts.

A little back of the envelope math here, we have “more than” a million voters, in a county with just under 2.5 million registered voters, that’s over 40% of voters being put into new districts, for the express purpose of creating a new Republican district in the county and bolstering the Republican caucus in Washington. So, yeah. Cry me a river, fellas.

The filings I’m still looking for

Today is Filing Deadline Day. By the end of today, we’ll know who is and isn’t running for what. While we wait for that, let’s review the filings that have not yet happened, to see what mysteries may remain.

Congress: Most of the potentially competitive districts have Democratic candidates in them. The ones that remain are CDs 22, 26, 31, and 38, though I have been told there is a candidate lined up for that latter slot. Of the rest, CD22 would be the biggest miss if no one files. I have to think someone will, but we’ll know soon enough.

For open seats, CD15 has five candidates so far, none of whom are familiar to me. CD30 has six candidates, with State Rep. Jasmine Crockett receiving the endorsement of outgoing Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. CD34 has six, with current CD15 Rep. Vicente Gonzalez the presumed favorite. CD35 has three serious contenders – Austin City Council member Greg Casar, former San Antonio City Council Member Rebecca Viagran, and State Rep. Eddie Rodrigues – and one person you’ve not heard of. CD37 has Rep. Lloyd Doggett and former CD31 candidate Donna Imam, in addition to a couple of low-profile hopefuls, but it will not have former CD25 candidate Julie Oliver, who has said she will not run.

Democratic incumbents who have primary challengers include Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in CD07 (I’m still waiting to see if Centrell Reed makes some kind of announcement); Rep. Veronica Escobar in CD16 (I don’t get the sense her challenger is a serious one); and Rep. Henry Cuellar in CD28, who gets a rematch with Jessica Cisneros, who came close to beating him last year. The Svitek spreadsheet lists some dude as a potential challenger in CD18 against Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, but so far no filing. Reps. Al Green, Joaquin Castro, Sylvia Garcia, Colin Allred, and Marc Veasey do not appear to have any challengers as of this morning.

Statewide: Pretty much everyone who has said they are a candidate has filed. Frequent candidate Michael Cooper and someone named Innocencio Barrientez have filed for Governor, making it a four-candidate field. Two Harris County district court judges, Julia Maldonado and Robert Johnson, have filed for slots on the Supreme Court and CCA, respectively. The Svitek spreadsheet lists potential but not yet filed contenders for two other Supreme Court positions but has no listings for CCA. The one potential candidate who has not yet taken action is Carla Brailey, who may or may not file for Lt. Governor.

SBOE: As this is a post-redistricting year, all SBOE seats are on the ballot, as are all State Senate seats. Dems have four reasonable challenge opportunities: Michelle Palmer is running again in SBOE6, Jonathan Cocks switched from the Land Commissioner race to file in SBOE8, Alex Cornwallis is in SBOE12, and then there’s whatever is happening in SBOE11. The good news is that DC Caldwell has company in the primary, if he is actually allowed to run in it, as Luis Sifuentes is also running. I would advise voting for Sifuentes.

There are two open Democratic seats, plus one that I’m not sure about. Ruben Cortez in SBOE2 and Lawrence Allen in SBOE4 are running for HDs 37 and 26, respectively. There are two candidates in 2 and three candidates in 4, so far. Georgina Perez is the incumbent in SBOE1 but as yet has not filed. If she has announced that she’s not running, I have not seen it. There is a candidate named Melissa Ortega in the race.

In SBOE5, the district that was flipped by Rebecca Bell-Metereau in 2020 and was subsequently made more Democratic in redistricting, we have the one primary challenge to an incumbent so far, as a candidate named Juan Juarez has filed against Bell-Metereau. I’m old enough to remember Marisa Perez coming out of nowhere to oust Michael Soto in 2012, so anything can happen here. The aforementioned Perez (now Marisa Perez-Diaz) and Aicha Davis are unopposed so far.

Senate: Nothing much here that you don’t already know. Every incumbent except Eddie Lucio has filed for re-election, and none of them have primary opponents so far. Lucio’s SD27 has the three challengers we knew about, Sara Stapleton-Barrera, State Rep. Alex Dominguez, and Morgan LaMantia. A candidate named Misty Bishop had filed for SD07, was rejected, and has since re-filed for SD04; I’m going to guess that residency issues were at play. There are Dem challengers in SD09 (Gwenn Burud, who has run for this office before) and SD17 (Miguel Gonzalez), but no one yet for SDs 07 or 08.

House: Here’s the list of potentially competitive districts, for some value of the word “competitive”. Now here’s a list of districts on that list that do not yet have a filed candidate:

HD14
HD25
HD28
HD29
HD55
HD57
HD61
HD66
HD67
HD84
HD89
HD96
HD106
HD126
HD129
HD133
HD150

I’m told there’s someone lined up for HD133. We’ll see about the rest.

All of the open seats have at least one candidate in them so far except for HD22, the seat now held by Joe Deshotel. There’s a name listed on the Svitek spreadsheet, so I assume that will be sorted by the end of the day.

Reps. Ron Reynolds (HD27), Ana-Maria Ramos (HD102), and Carl Sherman (HD109) are incumbents who have not yet filed. No one else has filed yet in those districts as well. Svitek has a note saying that Rep. Ramos has confirmed she will file; there are no notes for the other two. There is the possibility of a last-minute retirement, with a possibly preferred successor coming in at the same time.

Here is a complete list of Democratic House incumbents who face a primary challenge: Rep. Richard Raymond (HD42) and Rep. Alma Allen (HD131). Both have faced and turned away such opponents in the past. If there was supposed to be a wave of primary opponents to incumbents who came back early from Washington, they have not shown up yet.

Rep. James Talarico has moved from HD52 to the open HD50 after HD52 was made into a lean-Republican district. Rep. Claudia Ordaz-Perez, the incumbent in HD76, will run in HD79 against Rep. Art Fierro after HD76 was relocated from El Paso to Fort Bend.

Harris County: Again, nothing new here. Erica Davis has not yet filed for County Judge. County Clerk Teneshia Hudpseth is the only non-judicial incumbent without a primary opponent so far.

Far as I can tell, all of the county judicial slots have at least one filing in them, except for a couple of Justice of the Peace positions. George Risner, the JP in Precinct 2, Place 2 (all JP Place 2 slots are on the ballot this year) has not yet filed, amid rumors that he is mulling a challenge to Commissioner Adrian Garcia. Incumbent Angela Rodriguez in JP precinct 6 has not yet filed. No Dem challengers yet in precincts 4 or 8.

Other judicial races: Sorry, I don’t have the bandwidth for this right now. I’ll review it after today.

And that’s all I’ve got. See you on the other side. As always, leave your hot gossip in the comments.

Filing update: We have an Ag Commissioner candidate

But before I can get to that and other news, I have to bring you this:

A Fort Worth man is running for the State Board of Education as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and Green Party member. Filing for a place on a primary ballot for multiple parties is allowed, however “a person who becomes a candidate in multiple parties’ primary elections would not be eligible for a place on the general election ballot,” a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office said in an email.

Fort Worth school district employee Daniel “DC” Caldwell, who previously ran for Fort Worth mayor, is seeking to represent Tarrant County’s District 11 on the State Board of Education, a seat held by Republican Patricia Hardy of Fort Worth. Caldwell, reached by the Star-Telegram on Wednesday, recognized the unusual nature of his bid.

“I understand that nobody hardly ever does that, but I have lots of reasons,”said Caldwell, who teaches special education at Boulevard Heights. “The simplest to articulate is really that we should have more unity and less division. Like really, I have friends on both sides of the aisle and even down the hall, as it were. I have an inclusionist rather than exclusionist philosophy. … I’ve read the platform or value statement of the Green Party, of Libertarian Party, of the of the Democratic Party, of the Republican Party, and when it comes down to fundamentals, we actually have far more in common than we’d like to admit.”

A spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office wrote in an email that filing for multiple parties is almost unprecedented, “with the notable exception of former Gov. Shivers,” who served as Texas governor from 1949-1957. He was both the Republican and Democratic nominee in his 1952 bid.

[…]

State law says a person “who voted at a primary election or who was a candidate for nomination in a primary is ineligible for a place on the ballot for the succeeding general election for state and county officers as … the nominee of a political party other than the party holding the primary in which the person voted or was a candidate.”

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus put it this way: “You can file for primaries for multiple parties but you won’t be able to win in the general if you do that.”

“Candidates who try to run in more than one party primary are effectively without any party,” he said in an email.

But Caldwell interprets the law as allowing him to appear on the general election ballot.

“It prevents you from running as an independent or running as a write in, or being nominated by more than one at the same time, but it does not prevent you from being in the primary,” he said. “But if you happen to win, you can only accept one of the nominations. That’s what it’s intended to do. That’s what it literally says.”

Pretty sure Caldwell also ran for the HCC Board in 2017. Dude gets around. I admit, I thought Patrick Svitek had somehow screwed up the spreadsheet, but no. There’s only one thing to say to that:

Anyway. I promised you a Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner, and I aim to deliver. Meet Susan Hays.

I’m running for Agriculture Commissioner because corruption is bad for business. No one trusts the incumbent to do what’s right for Texas. Farming is hard, but ethics should be easy.

I grew up in rural Texas in the middle of ranching and hunting country. But like many of my generation I left for the city to get an education and make a living. My law practice took me to advising cannabis producers and businesses, and pushing Texas to open the door to this high-value crop with the hemp program. I welcomed the opportunity to get back to the country and find a way to make an income off the land again. Working on the roll-out of the hemp program, I started hearing rumors of corruption. Folks talking about having to pay thousands of dollars to get a hemp license which sounded pretty strange to me because I knew the law was intended to make things easy and affordable on farmers.

Then, the Commissioner’s political consultant got arrested for trying to sell hemp licenses for $25,000.

Licenses that cost $100 and are available to anyone.

And that made me mad.

And so here she is. In a just world, she’ll clean the clock of that malevolent clown Sid Miller. In this world we’ll have to see, but being pro-hemp and anti-corruption seems like a good place to start.

On the Congressional side, a couple of candidacies to note. One is in CD02, where Woodlands-area activist and organizer Robin Fulford has filed. No announcement yet – she’s been teasing it on Facebook, not that it was a terribly well-kept secret to begin with – but her name is now in bold on the Svitek spreadsheet. CD02 is a tougher district than it was before, not really a competitive one by the new numbers, but no one will outwork Robin. In CD07, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher now has a primary opponent, Centrell Reed. I know nothing more about her than what you can see for yourself. I would have thought if someone was going to challenge Rep. Fletcher in her newly drawn district it would be more of a traditional political type. That does not appear to be the case here. I’ll be interested to see how she runs.

I’ll wrap up in Harris County, where a name I’d forgotten about has turned up on the Commissioners Court Precinct 4 candidates list: Clarence Miller, who can credibly claim to have been the first candidate in this race. Also running for County Commissioner is Gary Harrison, who has filed in Precinct 2 against Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Finally, while Erica Davis hasn’t yet filed for County Judge, or updated her webpage to reflect her candidacy for that office, someone else has filed. Frequent City Council candidate Georgia Provost is now in the race. I’d say she’s better known than Erica Davis, and that’s not to be dismissed in a primary. I believe in Judge Hidalgo, and I believe she’ll want to start spending some of that campaign cash of hers sooner rather than later.

The deadline is Monday. There are still a number of races I’m looking at that don’t have candidates yet. I’ll update on Monday morning, and then we’ll see where we end up. Leave your hot gossip here in the comments.

No independent investigation of the AstroWorld tragedy

Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Harris County will not launch an independent investigation into the Astroworld festival disaster after commissioners declined to support a plan by County Judge Lina Hidalgo to do so.

Instead, the group on Tuesday voted unanimously to conduct an internal review, at the request of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I proposed a more thorough and detailed scope to increase the likelihood of objectivity and an impactful outcome,” Hidalgo said. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit on some next steps.”

Garcia, a former Houston Police Department officer, made a motion to support that agency’s investigation. The motion also directed the county administrator, Harris County Sports Authority and Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to examine safety regulations for outdoor concerts.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in this particular event, so my motion is intended to help us move forward in the spirit of making sure that we are coordinating and collaborating, but at the same time looking forward,” Garcia said.

He expressed concern that authorizing a new investigation would expose the county to lawsuits.

[…]

Hidalgo, as a member of the three-member Democratic majority, rarely loses votes on Commissioners Court. She was unable, however, to convince any of her colleagues behind closed doors to support her plan for an independent investigation of the festival, which she said would not interfere with the Houston Police Department’s probe.

Hidalgo said she hopes the review would suggest actions the county can take to make concerts safer.

I hope so, too. I liked the idea of an independent investigation, though there had been no discussion of what that might look like and what powers the investigator would have. Campos thinks it’s a mistake for the county to not pursue this, while Erica Greider has mixed feelings. The county’s review will not overlap with the HPD criminal probe, so maybe it will turn up some useful information. Like I said, I hope this is worthwhile.

UPDATE: Stace also thinks Commissioners Court should have approved the independent investigation.

Republicans sue over new Commissioners Court map

Hilarious.

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have filed a voting rights lawsuit in state court in hopes of halting a Harris County redistricting plan they claim strips more than 1.1 million people of their right to vote in 2022.

Cagle and Ramsey, who are in the political minority in county government, lost ground in the redistricting plan their three political opponents supported, as Cagle’s Precinct 4 was redrawn last month to become majority Democrat.

Cagle and Ramsey announced Tuesday they were suing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the county itself, but indicated through their attorney they see Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia as equally culpable of depriving voters’ rights. Three fellow plaintiffs who stood with the commissioners at a news conference were identified in court documents as registered voters and ethnic minorities.

One plantiff, Ranya Khanoyan, a senior in ROTC at Klein Cain High School, voted for the first time in November, but she would not be able to vote for Precinct 4 commissioner in the March primary or November election because the plan moves her to Precinct 3, which does not have an election until 2024.

“I’m not willing to look Ranya who just turned 18 in the face and say, ‘You know, sweetie, you’re going to have to wait til 2024 to vote,’” said the commissioners’ attorney, Andy Taylor. “The right to vote is sacred.”

See here for the background. Sure does suck to be on the other side, doesn’t it, fellas? And hey, welcome back to the spotlight, Andy Taylor. With Jared Woodfill filing all the crazy political lawsuits these days, I’d almost forgotten you existed.

My initial reaction, when I saw the early version of this story, was that this lawsuit was ridiculous on its face. If “I don’t get to vote for County Commissioner in the next election” is the standard, then it would be impossible to ever move a voter from, say, Precinct 1 to Precinct 4. I’d be willing to be that if we went back to past redistrictings, like the 2011 redistricting, we had some motion from an odd-numbered district to an even-numbered one, or vice versa. It would mean that the next time HISD has to redraw boundaries, it could only move voters between districts that are on the same four-year schedule. I have a hard time believing that’s a constitutional or statutory right that’s being violated here. At least one person agrees with me:

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the commissioners’ lawsuit takes a creative approach but added, “This isn’t going anywhere.”

“The premise of it is that somehow because of staggered terms for county commissioners a person’s constitutional rights are being violated because they’ll have to wait two years to vote,” Jones said.

Those who might have to wait this time around because of the new map would vote in 2024 and 2028, he said. They wouldn’t lose their right to vote in Jones’ view. Like other southern politicians following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which cut out key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the members of commissioners court had much more flexibility in reshaping districts in 2021 than in 2011, 2001 or 1991. The did not need preclearance to make the changes.

Jones likened the Republicans’ announcement this week to the Democratic redistricting lawsuits against the Texas House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This is much more political posturing rather than legal strategy,” he said. “This is more a negative reaction to the extreme partisan gerrymandering by Rodney Ellis, Lina Hidalgo and Adrian Garcia.”

Jones’ colleague at Rice, Robert Stein, agreed that the county’s new district boundaries undoubtedly disadvantage both Republican commissioners and many of their supporters.

“There is great irony in the fact the two white Republican males are suing the County Judge over the county commissioners redistricting plan,” Stein said. “For the last 100 years Blacks and Hispanics have argued, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the partisan drawing of legislative districts prevented them from voting for the candidates of their choice.”

This was filed in state court, so some Harris County judge will get to deal with it. There’s no federal standard for partisan gerrymandering, because the concept was too hard for John Roberts to deal with, but state courts could find that such a thing had happened. I don’t know that the Republicans in Austin will be all that thrilled in that event. I will of course keep an eye on this.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

Harris County will pause its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over the proposed Interstate 45 widening in hopes that it leads to a consensus that has eluded them for more than four years.

The pause, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court at a special meeting Monday, instructs County Attorney Christian Menefee to seek a stay on the lawsuit in federal court as he negotiates with TxDOT to resolve differences between the changes the county seeks to the project and the current plan.

The project, estimated to cost at least $9 billion, would rebuild and widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including the freeway’s interchanges with Interstate 69, Interstate 10 and Loop 610 in Independence Heights.

The stay and pause, officials said, would give an opening to officials to work out details of the planned freeway widening without backing off their opposition to what TxDOT is proposing.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Menefee said he will ask the court for a stay of 30 days, and then potentially extend that for an additional 30 days if the discussions are “fruitful.”

“The pause is a show of good faith by the county to remind TxDOT that we’re in this to find solutions and address community concerns,” Menefee said in a statement. “We expect TxDOT to work alongside us to achieve the same. If that does not happen, the county will resume the suit and we’ll let the courts decide.”

[…]

Skepticism remains high among project opponents that TxDOT can be a willing participant. Jeff Peters, a member of the Stop TxDOT I-45, said backers consistently have bullied people into accepting their design with the threat of doing nothing if they do not get their way. He urged the county to proceed with the lawsuit, rather than relent.

“This is a critical piece of leverage that can bring TxDOT to the bargaining table,” Peters told Commissioners Court before it approved the pause.

Highway officials, however, have said since March that the federal review and lawsuit leave them no choice but to stop talking. At an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said the pause by the Federal Highway Administration and county lawsuit were more of an obstacle to open dialogue because they impede TxDOT from designing alternatives.

“We can’t spend money to design and we can’t spend money to do those things,” Ryan said at the forum, which drew criticism because it was for paying guests only at an event sponsored by various engineering, construction and planning firms.

See here for the background. As noted recently, there are other obstacles to the project, though perhaps if Harris County and TxDOT can settle their differences, those can be handled as well. I’m fine with this approach – if there’s a path to meeting the needs of the many people and groups that have been objecting to the design of this project, then sure, let’s go for it – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. There’s already been a lot of time for talk, and I don’t know how much latitude TxDOT has to give. There’s some risk here for Harris County as well, as the opponents of this project aren’t likely to be happy with half a loaf. But hey, lawsuits are time- and resource-intensive, and they often end in settlements anyway, so why not give this a try. You never know.

County Court At Law Judge Lesley Briones announces for Commissioner Precinct 4

From the inbox (and on Facebook):

Lesley Briones

Today, I announce my candidacy for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4.

I have devoted my career to helping people – and serving as a county commissioner will allow me to help improve people’s lives in a more direct, impactful way.

Together, we can build a county government that keeps our families safe, protects our homes from flooding, expands access to health care, treats everyone fairly, and creates good jobs that help our families thrive.

I have been represented by the current Precinct 4 commissioner for the last ten years. In that time, Harris County has changed – and now is the time for new leadership that will get better results for our community.

As part of this transition, I have resigned from my position as judge, and will continue serving until my successor is appointed. It has been a tremendous honor to advance equal justice on the bench, and I look forward to building upon my experience as we work to create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Harris County for all.”

County Commissioner Adrian García made the following statement:

I enthusiastically give my full support to Judge Lesley Briones in her campaign for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s professional qualifications and life experiences make her the best qualified to confront the issues facing Precinct 4 and all of Harris County – from public safety and flooding to health care and jobs. I am unequivocally all in for Lesley!

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis made the following statement:

I am proud to endorse Judge Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s proven values of fairness and equal justice, combined with her proven skills at getting results for children, seniors, and families, will help keep Harris County safe, healthy, and thriving for all our residents.

Briones was appointed to the County Court At Law #4 bench in 2019 following the Bill McLeod “wait, do I have to resign now that I said I was running for another office?” kerfuffle. Note that she explicitly mentioned her intent to resign in the press release, so good form there. She then decisively beat McLeod in the 2020 primary and easily won a full term that November. She’s the first candidate to announce for the newly-Democratic precinct, and comes out of the gate hot with the two endorsements. I’m aware of at least one other person looking at this race, so she won’t have the primary to herself, but she’s off to a good start. This is the biggest prize on the ballot in 2022 for local Dems, so for sure there will be some further interest in that race. Her Facebook page is here, she’s got a website on the way, and we’ll see who the Court picks to fill that bench again.

So what happened with election night reporting this time?

The Chron turns its attention to how long it took for election results to get posted on Tuesday night.


Since last year, Harris County has purchased a new fleet of voting machines, created a new elections administration office and hired a new executive to run it.

Why then, many residents wondered, did Tuesday’s low-turnout election see the same delays in vote counting that plagued the county in the past?

By 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, just 60 percent of votes had been tallied for the ballot, which included state constitutional amendments, school board races and a handful of municipal contests. The county elections administrator’s office did not publish the final unofficial tally until 8:30 a.m., 13 ½ hours after the polls closed.

Election Administrator Isabel Longoria blamed the delay on an “extremely unlikely” glitch in the backup power supply at the vote count headquarters at occurred around 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. That triggered a warning on the new voting system, which is sensitive to anything that may resemble a cyberattack, though it is not connected to the internet.

Longoria ordered a test of the system, which took about two hours and delayed the counting of ballots cast during the early vote period, which under Texas law cannot be counted until Election Day. That, in turn, caused delays when election judges began returning Election Day ballot boxes after polls closed at 7 p.m., she said.

“I get that it’s frustrating … but when you trip your new system, you want to be thorough,” Longoria said. “That’s the most responsible thing to do as an elections administrator, so there are no questions later about why you did not stop when you had the chance to double-check.”

Longoria said she does not anticipate the issue in future elections. Higher-turnout contests are no more difficult, she said, since they have the same number of polling places and memory cards that must be processed.

[…]

Tuesday’s delays were unacceptable to Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who last year opposed the creation of an independent elections office and the hiring of Longoria as its first leader. Cagle said Wednesday the county should revert to the old model, in which the county clerk oversees elections and the county tax assessor-collector maintains the voter roll.

“We have an unelected bureaucrat who was appointed by three members of Commissioners Court,” Cagle said. “There’s no accountability to the public.”

Commissioners Court last year created the election administration office on a party-line vote. Longoria was hired by a committee that included Hidalgo, the county party chairs, tax assessor and county clerk.

Cagle said the three Democratic members of the court, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, bear responsibility for ensuring Wednesday’s delays do not happen again.

Marc Campos, a longtime Houston Democratic strategist, wrote on his blog Wednesday morning that he “expect(ed) outrage” out of the trio.

“This is not about every election watch party that was ruined last night across Harris County,” Campos wrote on his blog. “This is about botching the reporting of election results and the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office folk’s epic failure.”

Hidalgo said in a statement that while running elections is never easy, the county needs to identify any issues with Tuesday’s elections and correct them for the future. Ellis echoed that sentiment, saying he trusted that Longoria’s team acted in the interests of security and accuracy.

Garcia said the elections office needs to improve communication with the public and anticipate problems before they occur.

“Not getting timely results is unfair to voters and the candidates, and I expect this will be a one-time glitch rather than a continuance of the reputation Harris County earned when elections were run by Republicans like Stan Stanart,” Garcia said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. I’m going to bullet point this one.

– Just as a reminder, the elections administrator idea was first put forward by Ed Emmett back in 2010. Most counties in Texas have them now. Harris was very much an outlier with its Tax Assessor/County Clerk approach to handling voter registration and running elections. Harris County followed state law in creating the position and putting oversight on it.

– The first thing we need is a clear and publicly-available explanation of what exactly happened, why it happened (if we can determine that), and what we are doing to prevent it from happening again. Was the complete reboot necessary, or could that have been skipped? That glitch in the backup power supply may have been extremely unlikely, but given that it did happen, will there be some further mitigation built in to the system now?

This is basic stuff, and speaking as someone who has worked for a big company for a long time, it’s a good way to learn from experience and maintain confidence in one’s own processes. Campos worries that this episode will cause voters to question the capability of Democrats to govern Harris County. Transparency about what happened and what is being done about it is the best antidote for that.

– Something that Commissioner Garcia mentioned but has otherwise been overlooked is that there was inadequate communication from the Elections Administrator’s office on Tuesday night, while we were all waiting for the results. There was the “go watch the Astros” tweet and a couple of Facebook Live videos on the Harris Votes Facebook page, but I went to bed Tuesday night not really knowing what was happening, and I believe that was true for a lot of people. That’s a failure on Isabel Longoria’s part, and I believe it has contributed to the continuing criticism.

People have a reasonable expectation to see at least the early voting results at 7 PM or shortly thereafter. When that doesn’t happen, for whatever the reason, there has to be a clear and easy to find explanation for it. A message on the HarrisVotes website and at the top of the Election Day results page would have sufficed. I looked to Twitter because that’s usually where the breaking news is, but there was nothing to really answer my questions. Maybe those Facebook Live videos would have told me what I wanted to know, but who wants to sit through a video like that when a couple of lines of text that can be readily shared elsewhere will do? I’m sure the Elections office was busy trying to work through the problems so they could get the results out, but they really needed to be letting the rest of us know what was going on and when we might expect an update of the situation. It was the lack of relevant information that made the Tuesday night experience as frustrating as it was. That’s an error that cannot happen again.

– Also, why was there a location that was still voting at 8 PM? What happened there? That needs to be explained as well.

We need to know what happened. We should have known more on Tuesday night, but regardless of that we need to know it now. I hope that process has begun with the Commissioners Court meeting from yesterday. It won’t be done until I can find and link to a report about it.

Is there no way to fully close the flood bond funding gap?

Not looking great right now.

For three years, Harris County Commissioners Court members have bickered, haggled and negotiated over the $2.5 billion flood bond program voters passed after Hurricane Harvey.

Throughout all the discord over how projects should be prioritized and the order in which they should start, the group has stuck to one promise: All projects on the original list presented to voters would be completed, one way or another.

That guarantee may no longer be true, court members conceded Tuesday after Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed taking funding for seven planned projects in the Cedar Bayou watershed and reallocating it elsewhere.

While Garcia postponed seeking approval of the idea after County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned it effectively would kill the Cedar Bayou projects, the Democratic majority on the court said the county should consider re-vetting planned projects to see if better alternatives are available.

Court members are in a conundrum. The list contains about $5 billion worth of flood protection projects. The bond, however, provides only half that sum. The county planned for the rest to be covered through matching federal dollars that have failed to materialize, largely due to a distribution formula used by the state General Land Office that discriminated against populous areas.

“We only have $2.5 billion, so decisions have to be made,” Garcia said.

Through June, however, the county had received $1.2 billion in matching federal funds and diverted an additional $230 million in toll road revenue for the program, bringing the total available to $4 billion. The county budget office estimates the roughly decade-long program, currently 16 percent complete, is fully funded for the next five years.

Nonetheless, while no projects have been delayed or canceled to date, that day could soon arrive. Garcia’s proposal would shift $191 million planned for detention basins and channel improvements along Cedar Bayou, in northeast Harris County, to 17 projects in the Carpenters, Vince, Jackson, Greens, Armand, San Jacinto and Galveston Bay watersheds.

See here, here, and here for more on the attempts to fill the gap, and here and here for the reminder that the mess we are in is George P. Bush’s fault. According to Commissioner Garcia, his proposal to prioritize one project over another would protect more houses, score better on the county’s rubric for the projects, and get finished faster. I’m not sure why the order hadn’t been flipped before now, but that sure sounds like a worthy idea even without the funding issues. If nothing else, it may buy some time. But in the end, assuming we continue to be screwed by the GLO, it’s as Commissioner Ellis said: The Commissioners can find a way to come up with the rest of the money, or they can admit that not all of the projects will get done and explain their actions to the public. Those are the choices.

Commissioners Court passes its new map

It differs from the first map in a few ways, which I will get to in a minute, but it checks all the boxes I wanted it to check.

For Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, it boiled down to this: Do I trust my Republican colleagues to set tax rates that will fund critical services like health care and childhood development as the population continues to grow?

The answer? A firm no, which convinced Hidalgo to support a commissioner precinct redistricting plan that will likely lead to a 4-1 Democratic supermajority on Commissioners Court in 2023.

“I am concerned that your party is in a race to the bottom, to literally not pay for lifesaving services,” Hidalgo told Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, referencing his proposal in September to cut the county hospital district budget by $17 million. “I haven’t forgotten that.”

Court Thursday afternoon adopted the new map, which will debut in next year’s elections, on a 3-2 party line vote. The group adopted the third proposal offered by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, which he said keeps communities with similar interests together and reflects the leftward shift of the county over the past decade.

“I keep Katy ISD and Alief ISD together, the Energy Corridor together,” Ellis said. “It unites Sharpstown and Gulfton and combines watersheds in those areas.”

Cagle objected to the proposal, since it largely switches the current areas covered by precincts 3 and 4, which he said would leave those commissioners in charge of different road crews, parks and community centers for no reason.

“To be candid, I thought (this map) was a joke,” Cagle said. “It’s the stranger map. Your people of service are all going to be served by strangers, in terms of flipping all the resources.”

[…]

The current map, drawn by a Republican-controlled court in 2011, packs Democrats into Precinct 1, increasing the chance that Republicans would win elections in precincts 2, 3 and 4. Commissioners Cagle and Precinct 3’s Tom Ramsey proposed maps that would preserve that edge, even though Republicans have not won a countywide election since 2014 and President Joe Biden won here by 13 points last year.

The adopted Ellis map gives Democrats a decisive edge. According to analysis of election results from 2016 to 2020, Democrats will have an advantage of 50 percentage points in Precinct 1, 12 points in Precinct 2 and 12 points in Precinct 4. Republican voters are disproportionately crammed into Precinct 3, giving the party a 20-point advantage there.

If those trends hold, Democrats are likely to defeat Cagle in Precinct 4 next year to secure a 4-1 Commissioners Court majority. This is critical because setting tax rates requires a quorum of four members instead of the typical three, which gave Republicans tremendous influence in negotiations despite being in the minority.

See here, here, and here for the background. The current map can be seen here, the original Ellis proposal is here, and the final Ellis map, the one that was adopted, is here.

By switching the targeted precinct from 4 to 3, not only does this mean that it’s Jack Cagle and not Tom Ramsey who will get the boot (fine by me either way), it also moves up the date to do the booting from 2024 to 2022. That’s because Ramsey was elected in 2020 and would not be on the ballot again until 2024, while Cagle is on the ballot next year. Why wait? That makes the most sense.

I presume this will also have an effect on the HCDE, and in turn on Trustees Eric Dick in Precinct 4 and Andrea Duhon in Precinct 3; Amy Hinojosa in Precinct 2 will benefit in the same way that Commissioner Garcia will. Dick and Hinojosa are up for election next year, Duhon in 2024. Assuming Harris County stays blue overall, this will eventually result in the same 6-1 Dem split on the HCDE board, but with a two-year period between 2022 and 2024 in which everyone will be Democratic.

So there we have it. I’m fine with this, and I look forward to seeing who files to be the one to un-elect Jack Cagle. A statement from Commissioner Ellis is here and from Commissioner Garcia is here.

More on Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting

Tune up that tiny violin.

Republican Harris County Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey want to keep the decennial process of redistricting precinct boundaries simple. The maps they have proposed would add new zigs and zags to ensure each precinct has the same population but largely would leave the current lines intact.

The pair say their proposals would protect residents from disruptions to county services, though they also would protect something else: the political power of conservatives with an electorate that has shifted away from them.

Republicans have lost every countywide election since 2014, and President Joe Biden won here by 13 percentage points last year. Yet the proposal from Cagle and Ramsey, which packs Democratic voters disproportionately into one precinct, would leave Republicans well-positioned to regain control of the Commissioners Court next year.

“We’ve seen in the state Legislature where Republicans, instead of creating huge inroads in districts in which they lost, opt to protect themselves and protect the current status quo,” University of Houston political science professor Jeronimo Cortina said. “Republicans in Harris County are attempting to do a very similar thing.”

The difference, Cortina said, is that Cagle and Ramsey lack the power to do so. Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the court and thus control redistricting.

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed his own map, which likely would produce three precincts controlled by Democrats and one held by a Republican. He noted the redistricting criteria the Commissioners Court developed included “a desire to have precincts that will allow … representation to reflect the philosophical and partisan makeup of the county.”

“The so-called map that Commissioner Cagle has that I think I saw described as the status quo creates three solid Republican precincts,” Ellis said at a public hearing Thursday. “That was by design, that all of those folks of the philosophical persuasion that happened to tend for Democrats were stuck in Precinct 1.”

Cagle said he prioritized shifting as few residents between precincts as possible in drafting his map; Ramsey said he did not take politics into consideration.

“You can call me the naïve one, but I approached this from the standpoint of serving constituents,” Ramsey said.

[…]

The current map was drawn in 2011 by a Republican-majority Commissioners Court. It disproportionately pushed Democrats into Precinct 1, leaving Precincts 2, 3, and 4 with a majority of Republican voters. Notably, it shifted parts of heavily conservative Kingwood into Precinct 2, which had just been flipped by Republican Jack Morman, to boost his chances of reelection.

The county has shifted leftward in the decade since. Harris County voters have chosen the Democratic presidential nominee in every contest since 2008 and by 2018 had taken control of every countywide elected office. Democrat Adrian Garcia beat Morman in Precinct 2 in 2018, and now his party is keen to protect the seat.

See here and here for the background. I cannot emphasize enough how much I do not care about what Cagle and Ramsey want. Their constituents will be fine – they can commiserate with the many, many people who have been shuffled into various Congressional and legislative districts over the past couple of decades. But what they want, as far as their own political futures are concerned, that’s just not on the list of priorities. I’d say I’m sorry but we both know I’m not. The Texas Signal has more.

Harris County Commissioners Court begins the process of approving its new maps today

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Rodney Ellis:

Every decade, after each U.S. census, states, cities and counties engage in a process called redistricting, where they adjust the boundaries of their governing districts to reflect changes in population growth and other factors.

For the last six weeks, Harris County has held public meetings across the county to hear your thoughts.

Based on what we learned, and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, we’re proposing new boundaries for county commissioner districts that are reflected in the map posted here. Our plan seeks to keep communities of interest together and brings together areas that have been split apart for years.

For too long this county has been intentionally divided by precinct boundaries that deny people the opportunity to elect representation that accurately reflects the views of the majority of our communities. The boundaries proposed cease that continued suppression, and allows the voices and views of the people to be reflected by those who represent them.

In Harris County, we’re committed to a fair and transparent process. That’s why we held public meetings across the county and why we are taking public comment now on the proposed maps.

You will hear some of my colleagues complain – and complain loudly. Sadly, they are more concerned about preserving their political power and getting headlines than they are about getting better representation for you.

You can provide YOUR feedback on the proposed maps in person or virtually. Public hearings on the adoption of a redistricting map in Harris County will be held on Tuesday, October 26 and Thursday, October 28. You MUST complete this form in order to testify.

  • For questions or assistance with the Appearance Request Form, please contact [email protected] or 713-274-1111.
  • If you cannot attend, you can still let your voice be heard by submitting your written comments to [email protected]

Redistricting will impact the direction of this county for years to come. We will continue to fight for you to have the fair representation that everyone in Harris County deserves.

For more information on the Harris County redistricting process, you can visit the Harris County Attorney Office’s redistricting page.

See here for the background. You can expect the wailing and gnashing of teeth among Republicans who just want a nice, fair, inclusive, mapmaking process – you know, like the one we just had – to be turned up to eleven. I can only imagine the lawsuits they may file afterwards. The HCDP has put out its support of the Ellis map along with a tout sheet about what the new map will do, and undo. This is going to be messy but exciting.

Commissioners Court redistricting has begun

The Republicans are apoplectic. I have no sympathy.

The two Republican Harris County commissioners say a proposal by Democrats to re-draw commissioner precinct boundaries will cut services and dilute the influence of conservative residents.

The proposed map by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis would significantly alter the shapes of precincts 3 and 4, the two represented by Republicans. Precinct 4 would arch along the county’s northern edge from Katy to Baytown, while Precinct 3 would be entirely west of Loop 610.

Commissioners Court [took] input from the public on redistricting at a hearing Thursday at 4 p.m.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey called Ellis’s map “the most corrupt plan I have ever seen my 45 years in doing work in Harris County.”

“The objective is control,” Ramsey said Thursday on the Michael Berry Show. “The objective is to create the most chaos as possible, because (the Democrats) cannot stand the fact that 3 and 4 function very well. … It drives them crazy, so they want to blow it up.”

He said he is particularly concerned that Precinct 4 would by far have the largest share of residents living in unincorporated areas, who rely on the county for services like parks and community centers. Ramsey predicted a strain on that precinct would lead to cutbacks.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the Ellis map, if approved, could allow Democrats to finally capture a fourth seat on Commissioners Court, which would allow them to set tax rates without any input from Republicans. In an email to constituents, Cagle predicted that would lead to future tax increases.

Cagle has proposed a map of his own. It largely keeps the current shapes of the precincts intact, while ceding parts of precincts 3 and 4 to precincts 1 and 2.

Oh, boo hoo hoo. Commissioner Ramsey deserves what he’s getting. I like Commissioner Ellis’ response, as noted here.

“Any maps that I vote for will be fair and designed to provide better representation for all Harris County residents. Has Commissioner Ramsey complained about the radical partisan racially discriminatory gerrymandering his Republican colleagues just rammed through the state legislature?” said Commissioner Ellis in response to a FOX 26 request for comment.

I think we know the answer to that. Here’s the current map. The Ellis plan is here, and if you scroll down to page 5, you’ll see the partisan splits from the 2018 Governor’s race, the 2020 Presidential race, and the 2020 Senate race. I feel pretty confident if those are the numbers. The Ellis map looks a lot like the third map suggested by Benjamin Chou, which we discussed in August.

You can see more maps here. There’s one drawn by Commissioner Ramsey, and a demonstration map drawn by Dem consultant Robert Jara (I assume it’s him, the link just says “Jara map”), which would make all four precincts Democratic, though with sufficiently close margins that I’d feel pretty nervous about it. We’ll know more about what is happening by the time you read this on Friday, but it looks to me like we’ll get a map approved pretty quickly – given that the state and Congressional maps are all in the hopper, we’re going to have primaries at the usual time, which means filing season opens on November 15 as usual. So yeah, this is going to move quickly. Campos has more.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.