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Adrian Garcia

October Census deadline restored

Good news, though as with everything we can’t be sure just yet that it’s for real.

A federal judge in California late Thursday blocked the Trump administration from stopping the 2020 Census count next week, saying it should continue until Oct. 31, the date the Census Bureau had planned on before the administration abruptly shortened the count.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the National Urban League — a group of counties, cities, advocacy groups and individuals — and other groups. Koh had, earlier this month, issued a temporary restraining order to keep the count underway. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a hearing Tuesday, Koh had expressed irritation with Justice Department lawyers for missing a deadline she had set for them to produce internal documents connected to the case.

She referred repeatedly to documents finally released over the weekend and Monday in which career bureau officials said the data could not be properly collected and delivered to the president on the government’s new timeline.

See here and here for the background. The Chron lays out what’s at stake locally.

Natalia Cornelio, legal affairs director for [County Commissioner Rodney] Ellis, said at the point Trump yanked back the deadline in early August, only 63 percent of households nationwide and 54 percent in Houston had responded to the census.

Despite those numbers, on Aug. 3, the census director abruptly announced what the court is calling the “re-plan,” which shortened the timeline for households to respond by Sept. 30.

Cornelio said the accuracy of the census count is critical to Harris County’s future.

“Its outcome determines political representation and billions of dollars of funding for healthcare, education, disaster relief, and housing,” she said.

Right now, Harris County is looking at an estimated undercount of 600,000 households, based on data from Civis Analytics, the company the county has partnered with to track its census outreach, she said.

One area likely to suffer from an undercount is the southern portion of the county, a pie-slice-shaped region extending from downtown Houston to Bellaire to League City, according to Steven Romalewski, who maps census data for the Center for Urban Research at CUNY. In that area, 11 percent of the door-knocking has yet to be completed, a feat that would likely would have been impossible with less than a week to spare to the Sept. 30 deadline, he said.

In parts of Fort Bend and Galveston counties, nearly 18 percent of the door-knocking needs to be finished. And in Montgomery County 12 percent of homes have yet to be documented.

Romalewski said the ruling could have a major impact on areas with a relatively low “completion” rate for the door-knocking operation that’s meant to visit every household that has not responded. With more time to complete the process, census enumerators can attempt to visit households more than once and will be likelier to talk with someone in-person or determine that a unit is vacant. The fallback, which census officials consider less accurate, is to to count residents through administrative records.

I have a hard time understanding why any decent person would think this was a good state of affairs. At least we have a chance now to try and get this close to correct. That’s pending the likely appeal to SCOTUS, and who knows what they may do at this point. But at least for now, there’s a chance.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

Census shenanigans halted for now

Good.

[On] Saturday, US District Judge Lucy Koh issued a temporary restraining order to stop Census Bureau officials from winding down door-knocking and online, phone, and mail response collection by September 30—a month early—writing that the shortened census timeline could cause “irreparable harm.”

“Because the decennial census is at issue here, an inaccurate count would not be remedied for another decade, which would affect the distribution of federal and state funding, the deployment of services, and the allocation of local resources for a decade,” Koh wrote.

The US Census Bureau had originally planned to end their count by October 31, a date chosen to accommodate delays caused by the pandemic. But on August 3, the bureau announced that it would stop collecting census responses by the end of September, and was attempting to “improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness.” At the time, just 63 percent of households had responded. Immediately afterward, four former census bureau directors issued a public statement explaining that a shortened timeline would “result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas of the country.” Later that month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, also reported that “compressed timeframes” in the 2020 census could undermine the overall quality of the census count.

Now, at least until a hearing on September 17, the Census Bureau may not take steps to wind down its counting operations, such as terminating field staff.

The Chron adds some detail.

At a hearing Friday, Justice Department attorney Alexander Sverdlov told Koh that any “anxiety” about the census was “not warranted” and that operations were shutting down only when 85% to 90% of residents in a particular locale had responded. He argued in a court filing that said the government’s “decisions on how and when to complete a census turn on policy choices that are unreviewable political questions.”

The population count is crucial for states’ U.S. House representation and the distribution of $800 billion in federal aid each year. Separately, President Trump is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, an action challenged by California and other states in multiple lawsuits.

Koh questioned the government’s explanations at Friday’s hearing and was equally skeptical in Saturday’s ruling.

The administration has insisted that moving the deadline up to Sept. 30 was necessary to deliver the census results to the president by Dec. 31, rather than by next April, under a previous timetable. But Koh said the Census Bureau’s deputy director, Albert Fontenot, “acknowledged publicly less than two months ago that the bureau is ‘past the window of being able to get accurate counts to the president by Dec. 31.’” She said the bureau’s head of field operations made the same admission in May.

Koh also quoted Fontenot as saying, in a court filing Friday night, that the bureau has begun terminating its temporary field staff in areas that have completed their work, and it is difficult to bring them back. That underscores the need for a restraining order halting any further cutbacks until the legality of the one-month delay is resolved, she said.

See here for the background. Harris County, along with Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, are among the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. Perhaps if we can wait to deliver the results to the President until, say, January 21, we can feel a bit more comfortable that they will get a proper review, and that the data is sufficiently accurate. Perhaps we could also then see about fixing anything that was clearly effed up thanks to the Trump team’s constant efforts at sabotage. If we are blessed with an all-Democratic government, we can pass a bill to allow statistical sampling, which would help a lot. There’s no reason to trust anything this administration has done with the Census, and every reason to give a new administration a chance to fix the more egregious errors. The Trib has more.

Harris County goes all in on voting access

Wow.

Harris County voters this November will have more time and more than a hundred additional places to cast ballots in the presidential election, including drive-through locations and one day of 24-hour voting, under an expansive plan approved by Commissioners Court Tuesday.

With the additional polling locations, an extra week of early voting and up to 12,000 election workers, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is pledging a smooth November election.

On a 3-2 vote, the court agreed to spend an additional $17.1 million — all but about $1 million to come from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund Hollins’s ambitious election plan. The money is on top of the $12 million the court approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting amid fears that in-person balloting could spread the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic.

The clerk’s plan includes extended early balloting hours, including multiple nights to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, as well as new equipment to process an expected record number of mail ballots.

“The County Clerk’s office has made it our top priority to ensure a safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient election for the voters of Harris County this November,” Hollins told court members. “And to ensure this outcome, our office has … executed a robust set of 24 initiatives, many of which were piloted in the July primary runoff election.”

Hollins’ plan is among the boldest unveiled by a Texas elections administrator to improve a voter’s experience and increase turnout in a state with historically low participation, said University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

“These changes would rocket Harris County to the top of the list as the most progressive approach to voting,” Rottinghaus said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the plan could inadvertently undermine a push by Democrats to expand mail voting for voters under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hollins is making sure that voting in person is safer than going to the grocery store,” Jones said. “To the extent to which other county clerks follow his lead, it’s more and more difficult to make the case that voting in person represents a risk to someone’s health.”

In previous elections, Harris County operated about 40 early voting and 750 Election Day sites. The additional funding, Hollins said, will allow the county to operate 120 early voting and 808 Election Day locations.

He estimated 1.7 million voters may turn out, a record in any Harris County election and an increase of 361,000 since the 2016 presidential contest.

The two Republican commissioners voted No to this, one complaining that it cost too much and one complaining that there were too many voting locations inside Precinct 1, which is where the city of Houston is. Remember how Commissioners Court was 4-1 Republican before last year? Apparently, elections do have consequences.

See here and here for some background. I had mentioned Hollins’ assertion of 120 early voting locations following the HCDP precinct chairs meeting, where he addressed us after we voted for County Clerk and HCDE nominees. It’s still kind of amazing to see this all actually move forward. There’s also another piece to mention:

Doubling down on increasing the use of voting by mail in November, Harris County will send every registered voter in Texas’ most populous county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election.

The move, announced Tuesday by the county clerk’s office, puts Harris County — which has more than 2.4 million residents on its voter roll — ahead of most other counties when it comes to proactively working to bump up the number of voters who may request mail-in ballots. Election officials expect a record number of people to vote by mail this year, but not all of Harris County’s registered voters will ultimately qualify.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has said he was encouraged by the county’s return rate ahead of the July primary runoff election when it sent applications to every registered voter who was 65 or older. Typically, voters must print out or request applications for ballots by mail from the county or the state and deliver or mail them to their local elections office. In between the March primary election and the July primary runoff, the county saw a more than 100% increase in vote-by-mail applications, Hollins said.

“If you’re eligible to vote by mail, we want you to vote by mail. It’s safest for you. It’s safest for all your neighbors,” Hollins said in a previous interview, arguing that every additional mail-in voter would make the election safer for those voting in person because they’d have to stand behind one less voter who could potentially infect them. “Voting by mail is the safest way to vote, and all those who are eligible to vote should strongly consider casting their vote in that manner — not only for themselves but as a service, a duty to other residents.”

Wow again. The county will purchase mail-sorting equipment and hire a bunch of temporary workers to deal with all the mail. We definitely saw a lot of people who had not voted in the March primary return mail ballots in the runoff. That certainly suggests that sending out the mail ballot applications in such a universal fashion helped boost turnout, though without a deeper study of other runoffs I can’t say that for sure. The Texas Democratic Party is also sent out mail ballot applications, though of course they sent them just to Dems. I don’t know how many registered voters in Harris County are 65 and over, and I don’t know how many people will apply for a mail ballot under the disability provision, but the potential certainly exists for there to be a lot of voting by mail this fall. Just remember to send everything in as early as you can, and consider using the mail ballot dropoff locations at the County Clerk annex offices.

You may think that this is a lot of mail ballot applications being sent to people who can’t or won’t use them, and you may think this is a lot of money being spent to conduct this election. I got a press release from usual suspect Paul Bettencourt complaining about how the County Clerk was making it too darn easy for people to vote. (Remember when he was in charge of voter registration in Harris County as Tax Assessor? Remember how voter registration totals lagged well behind population growth during his term, and never started to catch up until after he was gone? Good times, good times.) My scalding hot take is that what County Clerk Chris Hollins is doing this year should be the norm going forward. Open up a ton of early voting sites, have really convenient hours for them, send mail ballot applications to everyone, and more. All of us expect, every day, a level of ease, convenience, and time-savings in the things we do. I can’t think of any reason why “voting” shouldn’t be on that list. Maybe starting with this year, it finally will be.

Lawsuit filed to restore original Census deadline

Good.

Citing the high stakes of a botched census, Harris County and two of its Democratic county commissioners have signed on to a federal lawsuit trying to block the Trump administration’s efforts to end counting for the 2020 census a month earlier than planned.

The constitutionally required count of everyone living in the country had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic and was to run through Oct. 31. But the Census Bureau announced earlier this month it will end the count sooner, moving up the deadline for responding to Sept. 30.

A federal lawsuit filed Monday in California alleges that the shortened schedule is unconstitutional because it will not produce a fair and accurate count and that the Census Bureau’s move violates federal administrative law because the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The lawsuit is led by the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Harris County, which is the state’s largest, joined in along with other local entities including the city of Los Angeles and King County in Washington. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia are signed on as individual plaintiffs.

“Undercounted cities, counties, and municipalities will lose representation in Congress and tens of millions of dollars in funding,” the lawsuit reads. “And communities of color will lose core political power and vital services. In contrast to these dire stakes, the immediate solution to this problem is simple: set aside and enjoin implementation of the impossibly-shortened Rush Plan, which is based on an unexplained change of position, and allow the Census Bureau to implement the plan that it had designed to fulfill its constitutional duties during the pandemic.”

[…]

The October cutoff had offered organizers crucial overtime for the count after the coronavirus pandemic derailed canvassing and outreach efforts that in some regions of the state, like in Harris County, had been in the works for years.

But those efforts have been further disrupted by what Harris County and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit dubbed as the “rush plan.” Mailers ordered before the change had to be redone, with county workers forced to purchase stickers to cover the old deadline on those materials.

In announcing the new deadline, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau planned to hire more employees “to accelerate the completion of data collection” and avoid a delay in reporting counts for seats in Congress and the distribution of redistricting data.

“The Census Bureau’s new plan reflects our continued commitment to conduct a complete count, provide accurate apportionment data, and protect the health and safety of the public and our workforce,” Dillingham said in a statement.

But the earlier deadline has heightened the possibility that Texas will be undercounted and that low-income and Hispanic Texans in particular — who were already at the highest risk of being missed — will go uncounted at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging their communities.

here for some background, and here for a peek at the lawsuit. Combined with Donald Trump’s surely illegal order to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted for the purposes of apportionment, it’s like Trump and his enablers really don’t want Texas to get any additional Congressional districts next decade. I continue to marvel at Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton’s ability to shrug that kind of insult off. By the way, that “arbitrary and capricious” language is a sign that the plaintiffs are aiming for a ruling that Trump has once again violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that has killed multiple similar efforts by Trump in the past. Let’s hope we can add this one to that trash heap.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

Runoff reminder: County races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House.

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

Ten police and criminal justice reform items appear on Tuesday’s agenda; seven by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, two by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and one by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. They would:

  •  Examine whether to create an independent county civilian oversight board, with the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses, to investigate claims against police, including use-of-force complaints
  •  Order the creation of a universal use-of-force policy for all county law enforcement agencies, to include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to violence
  •  Determine how to engage the community in budget evaluations for all the county’s criminal justice departments;
  •  Create a public website with monthly use-of-force reports, including video footage, submitted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables’ offices
  •  Determine the feasibility of creating a new emergency responder program to handle some responsibilities that currently fall to police, such as mental health and substance abuse crises
  •  Study whether to create a new county agency to run “violence interruption programs” to end cycles of violence in communities
  •  Determine how to expand alternative, non-punitive intervention techniques to address issues including poverty, homelessness and substance abuse
  •  Study the effect on poor arrestees of cash bail, criminal fines, fees and penalties
  •  Order a bi-annual report on current racial disparities in the justice system with recommendations on how to eliminate them
  •  Make improvements to the indigent defense system

Ellis, who has cited criminal justice laws as among his proudest achievements during his 26-year career in the Texas Senate, said in an email to constituents on Thursday that reforming law enforcement must extend beyond addressing police brutality.

“We must re-imagine what justice means, and open our eyes to the ways that the justice system intersects with racism, classism, and other societal inequities, and chart a new path predicated on community well-being,” Ellis wrote.

As noted, Commissioners Court has less power to affect policing in Harris County than Mayor Turner and City Council do in Houston because Sheriff Gonzalez and the Constables are all elected officials themselves. They do have the power of the purse, however, and can threaten to make budget cuts as needed to effect reforms. More transparency and a CAHOOTS-like program as proposed by CM Letitia Plummer both seem like strong ideas that can have a quick impact, and an oversight board with subpoena power is also needed. Now get some community input and start implementing these plans.

On picking a new County Clerk

Stace has some thoughts.

Diane Trautman

I’m of the opinion that the Democratic majority on the Commissioner’s Court should make a strong appointment of someone who will be the incumbent, making it clear that there is no need for a possible free-for-all at the precinct chair level.

We elected our County Judge and our Commissioners, while most of us cannot even find a link on the Party website to find our own precinct chair so that we can lobby for whom we want them to vote. Either process is hardly democratic as the voters are left out of the process. I’d rather go with whom our top leaders choose and have the precinct chairs basically ratify it so we can move forward. Wishful thinking? Maybe.

Some may opine that appointing as interim one of the professionals already in the County Clerk’s office to run the 2020 election and be a placeholder while allowing a candidate chosen by the precinct chairs to run full-time is the solution. And that’s a good argument. But I think we should have a candidate who can show that they can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously. I think it’s more of a confidence builder for us voters when we see that our candidates can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Either way, we’ll see what happens. I already see suggestions on my Facebook feeds about who should run and about diversity on the ballot. There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but these things can take a turn for the ugly real quick. And that’s another reason why I’d like to see the Judge and Commissioners lead on this one.

See here for the background. As a precinct chair who will be among those lucky duckies that gets to put a nominee on the ballot for 2020, let me say that I agree with Stace’s position that we should want a candidate who “can do the professional and the political work, simultaneously”. I hope to have a better feel for this once people start throwing their hats into the ring, but I agree that a Clerk who can plan for and run an election well and who is also able to tell Ken Paxton to get stuffed while giving clear direction on these matters to the Court, the County Attorney, and the government relations crew at the county, is someone I want to see in that job.

How we get there is of less importance. If Commissioners Court – specifically, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia; I don’t expect either of the other two to provide any productive input but will hear it out if they do – says that they just want someone who can carry out the necessary electoral duties for 2020 and leave the politics up to the political people, that’s fine by me. If instead they make a strong statement about wanting the same kind of qualities as discussed here in the next Clerk and appoint someone they believe embodies those qualities, I will be more than happy to endorse that selection for the November ballot, if I agree that they got it right. I’m happy to be led by them on this matter, as long as they do lead us in the right direction. I reserve the right as part of the body that makes this selection to maintain my own counsel.

To be sure, this kind of process can get ugly in a hurry. This may be the best chance any Democrat has to win one of these offices now that there are no more Republicans to oust and we have to fight among ourselves to win. Having the Democratic members of Commissioners Court come out in unison behind a well-qualified candidate that they would like to continue working with after this November would make this a lot easier. We’ll see what they decide to do.

Meanwhile, Campos has one piece of advice:

The Commissioners Court will pick an interim County Clerk and sometime this summer the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee will select a nominee to place on the November ballot. The Commissioners aren’t going to listen to Commentary, but I hope they pick a female. If they pick a male and the male ends up getting the Executive Committee’s nod, he will win this November but get knocked off in the 2022 Democratic Party Primary by a female sure enough. Dudes need not apply.

For sure, that can happen. I will just say, 2022 will be its own election, with a different context and likely smaller turnout due to the lack of a Presidential race. It’s certainly possible that the robust candidate we hope to pick this year will get knocked off in 2022 by someone no one has heard of today. I will just say that we are not completely powerless to prevent such an outcome – I’ve been talking about the need to do a better job of promoting quality candidates at the statewide level for a couple of cycles now, following recent debacles in various downballot low-profile primaries. The same prescription holds true here, with a combination of financial support to allow a visible campaign and visible support from the elected leaders who have as much of a vested interest in having the best person possible to run elections as the rest of us do. Pick the best possible person, then support that person going forward. It’s not that complicated.

Those are my thoughts at this time. Feel free to tell me whose name you are hearing for the job and how you think I should approach this when the precinct chairs get together (virtually, I assume) to formalize it.

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

More heat on Abbott over his anti-refugee action

Good. Keep it up.

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s not an immigrant versus native-born issue … it is not a religious versus secular issue,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a press conference with elected officials and leaders of refugee resettlement organizations. “We cannot turn our backs to the most vulnerable facing the most difficult conditions imaginable.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Abbott was wrongly conflating refugee resettlement, which involves an extensive State Department vetting process that can last three years, and migrants coming across the southern border to ask for asylum.

Both numbers have dropped dramatically and this year only about 2,000 refugees were expected in Texas, compared to 7,800 admitted during the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016.

Garcia noted that the federal government fully funds the initial resettlement of refugees and that the state pays no direct costs.

“This is a reprehensible decision,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat who represents southwest Houston where many refugees are initially housed, said the governor’s choice went against his Catholic faith.

“Gov. Abbott had the choice to live as a Christian and follow what Christ said and commanded and he chose the opposite,” he said.

Opting out of the federal program means funding won’t be given to local organizations to resettle refugees in Texas, said Kimberly Haynes, a regional refugee coordinator with the South Texas Office of Refugees.

She said Abbott’s decision does not prevent refugees from moving here later, but meant the state would no longer receiving funding to help them integrate, including to find jobs and learn English. Most refugees coming to Houston are joining relatives likely will continue to come here no matter where they are settled, Haynes said.

“If someone is resettled here and the next day they want to come to this great state, they can take the bus and come to Texas,” said Ali Al Sudani, who came here as a refugee from Iraq a decade ago and is now senior vice president for programs at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t believe for a minute any of this will affect Abbott – he doesn’t talk to the public, so why would he ever listen to the public? – but it’s still the right thing to do, and maybe there is some level of heat that Abbott might feel. In the meantime, this whole fight may be moot.

A federal judge temporarily blocked a Trump administration policy that would have allowed governors, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other local leaders to prevent refugees from resettling in those areas.

The Wednesday decision from Maryland-based Judge Peter J. Messitte comes just days after Abbott became the first and only state leader to opt out of the program. Officials had until Jan. 21 to inform the State Department whether they would participate in the program after the Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order. At least 42 governors, including Republicans, have said they would accept refugees.

“By giving States and Local governments the power to veto where refugees maybe settled – in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings, and Constitutional doctrine to the contrary – [the order] does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” Messitte said in his ruling.

You can see a copy of the ruling here. I assume this will be appealed by the Trump administration, and as the original lawsuit was not filed in the Fifth Circuit there’s a chance this ruling could be upheld. For now at least, the madness has been stopped. NPR, Daily Kos, and the Texas Signal have more.

Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Been pretty good so far, I’d say.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

During her longshot campaign in 2018, Lina Hidalgo at times sounded like a candidate for mayor or Congress. With talking points on immigration, criminal justice reform and education, her critics contended she surely misunderstood the role of county judge.

Hidalgo insisted the incumbent crop of leaders had a too-narrow view of what county government could accomplish. She unseated Ed Emmett, the popular three-term county judge, in an Election Night stunner amid a Democratic sweep of countywide posts. And then she set about enacting her vision.

After a year in office, Hidalgo has mollified many concerns about her inexperience, marshaled the county’s response to a series of chemical fires and presided over a Commissioners Court of older men who often clash. With her two Democratic colleagues, she has broadened the size and scope of county government, and pledged to do so further in 2020 with a focus on early childhood development.

“We’ve begun to transform the way we do things in the county,” Hidalgo said. “The county used to be in this box that was just about roads and bridges. Now, we’ve seen and we’ve shown it can be about environmental investment. It can be about criminal justice reform. It can be about voting access.”

She has also seen her national stature rise. Forbes magazine named her to its “30 Under 30” list. Presidential candidates have sought to meet her during trips to Houston, attention she said makes her feel humbled.

Locally, the public views Hidalgo with a curiosity her predecessors did not elicit. After Hidalgo appeared on a BBC panel in November with a state senator and two members of Congress, she was the one several attendees waited to greet afterward.

During a holiday toys for kids event at the George R. Brown Convention Center in mid-December, Hidalgo greeted families waiting in line in English and Spanish. Young women, in particular, asked to take photographs with her. They asked how a person like her ended up in a position like this.

“They ask how did you do it? How did you manage to break into the machine?” Hidalgo said. “My biggest message to young people is to get involved … to volunteer, to participate. We need smart people in government.”

Judge Hidalgo recently gave her first State of the County address, in which she talked about the things that she and Commissioners Court accomplished this past year. As the story notes, the election of Adrian Garcia to the Court as well, which gave Dems a 3-2 majority and the votes on the Court to begin doing the kind of things Hidalgo had spoken about during her campaign, was a key aspect to this. She had the vision from the beginning, and the courage to run when no one else wanted a piece of that race, and she has very much been the public face of the Court and in many ways the county. There’s a lot she has to be proud of, and to build on going forward.

The article mentions that Hidalgo has yet to decide whether to seek re-election in 2022, though it does not quote her directly on that. My guess is this is more of a “I’m just focusing on doing my job and not thinking about that yet” situation than any actual possibility of her not running again. I have heard that there are people who are thinking about running against her in the 2022 primary, which I’d say is likely about opportunity in a newly Democratic county rather than an assessment of her tenure. Be that as it may, I feel confident that 2022 will be a higher profile election year for County Judge than 2018 was. I’ve not heard any names attached to these whispers, but I do know who I plan to vote for.

Bus service in new places

This is a good first step, which I hope begets a second step.

Harris County has extended bus service to Channelview, Cloverleaf and Sheldon, using $3.8 million in Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery money to jump-start the new routes.

Service started Dec. 2, quickly getting about 500 riders in the second week along roughly 65 miles of new service.

“When you have that freedom to ride a bus, that opens up so many more services to you,” said Daphne Lamelle, executive director of the Harris County Community Services Department.

The need is especially pronounced in eastern Harris County after Harvey led to the loss of thousands of cars and trucks, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Wednesday as he and other county officials dedicated the five new routes.

“We don’t think about these things until we need them,” Garcia said, lamenting the need for cars in rangy parts of the county.

[…]

Future money to operate the service will come from federal sources, doled out locally by the Houston Galveston Area Council, said Ken Fickes, transit services director for Harris County.

The new county service operates every 30, 60 or 90 minutes, depending on the route, and many connect to Metro at the Mesa Transit Center along Tidwell and along Uvalde at Woodforest Boulevard.

Transfers to Metro, at least for the foreseeable future, will be free, said Metro Vice-chairman Jim Robinson, who represents Harris County on the transit agency board.

“We have pulled out all the stops to make this a going thing,” Robinson said of the desire to extend transit to more places.

You can view the routes for existing and new bus services here. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized any of this existed. I knew that Metro’s service area did not include some number of non-Houston cities within Harris County, and many of those cities are in the eastern part of the county, I just either didn’t know or had forgotten that the county provided some limited transit service for them. I guess I have mostly thought of this in terms of transit-less Pasadena, which remains a stubborn island of car-only transportation.

Commissioner Garcia and Metro are both interested in extending Metro’s services out to these cities – I touched on this in my recent interview with Metro Chair Carrin Patman, though again I was more Pasadena-focused than I might have been – which is a great idea and something that will require both legislative action and local voter approval, to add a penny to their sales tax rate. That means that even in a best-case scenario, we’re talking at least two years for such a thing to happen. The main thing to do to facilitate that in the meantime is get as many people as possible using the service, and making the case to everyone else in those cities that it benefits them as well even if they’re not riding those buses. And please, do bring Pasadena into this – there’s really no reason why Metro’s service doesn’t include all of Harris County. Houston Public Media has more.

Cagle and Radack break quorum

They did it.

Two Harris County Commissioners Court members skipped Tuesday’s meeting to prevent the Democratic majority from voting on a property tax rate hike that would increase revenue by 8 percent.

Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle were absent when County Judge Lina Hidalgo gaveled in the session at 10:03 a.m. A staff member for Cagle placed a two-foot stack of constituent comments at his place on the dais, indicating their widespread opposition to the tax increase.

Without a vote, Harris County will revert to the effective tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year, which will collect more than $195 million less than the rate Democrats had proposed, according to county budget analysts.

[…]

Cagle and Radack remained at large when their colleagues began discussing the tax rate at 11 a.m. In a statement, Cagle said he and Radack skipped the meeting to block an “unwise, unfair and unjustified” tax increase.

“The residents of Precinct 4 elected me to represent them. They did not elect me to lord over them or to repress them,” Cagle said. “This is the taxpayers’ money, not the government’s.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a statement from Commissioner Ellis. I will just say this: The people of Harris County, who voted 52-46 for Lupe Valdez over Greg Abbott, and 56-42 for Mike Collier over Dan Patrick, did not vote for the imposition of a restrictive and damaging revenue cap. Collier, for that matter, carried Radack’s precinct and came damn close in Cagle’s, so one could plausibly argue that their own constituents didn’t vote for that revenue cap, either. I can appreciate that Radack and Cagle opposed this plan and used the tool that was available to them to stop it, but they picked a really short-sighted hill to die on. The property tax system in Texas is rigged against homeowners, and Radack and Cagle’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature refuse to do anything about it. By this action, they demonstrate they are part of the problem. Commissioners Court can’t do anything about what the Lege has imposed on them now, but the voters can do something about Steve Radack next year. The Court has undergone a lot of change, but clearly more is needed.

Will Radack and Cagle break quorum to stop a tax rate hike?

We’ll find out today.

Harris County Commissioners Court has scheduled a vote Tuesday to hike property taxes by 8 percent, though the two Republican members can thwart the plan by simply skipping the vote.

A quirk in the Texas Government Code requires a quorum of four court members, rather than the regular three, to vote on a tax increase. The rule affords Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle rare power, as they repeatedly have lost votes to their three Democratic colleagues this year.

The pair said they would not reveal their intentions ahead of the meeting.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Radack and Cagle could attend the rest of Tuesday’s court meeting and leave the room when County Judge Lina Hidalgo decides to consider the tax increase.

“They can be present for part of the meeting and then leave,” Soard said. “That’s their option.”

Soard said that unlike the governor, Hidalgo has no power to compel any member to be present for a vote.

[…]

The Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court proposed a property tax increase of 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value, which the county budget office estimates would add $37.65 to the tax bill on a $230,000 home in the first year. The county would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue.

Garcia said the prospect of Republicans skipping the vote was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“It is their responsibility to come to court and be a part of the process, even if they don’t agree with it,” he said in a statement.

The relationships between court members have been fraught at times since Democrats took control in January. Divided votes have become the norm, and commissioners sometimes snipe at each other from the dais.

See here for the background. The main thing I would add here is that the fraught-ness and the sniping and the divided votes are not because of some generic notion of “politics”, or incivility, or even partisanship, as former Judge Robert Eckels says. It’s about a sincere and significant difference in values and priorities. Which, to be fair to Eckels, is reflected in the differences between the two parties. The Republicans had their way for decades, and then the voters voted for change. That’s how this is supposed to work, minus the anti-majoritarian avoidance techniques. We’ll see what these two do.

KHOU/HPM poll: Turner 37, Buzbee 20, King 10

We must be getting into the serious part of Houston Election Season, because we have our first public poll of the Mayor’s race.

Mayor Sylvester Turner leads trial lawyer and businessman Tony Buzbee by 17 points, according to a KHOU/Houston Public Media poll released Wednesday.

The survey of 516 registered likely voters found Turner well ahead of the 12-candidate field with 37 percent, followed by Buzbee at 19.6 percent and Bill King at 9.5 percent. The poll’s margin of error is 4.3 percent.

[…]

The poll shows Turner running far ahead of everyone else but with nowhere near enough support to win outright, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who conducted the poll from Sept. 3 to Sept. 15. Stein surveyed about two-thirds of respondents by cell phone and the rest by landline.

Councilman Dwight Boykins received 3.5 percent support in the poll, while 0.4 percent of voters said they likely would vote for former city councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Otherwise, 3.3 percent of respondents said they likely would support a candidate other than Turner, Buzbee, King, Boykins or Lovell. Another 21.5 percent were undecided, and 5.2 percent refused to respond.

Early voting starts Oct. 21, with election day on Nov. 5. If no candidate finishes with 50 percent plus one vote, the race will be decided in a December runoff between the top two finishers.

In a potential runoff matchup, the poll found Turner beating Buzbee 54.6 percent to 40.2 percent, and King by 56.8 to 34.1 percent.

The KHOU story is here and the Houston Public Media story is here, along with an interview with Bob Stein. Stein says he’s a little surprised that King is polling third; he attributes this to Buzbee spending a crap-ton of money so far. I’d say that’s mostly true, with the additional note that King has the charisma of a soggy corn flake, and basically has no issue to run on this year. Buzbee has no issues either, and even less of a clue, but he does have a lot of money, and that does help.

If you look back at the Mayoral polling from 2015, it was reasonably accurate to a first approximation. Adrian Garcia polled better than Bill King, but King finished ahead of him in the race. Steve Costello, Chris Bell, and Ben Hall were in the next tier, though in the end Hall finished above the other two. The polling on HERO was exactly wrong, and that may have been the result of skewed turnout assumptions, which in the end may have also helped King. Every election is different, and Turner is an incumbent this time, so be very careful in drawing conclusions. The point I’m making here is that the most recent polling examples we had were fairly decent snapshots of the race.

Another way to look at this: Thirty-seven percent of respondents named Sylvester Turner as their choice. Adding up the other numbers, a smidge more than thirty-six percent of respondents named someone else as their first choice. Make of that what you will.

One more thing:

The poll also found 58.5 percent of respondents support Metro’s $3.5 billion bond proposal, which would authorize the transit authority to move forward on a menu of projects that includes light rail extensions and the expanded use of bus rapid transit. Only 10.5 percent are opposed to the proposal, the survey found, while 31 percent were undecided.

This is where I point out that people who do not live in Houston will also be voting on the Metro referendum, so this poll is not fully representative. The city of Houston is generally between 65 and 70 percent of total turnout in Harris County in these odd-year elections, and here is where I note that the Metro service area excludes some parts of Harris County, mostly the city of Pasadena. If the Metro referendum is polling this well in the city, it’s likely headed towards passage, but there are non-city votes out there as well, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Quorum question

Who knew?

A quirk in Texas law could allow the two Republicans on Harris County Commissioners Court, despite being in the minority, to prevent the three Democrats from enacting a proposed property tax increase.

Typically, three court members constitute a quorum, the minimum number needed to conduct business. The Texas Government Code, however, requires four members be present to vote on levying a tax.

That exception affords rare power to Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who have been steamrolled on 3-2 votes on enacting bail reform, appointing a judge and a resolution on gun violence.

The pair simply would need to skip a tax hike vote to prevent the three Democrats from passing it, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said. The trio on Sept. 10 proposed raising the overall property tax rate 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. The existing rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“We don’t know how exactly it would play out,” Soard said. “But if there are not four members present, Commissioners Court can’t vote on a tax increase.”

A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 8, and the deadline to set the county tax rates is Oct. 11, leaving the Democrats with little margin for error. Commissioners Court has scheduled public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24.

Radack pointed out that he has not missed a meeting in more than five years, and said Oct. 8’s session is marked on his calendar.

Cagle, through a spokesman, said he has made a decision on the issue but does not want to share his strategy publicly. Cagle proposed a compromise at the Sept. 11 meeting, only increasing the flood control district rate, but his motion was defeated on a party-line vote.

[…]

The proposed property tax increase, which would be the first increase since 1996, would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue over the current rate. Hidalgo said the measure is necessary to ensure the county can continue to pay for services, including billion in flood control projects, after the revenue cap passed by the Legislature takes effect next year.

That cap limits year-over-year growth of city and county revenue to 3.5 percent, down from a previous ceiling of 8 percent. Revenue increases above that threshold would need voter approval.

The county budget office estimates the average Harris County homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $38, based on a home valued around $230,000.

You have to love an anti-majoritarian law. I had no idea this existed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s please dispense with this nonsense about Radack and Cagle being “steamrolled”, however. They’re on the losing end of majority votes. That’s how this is supposed to work.

The story notes that Rodney Ellis participated in a big quorum break in 2003, while he was in the State Senate and was trying to hold off the Tom DeLay re-redistricting effort. The Senate quorum-busting, which lasted for weeks while Ellis and his Democratic colleagues holed up in New Mexico, followed a similar effort by 51 Democrats in the House. This is fair to bring up. I will note that in these cases, the threshold for a quorum in each chamber was set by the rules they adopted at the beginning of the session, not by state law, and that one of the things that happened as a result of all this was that the quorum rules were changed to make this kind of exercise futile. Also, the reason that Ellis and others fled the state is because the DPS is authorized to round up wayward members and drag them back into the chamber for the vote they’re trying to scuttle. Whether the DPS has the power to place quorum-busting legislators under arrest was unsettled the last time I checked on it, but I feel confident saying that if Radack and Cagle try this, they will not be hauled back downtown in handcuffs by Sheriff’s deputies.

As to the matter of the tax rate increase itself, this is something that Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia think is necessary to enable the county to pay for the things it needs to do, including flood mitigation. They are concerned that thanks to the revenue cap provision of HB3, the county will be hamstrung going forward, forced to implement rate cuts because the county’s growth has been too fast for the law, so they’re taking action to mitigate against that now. You can certainly disagree with that, and you can express that at the next Commissioners Court meeting and at the ballot box. I’d just note that if the Legislature had left the county to its own devices, this wouldn’t be happening now.

Commissioners Court gets more aggressive on environmental enforcement

Good.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to hire 61 employees across three departments in a bid to significantly boost Harris County’s ability to respond to environmental emergencies after finding numerous shortcomings in its efforts to manage three chemical fires near the Houston Ship Channel this spring.

The $11.6 million investment will go toward purchasing new equipment and add employees to the fire marshal’s office, pollution control and public health departments. It is the most aggressive effort yet by the new Democrat-controlled court, which took office in January, to grow the emergency response infrastructure in the county, home to the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found that the staffing levels of the three departments have for decades failed to keep pace with the growth of commercial activity along the Houston Ship Channel. Previous Commissioners Courts had not acted with the same sense of urgency after chemical incidents; the county never replaced the Pollution Control employees laid off during the Great Recession. Instead, court members prided themselves on finishing fiscal years with a large fund balance.

“All these resources we’re bringing to the table, after a careful analysis … will help us be in a much better position in the future,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose Precinct 2 included the sites of each of the chemical fires in March and April.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hailed the budget increases as the most significant investment in environmental protection the county has made in 30 years. Hidalgo said she was pleased the new monitors, for example, will allow the county to test air quality on a regular basis, in addition to during emergencies.

A report on the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co. released on July 29 concluded the county needed more equipment and manpower to monitor pollution and keep the public informed about safety risks. The 133-page “gap analysis” made a total of 49 recommendations.

Two days later, a fire at an Exxon plant in Baytown injured 37 workers.

[…]

Court members unanimously approved the budget increases for Pollution Control and the fire marshal’s office. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack was the lone opponent to increasing the size of the health department.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad most of the votes were unanimous – I mean, I don’t even know what the counter arguments are for this – but it’s still the leadership of the new Court that made this possible. Going forward let’s be more proactive so there will (one hopes) be less to have to react to.

Checking in on the Mayor’s race

Remember the Mayor’s race? Yeah, that.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“The candidates have been running for months but were focused on fundraising and defining their message,” said Nancy Sims, a Houston political analyst. “Labor Day is when people tune into the election.”

The stretch-run of the race follows months of campaigning from Buzbee, a businessman and trial lawyer who announced his candidacy last October. King, also a businessman and lawyer, joined the race in February, then the field expanded in June with the candidacy of District D Councilman Dwight Boykins and, weeks later, former At-Large Councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Seven other lesser-known candidates also are running.

Despite vigorous campaigning from Turner’s opponents, the race has yet to reach its loudest pitch, in part because Turner only has appeared at campaign events without other mayoral candidates. Earlier this week, Buzbee and King criticized the mayor for not yet attending any candidate forums.

A Turner campaign spokesperson said he was not invited to the Wednesday forum or to a prior forum held in June by the Lake Houston Pachyderm Club, which Buzbee and King attended.

Even as the race heats up, mayoral candidates are battling with a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates for the attention of Houston voters, who typically do not tune into city elections en masse until September.

“I think the challenge for the city candidates this year is that they are greatly overshadowed by the 2020 race,” Sims said. “They are struggling to get the attention they need for people to focus in on the city elections.”

Even without distractions, such as the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, municipal candidates often struggle to drag voters to the polls: Just 27 percent of registered Houston voters turned out in the 2015 race, the first time since 2003 that turnout was more than 20 percent.

Still, the candidates are entering the critical part of the race with ample resources to draw out voters. Buzbee is self-funding his campaign and as of June 30 had contributed $7.5 million of his personal wealth. He had spent more than $2.3 million at the same point, and recently made a six-figure TV ad buy through the end of September.

“Tony Buzbee is a very unique candidate because of his ability to self-fund, so the normal rules and strategies regarding TV don’t really apply to him, because he effectively has a bottomless wallet,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “For other candidates who have to keep their powder dry, we’re unlikely to see major media buys until the first or second week of October.”

We’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder what drives turnout in city elections is a high profile referendum on the ballot. Contested Mayoral races are a factor too, but the addition of a referendum is the difference between 2003 (381K votes, Metro light rail referendum) or 2015 (286K votes, HERO repeal) and 2009 (181K, no referendum). Even without a contested Mayor’s race, a sufficiently hot ballot item can bring a lot of voters out – see, for example, 2005 (332K, anti-gay marriage Constitutional amendment). The Metro referendum this year isn’t nearly as controversial as the 2003 one was, and there may not be any astroturf opposition effort to it, but Metro will be pushing voters to the polls as well as the candidates are, and that should boost turnout a bit.

I would also push back against the notion that no one pays much attention to the Mayoral races before Labor Day, and I’d point to the last three open Mayoral elections as evidence. Bill White was running those white-background ads in 2003 early on in the year. Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown were releasing position papers and talking about ideas for traffic, crime, neighborhoods, economic development, and a whole lot of other things well before September. The pension issue, HERO, and the Adrian Garcia will-he-or-won’t-he tease dominated 2015. Maybe it was just the more engaged voters tuning in, but speaking as one of those engaged voters, there was a lot more happening in those past elections than there has been in this one.

Why might that be? Well, let me summarize the campaigns of the main Turner opponents so far.

Bill King: I’m a rich old guy who was once the Mayor of a town with fewer people than most HISD high schools, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Tony Buzbee: I’m a rich guy who’s buddies with Rick Perry, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Dwight Boykins: I’m not Sylvester Turner, and I supported Prop B.

Sue Lovell: I’m not Sylvester Turner, I supported Prop B, and unlike these other guys I also supported HERO.

I mean, you tell me why the excitement level has been set to “Meh”. I don’t see a whole lot changing from here, and it will be turned up to 11 in the runoff. Welcome to election season, y’all.

More ways to improve access to voting

In Harris County:

Inmates of the Harris County Jail may soon be able to vote. Harris County leaders have approved a study on setting up a polling location at the jail as early as this November.

The County Clerk’s and Sheriff’s Offices will explore if they can set up a polling location at the jail in time for this Election Day. Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the measure.

“It’s their constitutional right, and so we need to make sure that we’re following that particular law,” Garcia said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded the proposal, which passed along party lines in a three-to-two vote. “Remember, the ones sitting in the jail haven’t been convicted yet, unless they’ve been convicted of something else,” Ellis said. “And for what it’s worth, there may be people in line to visit them who can vote.”

If you don’t like this idea, then I have good news for you: The bail lawsuit settlement means that there will be far fewer inmates in the jail who might get to take advantage of this. Just remember, you don’t lose your right to vote until you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a felony, and if that happens you’re going to a state prison, not the county jail. If you’re in the jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence, you’re still a legal voter.

From Bexar County:

[County Commissioner Justin] Rodriguez, a former Democratic member of the Texas House, is asking the Bexar Commissioner’s Court to form an advisory committee to identify improvements to the county’s voting procedures, step up voter education and drive higher turnout. He hopes the group — made up of residents and members of nonprofits and other stakeholders — can make progress on that work ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting much help from state leaders on how to best administer elections or get people out to vote,” said Rodriguez, who worked with voter-turnout group MOVE Texas to formulate his plan. “I think the best solution for us is to act locally.”

[…]

Rodriguez said he’s confident he has the votes on County Commissioner’s court to support his measure and start assembling the committee in coming weeks.

As that story notes, Bexar County is also implementing voting centers this year. I don’t know what Commissioner Rodriguez and his committee will come up with, but I hope we keep an eye on them here in Harris. I’m sure we’ll be able to learn something from their experience.

UPDATE: Received the following email from County Clerk Diane Trautman:

“Due to the Labor Day holiday and other prior commitments, the Harris County Clerk and Sheriff’s offices are still in the exploratory stage of determining the best way to meet the voting needs of Harris County residents that are in jail. Determining a new voting location requires several steps and usually takes many months to confirm. This process includes wifi connectivity, ADA compliance, available parking, legality of location, and availability of location. Due to voting locations already being set for the upcoming November election, the ballot by mail program will be the best voting option for those who are incarcerated in the November election.”

For more information please email [email protected]

Hopefully this can happen in time for 2020.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.