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Commissioners Court

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post-Harvey flood control march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Another look at the County Commissioner race

It’s the most consequential local race on the ballot this year.

Michael Moore

Every four years since 1968, Harris County residents have been able to count on a Republican winning the Precinct 3 commissioner’s seat.

In that half century, a parade of Democrats have been trounced. Some years, the party did not even bother to field a candidate in the traditionally conservative district, which covers the western portion of the county. The past three Democratic presidential nominees carried Harris County, but no challenger in those cycles came within 16 points of Precinct 3 incumbent Steve Radack, who has held the post since 1989.

Of course, 2020 has been anything but normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended normal life. The Astros play in front of cardboard cutouts. And Democrats say they finally will capture Precinct 3, an open seat since Radack decided not to seek a ninth term.

They said the unpopularity of President Donald Trump in Harris County, against the backdrop of a mismanaged coronavirus response by state leaders and demographic shifts that favor Democrats will help the party’s nominee, political strategist Michael Moore, defeat his Republican opponent, former Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey.

[…]

Demographic shifts in Precinct 3 give Moore an advantage, Democratic consultant Keir Murray said. When Radack first was elected, the west Harris County district largely was white and rural. It since has grown rapidly and diversified, with an increase in non-white and college-educated residents. Both groups favor Democrats.

“Precinct 3 now is probably about half white, and that’s a massive change from 15 years ago,” Murray said. “Forty percent of the voters are probably people of color now.”

He said Harris County’s shift to reliably Democratic also affects Precinct 3. Recent elections bear that out.

In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost the precinct by less than 1 point. The 2018 election, in a midterm year where Democrats traditionally struggle, U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke won the district by 4 points.

A wave of Texas Republicans, including six members of Congress, have decided against seeking re-election in 2020. University of Houston political science Professor Jeronimo Cortina said that suggests the party privately is pessimistic about its prospects this year, especially after Democrats made significant inroads in suburban communities in 2018.

“From a political perspective, it’s easier to retire than lose an election,” Cortina said.

I skipped over a bunch of back-and-forth about who’s gonna win, because that doesn’t tell us anything. We know about the Moore poll that shows both him and Joe Biden leading by double digits. Tom Ramsey claims to have his own poll that shows otherwise, and maybe he does, but we have no numbers to go with it, so. The 2016 and 2018 results tell a good story for Dems (see the Moore poll link for links to earlier precinct analyses), and I don’t think the current environment does Republicans any favors. Oh, and there’s some dire warnings in the story from a Republican about how those dumb Dems can’t count on straight-ticket voting to carry them anymore. I think you know what I think of such arguments.

On a side note, as Harris County’s registered voter population has grown over the past few years, so has the RV population in Commissioners Court Precinct 3:


Year      County RVs      CC3 RVs
=================================
2008       1,892,656      507,839
2012       1,942,566      501,988
2016       2,182,980      568,512
2020       2,370,540      622,890

The dip in RV population from 2008 to 2012 is due to redistricting. CC3 as a share of the total number of RVs in Harris County has grown slightly, from 25.8% in 2012 to 26.3% as of July, 2020. The main takeaway from that is that this precinct really is a different place than it was as recently as eight years ago. The precinct has 25% more voters than it did in 2012, and that’s pretty significant. As a whole, Harris County has gotten more Democratic as its number of registered voters has increased. Seems like that’s the same phenomenon in CC3, it’s just a question of whether it’s enough.

Poll: Michael Moore claims large lead in Commissioners Court race

From Keir Murray:

There’s an image of the polling memo at the tweet, and you can see the whole thing here. To sum up:

– About one fifth of voters had no preference initially, not surprising since Commissioners Court is a lower-profile race. Moore led Republican Tom Ramsey 42-39 in the initial ask, likely a recapitulation of the partisan mix, with Moore having slightly higher name recognition, perhaps due to having to compete in the primary runoff.

– After a positive message about both candidates, Moore led 53-39. After a negative message about both candidates, Moore led 50-35. Joe Biden led 53-39 in the precinct.

– This is of course an internal campaign poll, and the sample appears to be likely voters, sample size 508, margin of error 4.4%.

– While the notion of “shy Trump voters” has been discredited multiple times by various investigators, I can believe that Trump might get the bulk of the non-responsive respondents here. To put it another way, I believe Moore is winning. I don’t believe he’s really winning by fourteen points. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s very much on the high end of my expected range of outcomes.

– For comparison, Beto carried CC3 by four points in 2018. The stronger statewide Dems in 2018 carried it by a bit less, while the weaker Dems were losing it by five to seven points. Hillary Clinton lost CC3 by less than a point in 2016, but she ran well ahead of the partisan baseline, as the average Dem judicial candidate was losing it by ten points. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez, the next two strongest Dems in 2016, were losing CC3 by eight or nine points. You want to talk suburban shift? This here is your suburban shift. Not too surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of CD07 overlapping CC3.

– The larger point here is that if Dems have improved on Beto’s performance in CC3, that’s another data point to suggest that Biden is doing better than Beto, and a lot better than Clinton, in 2020. You can figure out what that means at the statewide level.

Again, internal poll, insert all the caveats here. I give you data points because I care.

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.

HISD also spending more money on mobile technology

Also good.

Houston ISD officials anticipate receiving a chunk of the $32 million that Harris County leaders allocated this week for helping school districts buy sought-after computers and wireless Internet hotspots.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed said early conversations with county officials suggest the district could get about $4 million for technology — an amount that the Texas Education Agency could match to lessen the district’s financial burden.

Trustees voted Thursday to approve spending an additional $31 million on computers and hotspots this fiscal year, which would help outfit students needing technology while learning from home. HISD plans to remain online-only from early September through at least mid-October, and all families have the option to continue virtual classes throughout the year.

“No one has said ($4 million) is the number that’s been agreed to, but right now, we think that’s potentially where it is,” Reed said.

[…]

HISD officials have stopped short of guaranteeing all students will have access to computers and hotspots by their Sept. 8 start date. Surveys taken in July showed about 22,750 students lacked a computer, while district officials did not receive responses for about 37,200 students. HISD expects to receive about 25,000 devices in August and another 40,000 in September or October.

Reed said the combination of county and federal funds has “allowed us to actually increase the number of devices we can purchase,” though the final tally remains in flux.

See here for the background. Given that the start of school has been pushed back to September 8, I hope that the vast majority of students who need this equipment can get it in time. It really is a shame we didn’t address this sooner, but here we are. Let’s make sure every kid has what they need to succeed.

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 to join TDP lawsuit over vote by mail

They do lots of stuff at Commissioners Court.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to join a lawsuit by Texas Democrats suing Gov. Greg Abbott to expand vote-by-mail in Texas.

The Democratic-led commissioners court voted 3-2 to join the lawsuit. The litigation seeks to allow all Texas voters to cast a mail-in ballot during the pandemic, arguing that absentee ballot restrictions in Texas violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution. Texas Democrats filed the suit against Abbott and the Texas Secretary of State in April.

[…]

Democrats attempted to leapfrog over the appeals court by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene before the July primary runoff elections, but the justices declined to do so until a decision by the lower appeals court was reached. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to revisit the case sometime this month.

See here for the most recent update that I have, and here for a tweet from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, which is the only other place I’ve seen this noted. It’s unclear to me what difference it makes from a practical perspective for Harris County to join in, but from a political and symbolic perspective it means a lot. Let’s do hope we hear something from the Fifth Circuit soon.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

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.

2020 primary runoff results: Judicial and county races

Winding things up…

The big, albeit not unexpected, news is that Cheryl Elliott Thornton defeated incumbent Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, with over 70% of the vote. That honestly comes as a relief. I sincerely hope Judge Smoots-Thomas gets her stuff straightened out.

Tamika Craft led early and by a significant amount in the 14th Court of Appeals Place 7 race, while Te’iva Bell took the prize in the 339th Criminal Court.

Michael Moore was the winner in Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, winning with about 57% of the vote against Diana Martinez Alexander. These are both fine, decent, hardworking people, who ran strong campaigns and displayed a ton of knowledge about the issues and solutions for them. Diana would have been a terrific Commissioner, and I hope she runs for something again. Michael will be a terrific Commissioner, and you should be delighted to vote for him in November.

Good news in the Constable Precinct 2 race, as the good Jerry Garcia has defeated the problematic incumbent Chris Diaz. Sherman Eagleton won in Precinct 3, and Mark Alan Harrison will carry the banner in Precinct 4.

Finally, in Fort Bend County, your winners are Bridgette Smith-Lawson (County Attorney), Jennifer Cantu (Commissioners Court, Precinct 1), and Kali Morgan (505th Civil Court). In the Sheriff’s race, Eric Fagan had a 26 vote lead (out of over 38K votes cast) over Geneane Hughes. That one’s almost surely headed for a runoff.

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.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

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.

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

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.

Chris Hollins sworn in

We have a County Clerk again.

Chris Hollins

Christopher Hollins on Monday became the third Harris County clerk in three years, appointed to the post after the incumbent, Diane Trautman, resigned after 17 months because of unspecified health concerns.

He has pledged to hold the job only in an interim role, avoiding the potential distraction of running a campaign this fall. Still, the 33-year-old lawyer faces a difficult task in running the July primary runoff and November general elections — the latter likely to be the highest-turnout contest in county history — during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Hollins said he grasps the scope of the challenge and is up to the task. Though he has no experience in elections administration and has never run for office, he said his background in government consulting will serve him well in his new role.

“Elections already are a really large task under normal circumstances,” he said. “And you add to that the concerns and complications that come with a global pandemic, and we have this massive undertaking ahead of us to make sure all the residents of Harris County are able to vote safely, conveniently, and with the confidence their vote is going to be counted.”

See here and here for the background. I doubt he’ll make any major changes in the short time he’ll have in the position – he’s retained Trautman’s elections staffers, which is good to hear – but I’m sure he’ll have a few ideas to implement. He also has to deal with the vote by mail issue:

Hollins said he lacks expertise in Texas election law, and will defer to the county attorney on mail voting. Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the county will let voters choose whether they qualify for a mail ballot.

“It’s up to the voter to decide,” Ray said Monday. “We’re not going to require any proof. We’re not going to require any explanation.”

This is consistent with the State Supreme Court ruling. The federal cases may change things, but for now this is where we are. If Chris Hollins can be a steady hand on the till for the next seven months, that will be plenty. I wish him all the best of luck.

Here come the electric bikes

Cool.

Houston’s growing bike share system will jump into over-drive in the coming months, fueled by $250,000 in Harris County funds that will put 100 new electric bikes on city streets.

An amended plan by Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis approved [recently] will buy the bikes, along with additional stations in under-served communities.

The bikes — outfitted with electric motors — will be distributed and used across the entire B-Cycle system, most of which lies within Ellis’ county precinct.

[…]

With the addition of the electric bikes, Ellis’ proposal — approved [recently] by Commissioners’ Court with money from Precinct One discretionary funds — totals $842,700 and includes installation of 30 stations — half in low income areas — along with 320 bicycles.

The expansion of e-bikes will increase the number of electric bicycles in the system from five to 105.

“Five isn’t very much of a pilot,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Let’s get these in place and let’s see what usage is like then.”

Key to that use in many communities is the location of kiosks. B-Cycle, operated by a local nonprofit, allows people to check out bicycles from stations of 10 to 15 bikes across the area, mostly clustered in downtown, Midtown, Montrose and the Texas Medical Center. Riders can check out bikes and pay $3 for every 30 minutes of use or use a monthly or annual pass and receive the first 60 minutes of use free. Bikes can be checked out and returned to any of the 109 current stations, though 12 have been shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis to lower exposure in area parks.

“Even after shuttering a dozen of our highest-performing kiosks, ridership has remained strong,” said Doogie Roux, operations director for Houston B-Cycle. “We’re still seeing people make increased efforts to travel in a socially-distant, environmentally-responsible and fun way.”

All of the new stations planned are in Precinct One, though the additional bikes will be distributed and used across the system, which now totals 109 kiosks and nearly 800 bikes. The upcoming stations are part of a larger program to increase the total to 160 by next year.

You know I’m a fan of B-Cycle. Some of the kiosks close to where I live are closed for now, but I do still see folks riding around on them. I’m glad ridership hasn’t suffered too much at this time, but expanding the system, especially in the indicated areas (see the embedded map in the story) is what they should want to be doing. Keep it up, y’all.

So you want some flood bond project money?

Harris County plays a little hardball.

Harris County on Tuesday plans to restrict flood bond projects to municipalities that meet its floodplain development standards, effectively forcing the 34 cities within its borders to adopt stricter rules to access the $2.5 billion pot.

The policy change is meant to protect the county’s largest-ever investment in flood control infrastructure and create uniformity in building rules, following the principle that cities should not permit development than can worsen flooding for their neighbors.

“The goal isn’t to punish anybody,” County Engineer John Blount said. “It’s to announce, ‘Hey, these are the minimum standards we think you should enforce.’”

By the end of this year, cities must set minimum detention rules for new development, prohibit builders from filling in the 500-year floodplain and base standards on the newest rainfall rates, among other requirements.

Many, including the city of Houston, already have updated their rules. County floodplain experts are available to help the remaining cities do so, Blount said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said forcing small cities to improve their standards helps them avoid conflict with developers who may oppose the changes. Harris County already haggled with the building community over upgrading its own rules last year.

“This gives them the opportunity to point to us and say, “Look, it’s the county that’s making us do this,’” Hidalgo said. “Hopefully, this will take some of the politics out of that.”

You can look at it that way, as Harris County helping the small cities help themselves by playing the heavy with the developers. You can also look at it as the county protecting its own legitimate interests by not wasting money on projects that will be undermined by lax standards, and you can look at it as the county using its financial might to enforce a rigid standards on smaller and more local government entities. It’s the local control fight in another context, and there’s more than one way to view it. I think the county is correct on the merits, and I’m not even sure there is a good counter-argument to their position in this case. But since local control and the heavy hand of the state government – quite a recent development there, as we know – is a regular topic here, I thought it was worth pondering this initiative from that angle.

Meet your new County Clerk

Hello, Chris Hollins.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed an attorney and Texas Democratic Party official as interim county clerk.

Christopher Hollins, vice finance chairman for the state party, will serve until a new clerk can be elected in November. Incumbent Diane Trautman, who was elected in 2018, announced May 9 she would step down because of health issues.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve Hollins. Five public speakers urged court members to choose Teneshia Hudspeth, Trautman’s chief deputy. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Hollins’ pledge to serve only on an interim basis factored in their decision.

Hollins was selected after 10 p.m., more than 12 hours after Commissioners Court convened, and was unavailable for comment.

He previously worked as a senior manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and intern at Goldman Sachs and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel during the Obama administration, according to his personal website. He has never held elected office.

See here for the background. You can find Hollins’ Twitter here and his bio here. He released a statement later last night here, and the County Clerk’s office released one here. From skimming Facebook, the folks I read seem to be positive about him and his appointment. Clearly, the Commissioners wanted the Clerk to focus entirely on running the election and not running for their own election. That is certainly a reasonable position to take, and it means that we precinct chairs will get to pick a candidate of our choice. Fine by me.

Also mentioned in the story was Commissioner Ellis’ proposal about an appointed elections administrator, which was discussed but no action was taken. I saw somewhere that the Harris County Republican Party Chair was opposed to the idea, which is his right. My guess is that this is the end of it, but you never know. Campos, Stace, and The Texas Signal have more.

Could we get an elections administrator along with a new County Clerk?

Maybe.

Diane Trautman

A week after Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced she would resign due to health concerns, Commissioners Court on Tuesday plans to debate whether to appoint an independent administrator to run county elections.

After Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis inquired about how to do so, the County Attorney’s office prepared a four-page memorandum last week detailing how to switch to an elections administrator, which most major counties in Texas have done.

Ellis said partisan elections administration can unfairly inject politics into what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

“In more extreme cases, the politicization of decisions may paralyze the entire process,” Ellis said in a statement.

The move would put a single office in charge of running elections and managing the voter roll, both gargantuan tasks in the state’s largest county, which has 4.7 million residents. Voter registration is currently the responsibility of the tax assessor-collector, owing to the office’s historic role collecting poll taxes. The county clerk’s office administers elections.

The nonpartisan model is successful because a centralized elections department can more efficiently update voting infrastructure, like machines and poll books, based on changes to the roll, said Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón.

“I don’t care how perfect our elections are running, how the machines and everyone is trained — if my voter registration data base is not up to date… then we’re not as good as we should be,” said Ramón, who also is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The position of elections administrator is created by Commissioners Court.

A majority of the county election commission, comprised of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the chairs of the county Republican and Democratic parties, is needed to select an elections administrator.

See here for the background. Then-Judge Ed Emmett floated the idea back in May of 2010, at a time when then-Clerk Beverly Kaufman was known to be retiring and then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez had lost in the Republican primary. It was approved for a study that June, then fell off the radar before a brief revival in 2012. One of the concerns I had at the time was how do you remove an Elections Administrator if one proves to be not up to the task. The answer to that question, at least as articulated in that last link, appears to be “with a four-fifths majority of the election commission”, which concerns me as anything that requires a supermajority does. I’m open to the idea – you can read my thoughts about it from back then at those links – and if we go forward with it I would still want someone who fits my criteria for a County Clerk that has those same responsibilities. So for, no one other than Ellis has spoken in favor of this, but he just announced the idea over the weekend, so it’s early days. As the story notes, only Harris and Travis Counties don’t have an elections administrator, at least among the big counties, so we’d be joining the crowd if we do this. If there’s any future to this idea we’ll find out at today’s Commissioners Court meeting.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.

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.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Council will go virtual beginning next week, Mayor Turner said Tuesday, a day after one of its 16 members tested positive for COVID-19.

Turner said the switch to virtual meetings would continue for at least two weeks. All visitors to City Hall will have to wear face coverings and, eventually, there will be temperature checks at entrances, the mayor said.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. She said she started experiencing symptoms last Thursday, a day after the most recent council meeting. Plummer is quarantining and recovering at home, and at least one other member has entered quarantine as a precaution.

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais, at the press tables, sometimes even in the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

Other governmental bodies have been meeting virtually for weeks. Harris County Commissioners Court has been conducting its lengthy meetings online for two months.

See here for the background. I’d be very interested to know which Council member is voluntarily self-quarantining. Be that as it may, I guess I hadn’t realized that Council had been continuing to meet in person up till now. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was, but it wasn’t a great idea, if only because they should have set a better example. Better late than never, but this really wasn’t a good look.

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to resign

This was unexpected, to say the least.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman will resign May 31 due to health concerns, she said Saturday afternoon.

Trautman, 70, steps down just 16 months into her first term. She defeated incumbent clerk Stan Stanart in 2018.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties,” Trautman said in a statement. She declined to answer questions.

Commissioners Court will appoint an interim clerk to serve until November, when a new clerk is elected. The Democratic and Republican parties will each put forth a nominee.

During her brief tenure, Trautman’s signature success was the implementation of county voting centers, which for the first time allowed residents to visit any polling place on Election Day. County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised that effort and Trautman’s dedication to the job.

“Dr. Trautman embodies the spirit of the community she has served,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In her brief time as County Clerk, Dr. Trautman has fought to make it easier for citizens to participate in elections and make their voices heard.”

You can see a copy of her press release, which hit my mailbox at 6 PM last night, here. I’m still a little stunned, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if she will be just the first in line to step down over health and safety concerns. Elected officials tend to be older, and we have seen multiple stories of them having come down with COVID-19. A quick google search turned up three examples of state representatives who have died as a result of the disease. In that regard, it’s honestly a little surprising we haven’t seen more elected officials do the same.

As her resignation is official on May 31, I assume there will be some kind of application process for the interim Clerk. Whoever that is will have to continue the preparations for more mail ballots as well as making in-person voting as safe as possible, both for the voters and the poll workers. No pressure, right? I presume the nominee to replace her on the November ballot will be picked by the precinct chairs, as we did with Commissioner Ellis and the three judges in 2016. That will add a level of excitement to the next CEC meeting, which is already going to be a big deal since the March one was postponed. I’m sure I’ll begin hearing from hopefuls in short order. I do not envy whoever it is at the HCDP who will be tasked with organizing this meeting, which I’m going to guess will have to be done remotely, unless we all somehow feel confident about packing several hundred mostly older folks into the IBEW hall one day next month. This is going to be all kinds of fun. We’ll get it done one way or another. In the meantime, my thanks to Diane Trautman for her service, and my best wishes for a healthy post-County Clerk life.

What if it were Ed?

The question to ask yourself in reading this story about Republicans bitching and moaning about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is “How different would things actually be if Ed Emmett were still County Judge?”

Judge Lina Hidalgo

By the time Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered residents to cover their faces in public April 22, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties already had issued similar measures intended to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Laredo’s mask rule, already 17 days old, also carried a potential $1,000 fine.

Only Hidalgo’s order drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He blasted the rules as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines of up to $1,000 for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order.

Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments on Monday, hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.

Much like the widening national political divide over how government should manage the pandemic, criticism of the county’s response falls along familiar partisan lines. Hidalgo has sparred with Republicans — and sometimes other Democrats — over releasing inmates from the county jail, closing businesses and requiring masks in public.

The clashes often are proxy battles over Hidalgo’s vision for the county she has pushed since taking office last year, when Democrats took control of Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation.

“More or less, they’re the same fights, but magnified because of the political implications for where the state is going to go in the future,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

Some of the critiques lobbed at Hidalgo focus on her youth, ethnicity and gender. She often asserts herself in these situations — whether a public speaker refers to her as a girl or, as Commissioner Steve Radack has called her, “young lady” — but otherwise moves on.

Most of the criticism is not identity-based, however. Many conservatives fundamentally disagree with her expansive view of government, willingness to raise taxes and dipping into the county’s historically high cash reserves.

The two Republican county commissioners, Radack and Jack Cagle, have accused Hidalgo of ignoring her promises of transparency, failing to seriously solicit their counsel and only seeking the advice of experts who are inclined to agree with her. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, formerly the only Democrat on the court, chalked his colleagues’ complaints up to unfamiliarity with serving in the minority.

The complaints extend to her handling of the pandemic. Houston City Councilman Greg Travis, who opposed closing the rodeo and the stay-at-home order, said Hidalgo did not properly consider the economic damage the restrictions would bring.

“It’s up to leaders to listen to experts in various fields and to try to chart a course that is best,” Travis said. “We put 350,000 people out of work.”

He cited Hidalgo’s mask order, which he said was foolish because police had little capacity to enforce it, as a misstep attributable to her inexperience. Travis said if masks were so important, Hidalgo should have required them a month earlier, along with closing down public transit.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. I cannot take seriously anyone who thinks Judge Hidalgo should not have shut down the Rodeo – she herself thinks maybe she should have acted more quickly to shut it down – and the rest is petty nitpicking from the peanut gallery. CM Travis’ press release that criticized the Rodeo shutdown is one of those things that is Not Going To Age Well. And really, does anyone believe Ed Emmett wouldn’t have done the same thing, perhaps a bit later, perhaps even a bit sooner? We’ve wasted enough time on this.

As for the Commissioners Court complaints, Rodney Ellis is 100% right. Republicans had forty-some years in the majority. Steve Radack got to build a soap box derby park in Hockley as lord and master of his little fiefdom because he could. The county is a different place now, and they are all cordially invited to sit down and suck it up.

Finally, in regard to Dan Patrick and the rest of the nattering nabobs, again I ask what if anything do you think Ed Emmett would have done differently? Remember, Montgomery County and its extremely Trump-friendly County Judge issued a shutdown order on March 27, a mere four days after the Harris County order was issued. Harris County was a day or two behind the likes of Dallas and Bexar and Travis. The specifics of various county shutdown orders – and remember, it was counties doing this because Greg Abbott was too timid to do the potentially unpopular thing of closing businesses and schools – varied a bit from one to the other, but they were broadly the same. Restrictions on churches were controversial around the state, but only Harris County has the Steven Hotze death squad, while no one particularly cared about face mask orders until Lina Hidalgo issued one.

My point is, she’s done the things that county judges have done, more or less at the same time and in the same way as other county judges have done. But she’s young, she’s Latina, she’s bilingual, she’s not been cowed by swaggering dinosaurs like Steve Radack, and worst of all, she’s a Democrat who beat the one Republican everyone thought would survive the 2018 blue wave. (Did I mention that Dan Patrick lost Harris County by a 56-42 margin in 2018? Harris County doesn’t care what you think, Dan.) Especially for a bunch of self-styled alpha males, the level of whining these guys generate is truly impressive.

I should note, by the way, that if Ed Emmett were still County Judge he’s likely have had some rhetorical rocks thrown at him as well, in large part because the Dan Patrick faction thinks he’s a RINO squish. I just don’t think anyone would be comparing him to a children’s cartoon character. You tell me what that says about the critics and their criticisms.

Might a Democrat challenge her in 2022? Anything is possible, and as we saw this year, nobody is likely to get a free pass. Hidalgo has not been a huge fundraiser, but she’s done all right and she has time to step it up. The questions I would ask are 1) what issue that is likely to resonate with the typical Democratic primary voter would such a candidate champion, and 2) what kind of establishment support would such a candidate be likely to get? The 2022 primary will not be as big as the 2020 primary was, but if there are some compelling candidates for the top statewide offices, it will get decent turnout. For what it’s worth, from my vantage point as Democratic precinct chair, I’ve not heard much in the way of complaint about Judge Hidalgo’s performance – quite the opposite, in fact – nor am I aware of any potential candidates out there shaking the trees. Obviously, it’s ridiculously early, we’re in a moment where basically nobody is campaigning for anything, and there’s still plenty of time for things to happen. I’m just saying, if the bulk of the complaining about Hidalgo is being done by Republicans, I don’t see how that hurts her any in the next Democratic primary.

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.

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court has formed a working group to review Harris County’s shift to voting centers and examine what effect it had on hours-long lines at the polls on Primary Day, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called unacceptable.

During an at-times contentious discussion with County Clerk Diane Trautman during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session, Ellis questioned whether she had become too focused on county-wide voting centers, her signature initiative since taking office last year.

Ellis noted that the March primary was the second election overseen by Trautman that had problems. In last November’s municipal elections, the county clerk did not post full voting results for nearly 12 hours. Trautman blamed the delay on a last-minute directive from the secretary of state that forced Harris County to change its vote counting method; that directive, however, came out weeks before Election Day.

“I’d hate for a third one; because at some point, the discussion will have to be held, are voting centers worth it if you have all these unintended consequences?” Ellis said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was surprised to learn, just days before the primary, that nearly two-thirds of polling sites would be in Republican commissioner precincts. She said that was “functionally discriminating” against Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 on Election Day.

Trautman countered that the voting sites were set by an agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Hidalgo was unsatisfied with that response. She said if Trautman had been more forthcoming about potential voting problems, and asked for more resources from the county, Commissioners Court would have tried to accommodate.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve been nothing but supportive of your guys’ effort to expand access to the vote.”

More than 50 counties in Texas use voting centers, including Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant, according to the secretary of state. November will be the first general election in Harris County to use the system, when more than 1 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

Ellis said he may not have supported the creation of voting centers had Trautman explained how the switch could affect primary elections.

Trautman called the election “a very sad night” for voters and pledged to do better. The working group formed this week will include a representative from each court member’s office, as well as county clerk staff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’d like to see a broader group involved in that working group, but if they solicit public input I’ll be satisfied with that. People like the voting centers, and there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be fixable, but we need to really understand what happened and then do what it takes to deal with it. It’s not rocket science but it is a commitment. And Judge Hidalgo is right, better communication from the Clerk’s office is going to be a vital part of this effort. Let’s get this going so we can all feel confident about November.