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Houston

District B ruling appealed

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

The date of Houston’s stalled city council District B runoff is again in question after the third-place finisher in the race moved forward with an appeal of a court order earlier this month that the runoff go on without her.

The runoff, currently scheduled for May 2, could be delayed if a ruling is not final by March 9. The election was pulled from the Dec. 14 ballot, when a dozen other city runoffs were decided, because of the litigation.

Lawyers for Renee Jefferson-Smith previously indicated they had not decided whether to pursue an appeal of Visiting Judge Grant Dorfman’s ruling that the runoff between the top two vote-getters in the November election, Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey, should go forward.

On Thursday, however, Jefferson-Smith’s legal team filed what is called a docketing statement with the appeals court, indicating they were moving forward.

“We will request that the Court stay the City of Houston Election for City Council Member for District B pending appeal pursuant to” the Texas Election Code, the filing said. It listed a lawyer not previously involved in the case, Dorsey Carson, Jr., as lead attorney.

[…]

Jackson said she thinks Jefferson-Smith and her backers are just trying to delay the election at this point, and she called on leaders to do something to stop the delays.

“This appeal is not fair to the people of District B, it’s not fair to me and the other 12 candidates who ran to represent District B,” she said.

See here for the previous update. I suppose leaders could try to pressure Renee Jefferson-Smith into dropping the appeal, but you’d think if that might have worked she wouldn’t have filed it in the first place. At this point, a fast ruling from the court is the best bet. What a freaking mess this has been.

Please don’t freak out about coronavirus

If you are freaking out or think you may be on the verge of freaking out, or you know someone who is, Harris County is here to help.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced the creation of a web page to combat disinformation about the coronavirus that is sparking health fears around the world.

There are no reported cases of the flu-like virus in the Houston area or Texas, though Hidalgo said online rumors suggesting otherwise have caused unnecessary fear in the community.

“We’ll continue watching social media, and debunking myths, because we don’t want falsehoods to spread,” Hidalgo said. “It causes unnecessary concern and it’s just wrong.”

She said the page on the county’s readyharris.org website would help residents separate facts from fiction about the virus. Developed with the help of the county health department, she said the web page would be a trusted source of health information.

[…]

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said local Asian businesses have experienced severe drops in customers, which he attributed to an unfounded panic around coronavirus.

“There have been some specific, very hate-drive, offensive comments driven toward the Asian community,” Shah said. “In Chinatown and southwest Harris County, they reported to us grocery stores and restaurants have seen 50, 60 70 percent decreases in traffic.”

Shah said he wants to combat fears of coronavirus so residents who worry they may have the disease will seek medical treatment and report their cases to the county.

The coronavirus info is touted on the Ready Harris webpage, with a link that takes you here. There have only been a few cases of coronavirus in the US so far, but fear and panic about it are having a measurable negative effect on the economy, including right here. You can help with that, by the way. Support Chinatown, don’t panic. Easy-peasy.

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

Nuro set to roll out

Ready or not, here they come.

Self-driving delivery vehicles that carry no humans will hit Houston roads next month.

Nuro, a San Francisco technology company, is planning to deploy its next-generation autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston after receiving federal approval. The R2, which features climate-controlled compartments and 360-degree cameras, radar and sensors, will carry grocery orders from Kroger and Walmart to customer’s homes, starting in March.

Nuro last year began piloting self-driving Prius cars in Houston, but the delivery vehicles still had a human driver and passenger to oversee the technology. The R2, which weighs about 2,500 pounds and has a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, will have no human driver or passenger.

[…]

Several grocers, including Kroger, Walmart and H-E-B, are testing self-driving grocery delivery service in Texas. Supermarket chains are investing heavily in new technologies to win over online shoppers. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message. They will use a unique code to pick up their groceries.

See here, here, and here for some background. I am very interested in three aspects of this. One is just how many people will use this service at all, and how that changes people’s grocery shopping habits. You still have to shop, you’re just doing it over an app instead of in person at the store, where your decisions may be affected by the sights and smells of the goods, the samples and specials that are being pushed, whatever other impulses you may have, and what your kids may be nagging you for if they’re with you. I could see this being used more heavily for last-minute and “oops, I forgot I needed this thing and I don’t want to go back to the store” needs than as a full substitute for doing the in-person stuff.

Two, how many people who already use some form of human-delivered groceries will switch to this. The Nuro option will surely be cheaper (and there’s no guilt about tipping), but you have to be home to retrieve the groceries. As I’ve noted before, when we’ve used Whole Foods’ delivery service, we put a cooler on the front porch and have them deliver while we’re at work. That’s a real time and effort-saver for us, and as such it’s worth the extra cost. How tight a delivery window will you get with Nuro? If I know I’m only going to be home or available while I’m at home for a short period of time, do I trust my order will arrive when I need it to? And of course some people will require assistance in bringing their groceries in, and some people will not want to leave their house on days that are cold or scorching hot or rainy to haul bags of groceries inside. How that will break down is not at all clear to me.

Finally, note that the top speed of these things is 25 MPH. That’s nice and safe and very pedestrian-friendly, but it’s also going to mean a lot of aggrieved drivers on Houston’s main roads doing dumb things to get around the Nuro cars. I suspect there will be some number of accidents that aren’t the Nuros’ fault but wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t exist. I can’t wait to see a study about that effect. Also, going back to my second point, how confident will Kroger and Walmart be in the delivery time estimates they give their customers? My guess is their algorithms will have to be tweaked a bit here and there over time. What do you think? Does this option excite you or is it just another tech thing you’ll never use?

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

Astros offer an apology

We’ll see how it goes for them.

From a local newscast in LA

Astros players issued their first public apology after being involved in a cheating scandal that rocked baseball in the offseason.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team by the organization and by me,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said in a press conference at the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I have learned from this and I hope to regain the trust of baseball fans. I would also like to thank the Astros fans for all of their support. We as a team are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”

Jose Altuve followed up with a similar apology and said the team had a meeting Wednesday to talk about how they should move forward.

“I want to say that the whole Astros organization and the team feels bad about what happened in 2017,” said Altuve in a 38-second statement. “We especially feel remorse for the impact on the fans and the game of baseball, and our team is determined to move forward, to play with intensity and to bring back a championship to Houston in 2020.”

[…]

“At that meeting last night, the players showed tremendous remorse, sorrow and embarrassment for their families, organization, city of Houston and baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I want to ask for the baseball world to forgive them for the mistakes they made.”

Astros owner Jim Crane, who fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow when baseball released its report on the Astros’ cheating scandal, also apologized.

“I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened,” Crane said. “I want to repeat this will never happen again on my watch.”

I’ll get to Crane in a minute, but suffice it to say not everyone was convinced. I do think this will simmer down over time – if nothing else, the Red Sox punishment is coming, and that will provide a distraction and another target for fans to aim their displeasure – but it will be present for the season, if not longer. Every first meeting against another team, every time an Astros player gets hit by a pitch, any time someone pops off on Twitter, the whole saga will get rehashed. And if there are further revelations, well, as the man once said, hold onto your butts.

As for Astros owner Jim Crane, maybe he should have hired a better apology-writer.

The Astros, who now stand, in the words of one analyst, as “baseball’s unfaithful spouse,” tried to address the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal Thursday with a hybrid communications strategy that observers say left questions unanswered and failed to mollify the team’s critics.

While observers were more generous toward comments by Astros players in the spring training clubhouse at West Palm Beach, Fla., they were less complimentary of the 30-minute news conference staged by owner Jim Crane, which included brief remarks by players Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.

Gene Grabowski, a partner at the crisis communications firm kglobal in Washington, D.C., said the Astros were ill-served by advisers in planning the opening news conference that got the morning off to a rough start.

“The core of the problem is that the team’s owner and players tried to declare the crisis over before it’s really over,” Grabowski said. “They sounded arrogant when they said they are moving on. That’s for the fans and sports writers to say — not guilty players and owners.

“The team’s news conference was ill-conceived and poorly presented. It was a horrible performance that has actually made the situation worse for the Astros.”

Mike Androvett, who owns a public relations, marketing and advertising firm that works with attorneys in Dallas and Houston, said the news conference failed to put the past to rest and, instead, “reinforced that the 2017 World Series win will likely be forever tainted.”

[…]

Marjorie Ingall with the website sorrywatch.com, which tracks and rates messages of public contrition, said the Astros news conference “was spectacular in its horridness. It’s the way not to apologize. It’s every example of terrible corporate policy.”

Among Crane’s failures during his news conference, Ingall said, was refusing to acknowledge the damage the Astros inflicted on their opponents.

“You have to apologize to the people you’ve harmed,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really apologizing.”

She did, however, have good words for Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who began his remarks in the clubhouse with the phrase, “We were wrong for everything we did in 2017.”

“That’s the first sentence of a good apology: ‘We were wrong,’” Ingall said.

Well, maybe the worst is now over. Gotta think positive, right? Sports Illustrated has more.

Former MLB pitcher sues Astros

Good luck with that.

Did not age well

A pitcher who has not appeared in a major league game since getting shelled by the 2017 Houston Astros filed a civil lawsuit against the ballclub on Monday, according to USA Today.

In the filing made Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Mike Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, along with negligence and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations, the report said. Bolsinger is seeking unspecified damages and wants the team to forfeit its 2017 playoff bonuses toward Los Angeles charities.

[…]

Toronto designated Bolsinger for assignment following its 16-7 loss that night. Bolsinger has not thrown a major league pitch since — ending a major league career that spanned 230 2/3 innings and three teams. He threw in the Japanese League in both 2018 and 2019.

Data compiled by Astros fan Tony Adams showed there were 54 bangs during the game in question — more than any other contest Adams charted.

See here for more on Tony Adams, and here for that USA Today story. Bolsinger was never a particularly good major leaguer, so it seems safe to call this a reach, but that doesn’t mean this will have no effect.

In other words, he could have company. Worth keeping an eye on, in any event.

There’s still (a little) time to affect the I-45 design

There’s stuff happening this week. After that, it gets harder.

City officials and consultants will spend the coming weeks finalizing a few ways to turn the region’s largest and most controversial freeway rebuild of recent years into an Interstate 45 for commuters and inner-city-dwellers alike.

First, however, they must weigh about three dozen ideas with their costs, be it more traffic, trouble for pedestrians or added property acquisition.

“Every one of these is a set of trade-offs,” consultant Christof Spieler told a crowd Feb. 1 at Aldine Ninth Grade School. “If you make lanes narrower, that means you need less property, but it also means you might have more crashes.”

City planners and consultants said the ideas are all viable in and of themselves, but some would require the Texas Department of Transportation to seek federal waivers, such as one calling for 11-foot freeway lanes in certain areas. Others could be a choice between different interests, such as moving the freeway away from White Oak Bayou to preserve greenspace, at the cost of a “more massive” set of ramps, planners said.

The project, expected to cost at least $7 billion, will rebuild most of the downtown freeway system along I-45, Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 and assorted ramps. North of downtown, TxDOT plans to reconstruct I-45 with two managed lanes in each direction from I-10 to Beltway 8.

TxDOT is moving ahead with plans for final environmental approvals and could begin construction within 12 months.

City officials will accept comments on their proposed changes through Friday, and forward the refined ideas to TxDOT in the coming weeks.

[…]

State officials expect to release the final environmental assessment on the project, broken into three segments, in late spring or early summer. Paul encouraged people to examine the final proposal for some of the changes TxDOT already has incorporated to address some of the concerns.

That release will kick off a comment period — though the state does not plan to hold public meetings — before TxDOT can seek federal clearance. With that approval, TxDOT can proceed with construction, which is planned to begin on the southern end near I-69 and Spur 527 and move around downtown and then along I-10 and northward.

The main thing you can do is to take the City of Houston survey about the I045 project, to give them your input and thus help shape the feedback they will give to TxDOT. There are a lot of voices out there, and they don’t all want the same thing, so make your voice heard. You have until Friday, the 14th, for your answers to be included. It has 40 questions and takes a bit of time, so plan accordingly.

And in case you were wondering, this is still in the picture.

“It is a mistake to route our traffic through downtown,” said Michael Skelly, who has organized some of the efforts to change the project over the past two years.

While saying some of the city suggestions would improve the project, Skelly said Houston does not go far enough in demanding changes. Skelly said he wants officials to consider minor changes to I-45 and focus their efforts on routing traffic out of downtown along Loop 610 or the Sam Houston Tollway, through mostly commercial and industrial areas.

“If we’re going to spend $7 billion, I’d rather spend it on a big idea like this,” Skelly said.

The idea, along with opposition by a group arguing to stop the project entirely, contradicts the mandate designers had when they settled on the plan in 2015 to widen the freeway and re-route it to the east side of downtown. For years, their goal has been to increase capacity on I-45 — not move that capacity elsewhere.

“We’re not taking that for granted,” Spieler said. “If the response we get is that reducing capacity is a goal, that requires TxDOT to not fulfill what they are trying to do. Within that, we don’t know which of these are good ideas or bad ideas, but we think there are more options for change.”

I’m not exactly sure what it will take to make that happen, but at least it’s out there.

Still waiting to see which cities will get to host World Cup games

Houston’s right in the mix, and after that we’ll see.

This time last year, former Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti began to find his stride after leaving the team in late 2018 to lead the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

This time next year, he hopes the committee and the city will be preparing to host those World Cup matches, which will be played in 16 cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Canada and Mexico will host three games each. The other 10 host cities will be chosen from a pool of 17 American venues which include those in Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“We’re expecting U.S. Soccer and FIFA to be making a decision on the final 10 cities … at some point this year, so all focus is on that,” Canetti said.

[…]

While the Houston Dash and Dynamo host home games at BBVA Stadium (capacity: 22,000), the committee has proposed NRG Stadium (capacity: 71,995) to host Houston’s matches, although it’s not large enough to be eligible to host any semifinal or final matches.

Canetti and his staff spent 2019 assembling a board of directors, raising private funds to cover the cost of the bid process and developing their plan to differentiate Houston from the other U.S. cities.

In 2020, he’s expecting to receive more detail that outlines when meetings and site visits to Houston will occur.

“We’re waiting to hear from them in terms of what the guidelines may be on a site visit. How long will they be here? Will they be here a day, two days, three days? What do they expect to do and see when they’re in town?” he said. “Based on that information, we’ll be able to draft and develop an entire itinerary for them to showcase the city. It’s hard to say exactly what that entails until we know what the expectations are.”

See here for the last update, which was indeed a year ago at this time. Not much more to say here – Houston is very well suited to host this event, but the competition is stiff. I wish we knew more about when the decision will be made. Nothing to do but wait.

What can Houston do about hazardous buildings?

It’s a good question, but there’s another question that has to be considered alongside it.

For the first time, Houston City Council members publicly floated proposals Wednesday for how the city can better protect its residents from explosions like the one at Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which killed two people and damaged hundreds of homes.

Among the ideas: tighter thresholds for reporting chemicals, more inspectors for the fire department, or requiring companies to pay for and submit their own third-party inspections.

The suggestions raised at the Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing marked the start of what Mayor Sylvester Turner has promised will be a long, transparent discussion about how the city can better balance the safety of its neighborhoods with the city’s robust chemical industry. He said last week that he hopes that conversation will produce policy changes by the end of the year.

The region has had six major chemical fires since last March.

“This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation on the issue of neighborhood safety when it comes to not only manufacturing plants, but the storage of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials,” said council member Abbie Kamin, the committee’s chair.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the committee that Watson Grinding & Manufacturing, which had a 2,000-gallon tank of the chemical propylene that investigators have said fueled the Jan. 24 blast, was not functioning as a “high hazard” business, according to thresholds laid out by the International Building Code.

The facility fell into other categories, Peña said. They included business, storage and factory designations, according to the IBC standards. The company was also up to date on all permits, he said.

“It doesn’t mean that the other ones are not hazardous, it just doesn’t meet a certain threshold,” he said.

Lowering those thresholds is one possible response, as is tightening disclosure requirements. This is the start of the conversation – CM Kamin says there will be another hearing with the Regulatory and Neighborhoods Affairs Committee on March 26 – so there may be other ideas. This is all well and good and necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough because the city has to be wary about what the Legislature might do if they decide that any tighter regulations on businesses like Watson Grinding are offensive to their doctrine and those of their overlords. Meddling in the affairs of cities is now official policy, so if the Republicans maintain control of the House, you can be sure that a response to any action City Council takes will be on the table. We get the chemical explosions we vote for, and we better not lose sight of that.

“You guys Codebreaking?”

You thought the Astros sign stealing saga was over? It’s not over.

Did not age well

Roughly four weeks ago, Major League Baseball disciplined the Houston Astros for what commissioner Rob Manfred called the “banging scheme.” The Astros were busted illegally stealing signs in 2017 and 2018. The scheme involved banging a nearby trash can to relay the signs to the hitter at the plate.

Here is a recap of Houston’s punishment:

  • $5 million fine (maximum allowed by MLB Constitution)
  • Manager A.J, Hinch suspended one year (he was then fired)
  • GM Jeff Luhnow suspended one year (he was also fired)
  • Top two draft picks in 2020 and 2021 forfeited

In his nine-page report detailing the investigation, Manfred explained the Astros stole signs illegally throughout their 2017 World Series season and early in 2018 as well. The report says the investigation “revealed no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the banging scheme.” There appears to be more to the story, however.

According to a bombshell report by the Wall Street Journal‘s Jared Diamond, Manfred sent Luhnow a letter 11 days before the discipline was announced saying “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew — and overwhelming evidence that you should have known — that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

Diamond reports an intern showed Luhnow an algorithm used to decode signs in September 2016. The spreadsheet, nicknamed “Codemaker,” was fairly rudimentary — someone would manually input the sign sequence and the pitch, and the algorithm would decipher the pattern — but illegal nonetheless. The system was also referred to internally as the team’s “dark arts.”

The Astros used Codebreaker to decode signs during home and road games, according to Diamond, and the information was passed on to the dugout. As Manfred detailed in his report, the information was initially used by runners at second base. Eventually the Astros started banging on garbage cans to cut out the middle man and relay signs even with the bases empty.

See here and here for some background. There’s more:

Among the other details that have come to light:

  • The use of Codebreaker continued into 2018 and not just at home games, but also on the road. Until this point, it was assumed that the Astros only used their system at home. This story suggests they used at least some version of it on the road.
  • Luhnow, however, told MLB that he thought the use of Codebreaker was only for decoding signs after games, not in real-time.
  • The Codebreaker system was developed by Derek Vigoa, then an intern and now the Astros’ senior manager for team operations.
  • Tom Koch-Weser, the team’s director of advance information, plays a central role in this latest story. He told MLB investigators Luhnow would “giggle” at the name “Codebreaker.” Koch-Weser said Luhnow would sometimes say, “You guys Codebreaking?” when he came to the Astros video room during road games. Luhnow denied this to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Koch-Weser would often call the system the Astros’ “dark arts,” according to e-mails obtained by MLB. He said once in a team Slack channel, referring to Luhnow: “I know the secrets that made us a championship team, some of which he[’]d definitely feel a lot safer if they were kept in-house.”
  • Another Astros front-office staffer Matt Hogan told MLB investigators that no one tried to hide their actions from Luhnow. “It would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work,” Hogan told investigators.
  • Luhnow was updated via e-mail by many in the front office about Codebreaker, the investigation shows, however Luhnow’s defense was that he didn’t read the full e-mails.
  • Regardless of Luhnow’s claim he didn’t know about any of this, Manfred’s letter said, “there is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew—and overwhelming evidence that you should have known—that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

I’m not sure what’s worse at this point, the new details about how entrenched in the organization this all was – you saw that this was happening on the road, too, right? – or how pathetically incomplete the Manfred report was. We can think of it as more like the Barr-summary-of-the-Mueller-report rather than the real report, because as before, it pointed us in a totally wrong direction. We need to be asking Rob Manfred a lot of questions about this.

The Journal states that the league’s evidence included knowledge of the existence of Codebreaker, yet the league’s report completely omits it and exonerates Astros non-uniformed personnel. The league’s report also somewhat pointedly omits any mention of actions prior to 2017, even though Manfred apparently knew about the Codebreaker implementation and that program’s 2016 origins.

Why?

Why did MLB not punish any personnel besides Lunhow? The intern who reportedly originally presented Codebreaker to Lunhow, Derek Vigoa, is now Houston’s senior director of team operations. For that matter, why has nothing become of Kevin Goldstein, who according to a report from Jeff Passan asked his scouts to point their cameras into other teams’ dugouts? That information became public before the conclusion of the league’s investigation. Is the front office-driven nature of the scheme the reason that AJ Hinch never put a stop to the banging?

Beyond that, what happened in 2018 when the use of Codebreaker stopped? Was it because there was a better system implemented, and was there front office-driven cheating in 2019? Tom Verducci point-blank asked Hinch whether there was truth to the rumors that the Astros used buzzers to convey signs during the interview that aired tonight on MLB Network. Hinch stated that the league found that no buzzers were used (h/t to Brendan Kuty for transcribing the full exchange). That’s not exactly a “no.”

It’s also worth noting that the Journal states that the aforementioned euphemism “dark arts” was used in the Advance Scouting Department’s 2019 budgeting spreadsheet. Is that a reference to the initiative Goldstein proposed, a new sign-stealing scheme, or something else entirely?

A lot of things about this whole story never added up. Why didn’t Hinch ever flat-out tell the players to cut it out? Why didn’t they get the message when he went as far as to smash the monitors, and did so twice? How could Luhnow – and owner Jim Crane, for that matter – not know about any of this?

The picture is becoming clearer now. We still need more information, and the question of Crane’s knowledge of these matters is still not satisfyingly resolved. But for some reason, MLB decided to conceal this side of the story, and decided to leave everything that happened before 2017 out of the report. Baseball deliberately shielded everyone in the Astros’ front office besides Jeff Luhnow.

Rob Manfred needs to tell us why.

Yes, he does. Also, maybe people need to ask AJ Hinch some more questions, too. We’re about to find out the fate of the Red Sox, as well as MLB’s plan for avoiding this kind of scandal in the future. My advice is to treat this in the same way the large organizations that are serious about cybersecurity treat that threat to their business: Hire people whose mission it is to monitor for this activity in real time, who proactively review past data for signs of misbehavior, and who use intel and other techniques to hunt for bad actors and actions proactively. I’m sure MLB already has cybersecurity experts on their payroll. They need to take that to the next step and treat this as a threat to their business, because it is. Rob Arthur and ESPN have more.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re done with the 2019 Houston election cycle, but there are still things we can learn from the January 2020 campaign finance reports that city of Houston candidates and officeholders have to file. Other finance report posts: My two-part look at the State House was here and here, Harris County offices were here, statewide races were here, and SBOE/State Senate races were here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       359,567    780,735        0     293,503
Peck           1,075     17,435    5,000          72
Davis          4,000     14,164        0     139,068
Kamin         24,158     93,810        0      18,717
E-Shabazz     14,394     18,965        0       2,145
Martin        14,600     48,754        0     148,989
Thomas        20,263     21,642        0      11,675
Travis         9,850     70,904   21,000      51,484
Cisneros      15,050     44,687        0      24,169
Gallegos      16,850     46,055        0      76,776
Pollard        4,525     25,007   40,000       1,882
C-Tatum       16,250      8,520        0      71,747
Knox           6,900     29,075        0       4,302
Robinson      11,625     82,515        0      40,735
Kubosh        14,770     31,570  276,000      94,540
Plummer       71,168     83,491   21,900      11,068
Alcorn        21,535     76,313        0      16,374
Brown          1,650    102,340   75,000      14,128

Bailey             0      2,400    2,600          70
Jackson       43,845     18,338        0      28,343

Buzbee         1,903    460,888        0      63,531
King          29,925    161,047  420,000      11,567
Parker             0     38,750        0      26,184
Laster             0     12,579        0     162,209
Salhotra      24,010     75,837        0       9,060
Sanchez       40,056     92,678        0      10,636
Edwards          499    109,812        0      89,987

HouStrongPAC       0     10,000        0      51,717

Nominally, this period covers from the 8 day report before the November election (which would be October 27) to the end of the year, but for most of these folks it actually covers the 8 day runoff report to the end of the year, so basically just the month of December. In either case, this is the time when candidates don’t raise much but do spend down their accounts, as part of their GOTV efforts. For those who can run for re-election in 2023, they will have plenty of time to build their treasuries back up.

Mayor Turner will not be running for re-election again, but it’s not hard to imagine some uses for his existing (and future) campaign cash, such as the HERO 2.0 effort or the next round of city bonds. He can also use it to support other candidates – I’m sure he’ll contribute to legislative candidates, if nothing else – or PACs. That’s what former Mayor Parker has done with what remains of her campaign account. Nearly all of the $38,750 she spent this cycle went to the LGBTQ Victory fund, plus a couple of smaller contributionss to Sri Kulkarni, Eliz Markowitz, and one or two other campaigns. Tony Buzbee has restaurant bills to pay, and those endless emails Bill King spams out have to cost something.

Others who have campaign accounts of interest: As we know, Jerry Davis has transferred his city account to his State Rep campaign account. I’ve been assuming Mike Laster is going to run for something for years now. The change to four-year Council terms may have frozen him out of the 2018 election, when he might have run for County Clerk. I could see him challenging a Democratic incumbent in 2022 for one of the countywide offices, maybe County Clerk, maybe County Judge, who knows. It’s always a little uncomfortable to talk about primary challenges, but that’s what happens when there are no more Republicans to knock out.

Other hypothetical political futures: Dave Martin could make a run for HD129 in 2022 or 2024, or he could try to win (or win back) Commissioners Court Precinct 3 in 2024. If Sen. Carol Alvarado takes my advice and runs for Mayor in 2023, then maybe State Rep. Christina Morales will run to succeed her in SD06. If that happens, Robert Gallegos would be in a strong position to succeed Morales in HD145. Michael Kubosh wasn’t on my list of potential Mayoral candidates in 2023, but maybe that was a failure of imagination on my part. As for Orlando Sanchez, well, we know he’s going to run for something again, right?

You may be wondering, as I was, what’s in Amanda Edwards’ finance report. Her activity is from July 1, since she wasn’t in a city race and thus had no 30-day or 8-day report to file. Her single biggest expenditure was $27K to Houston Civic Events for an event expense, and there were multiple expenditures categorized as “Loan Repayment/Reimbusement” to various people. Perhaps she has transferred the balance of her account to her Senate campaign by this time, I didn’t check.

Most of the unsuccessful candidates’ reports were not interesting to me, but I did want to include Raj Salhotra here because I feel reasonably confident that he’ll be on another ballot in the short-term future. The HISD and HCC Boards of Trustees are both places I could see him turn to.

Last but not least, the Keep Houston Strong PAC, whose treasurer is former Mayor Bill White, gave $10K to Move to the Future PAC. That’s all I know about that.

The Jerry Davis situation

Someday, this is going to be taught in political science classes. And possibly law schools.

CM Jerry Davis

The ongoing election dispute in District B has put Jerry Davis in a peculiar position, seemingly caught between two provisions of the Texas Constitution as he challenges longtime incumbent state Rep. Harold Dutton in the March 3 Democratic primary.

And it is unlikely to change until the courts clear the way for voters to cast ballots in the long-delayed runoff for his council seat.

Until then, Davis is stuck in the council seat he was supposed to leave in January because of term limits.

[…]

With no new council member seated by the first of the year, Article XVI, Sec. 17 of the Texas Constitution kicked in, requiring Davis to remain in the District B seat until his successor can be elected and seated.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” the provision reads.

When Davis filed Dec. 9 to challenge Dutton for the District 142 seat in the Texas House, it raised another constitutional clause, this one found in Article III, Sec. 19.

That provision says no public official who holds a “lucrative office… shall during the term for which is he elected or appointed, be eligible to the Legislature.”

Texas Supreme Court rulings have held that any paid public office, no matter how small the compensation, is considered “lucrative.” Additionally, the high court has ruled that the eligibility requirement extends to one’s candidacy.

A Houston city council salary is around $63,000 a year.

To date, no one has challenged Davis’ eligibility.

The councilman said he believes he is in the clear because his elected term ended in January. Democratic Party officials, tasked with determining eligibility for primary candidates, say they believe he qualifies because his appointed term as a hold-over should end long before he would join the Legislature next January if he wins.

And Dutton has not lodged any complaints or challenges. That could change, should Davis prevail in the March election.

Buck Wood, an authority on Texas election law who has represented clients in landmark Supreme Court rulings on the subject, said the law holds that candidates have to be eligible while they are running for office, not just on the date they take it.

Since Davis still is on the council, someone could make the case that he is not eligible, he said.

“The problem is, the court has also held that you have to be eligible as of the date that you file,” Wood said.

The interaction of those two constitutional clauses is an open legal question, left unresolved for now by Texas judges.

“The courts have not ruled on that hold-over provision,” he said.

It gets deeper into the weeds from there, and I’ll leave it to you to read up. For now, all is well and legal and good. Until such time as someone files a lawsuit – either Dutton over Davis’ eligibility to be on the ballot (an irony that may wash us all into the sea), or a city resident alleging that some action Davis has taken since January 1 as Council member is invalid, or maybe some other claim I can’t envision right now – there are no problems. Maybe we’ll make it all the way to the (we hope) May runoff in District B and there will still be no problems. It can all come crashing down at any time, and if that happens it’ll tie up the legal system for years, but for now, make like Wile E. Coyote and keep on running. As far as you know, the end of that cliff has not yet arrived.

(Note: this story ran, and I drafted this post, before the ruling in the District B runoff lawsuit. The fundamentals are the same, as Davis will still be serving till we have a runoff winner.)

Bailey stays on District B runoff ballot

Hopefully, this is the end of the line.

Cynthia Bailey

In a long-awaited decision, a visiting judge ruled Tuesday that a Houston city council candidate who has a felony conviction should remain on the ballot for the District B runoff, declining a plea from the third-place finisher to replace her on the ballot.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, who finished 168 votes behind Cynthia Bailey in the Nov. 5 general elections, had argued that Bailey’s 2007 felony conviction for theft made her ineligible and the city erred in not declaring her as such before it certified the November results.

Jefferson-Smith’s lawyers cited a state law that says candidates cannot have felony convictions from which they have not been pardoned or otherwise released from its “resulting disabilities.” It doesn’t define that phrase, which has invited confusion about who qualifies and who does not.

She asked the judge to rule that the city should have declared Bailey ineligible and then place Jefferson-Smith on the runoff ballot with top vote-getter Tarsha Jackson.

Special Judge Grant Dorfman declined to do so, saying that Jefferson-Smith did not “conclusively prove Contestee Bailey’s ineligibility.”

“No grounds were presented that warrant the voiding of the November 5, 2019 election,” Dorfman wrote.

In a separate order, Dorman called for a May 2 runoff between Jackson and Bailey.

[…]

Dorfman also clarified that his rulings did not resolve an earlier case that Jefferson-Smith filed, in which she asked a judge to declare Bailey ineligible. The judge in that case dismissed that request, and appeals courts have declined to order the city itself to declare her ineligible.

Nicole Bates, an attorney for Jefferson-Smith, said shortly after the ruling was released that she had to consult her client before deciding whether they would appeal the ruling.

See here for the previous update. We’d been expecting a ruling last week, but I’ll let it slide. And Lord knows, I hope Jefferson-Smith accepts the defeat and does not appeal. It’s time to let District B vote.

Documenting the bangs

You have to admire the dedication to craft.

Did not age well

Like so many in Houston, Tony Adams and his family had to flee their inner-Loop home when Hurricane Harvey pushed Houston’s bayous out of their banks in August 2017.

Weeks later, Adams watched the 2017 World Series from the couch at a friend’s house, celebrating the Astros’ victory. Last fall, though, he was left crestfallen by allegations that the Astros had resorted to electronic sign-stealing en route to the 2017 championship.

Adams, however, did not fret in silence. As a web developer and graphic designer, he had the skills to discern what the Astros had done and the ability to document their actions in a comprehensive fashion that not even Major League Baseball chose to provide.

Accordingly, Tony Adams’ signstealingscandal.com website, which documents 8,274 pitches of 58 Astros games in 2017, has become a milestone of baseball scholarship — a public footprint of how the Astros did or, in some cases, did not, abuse technology for their own benefits in 2017.

“This is a difficult subject for Astros fans,” Adams said. “I think any reasonable fan has hurt feelings about it. The fact that it happened during our one World Series championship, I can’t help but think differently about that World Series.

“The Astros were so good in 2017 that I expected them to win the World Series, which you never want to do as a fan. I don’t think they needed to do this, which is what makes it so tragic.”

Adams devised a computer program that allowed him to discern 1,143 pitches at Minute Maid Park in 58 games that were preceded by banging sounds. The bangs were delivered by Astros players hitting a trash can after picking up signs captured by a centerfield camera to signal the batter that a breaking pitch or off-speed pitch was on the way.

Baseball scholars already are parsing Adams’ data for clues and trends, which he said was his goal. A portion of the website logs each pitch and the result of the at-bat, using his observations linked to data from MLB’s Statcast pitch-tracking system.

A writer for Baseball Prospectus determined that the sign-stealing caper may have hurt the Astros as much as it helped them. Writers for The Athletic speculate that data for at-bats by George Springer, Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa and Jake Marisnick could help explain why each batter reduced strikeout totals significantly in 2017.

Adams, meanwhile, tries to leave interpretations to others.

“People are able to see that there are certain players who probably had less involvement with the banging scheme,” he said.

Chief among that group was 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve, who ranked near the bottom of the list in terms of the percentage of pitches on which banging sounds were recorded. Adams said he was meticulous about his research but was particularly precise regarding Altuve, giving each of his at-bats a second listen to make sure he wasn’t missing anything.

I’m really glad he did this, because the efficacy of many well-known ways of cheating in baseball – spitballs, corked bats, PEDs – is very much an open question. The best solution to sign stealing may well be an abundance of evidence that it doesn’t help the teams that try it. This isn’t conclusive, of course – not all of the pitches were charted, other teams may have been more efficient at this than the Astros, other methods of cheating or further refinements to this type of cheating may pay greater dividends – but it’s at least a pragmatic argument against the practice, for those times when the moral and ethical arguments fall short. Gotta start somewhere. A recent episode of the Effectively Wild podcast contains a thirty minute interview with Adams if you want to know more about this. Kudos for the good work, Tony Adams.

A better way to do I-45

From Michael Skelley on Facebook:

Here’s a new vision for I-45.
-saves money
-no displacement in low income areas
-no destruction of White Oak Bayou
-prevents TxDOT vandalization of EaDo
-downtown amenities if we want to fund those ourselves

This vision addresses the fundamental problem with this project – we should not be sending thru traffic through the heart of Houston, especially at the expense of low income communities, our kids’ health, and our bayous.

Almost half the traffic on I-45 is not going downtown. Let’s use Beltway 8 and 610 for thru traffic.

Please let us know what you think!

I like this a lot. I’d need to see some numbers, but I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of spare capacity on the east sides of Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As someone noted in the comments on this post, the 45-to-610-to-45 route is only about five miles longer than the 45-all-the-way route, and once you factor in the potential time savings from traffic that flows better, it would probably be no slower than the average trip along 45 is now. This would cost a lot less because there would be a lot less actual construction, and it would be less disruptive because the main construction needed would be at the two interchanges between 45 and 610, rather than the enormous integrations of I-45 into US59 and I-10 that are being proposed today. It would also allow the reclamation of a bunch of downtown real estate now being taken up by the existing I-45 – no more Pierce Elevated, as the current plan allows, but also no more gulf between the Heights and the Near Northside and Lindale. Much of 59 south of downtown was put below grade during its last major renovation, in response to public demand. This makes so much sense I’m kind of surprised no one had proposed it before now. I hope it’s not too late to make TxDOT consider it. What do you think?

RIP, Anna Russell

Truly, the end of an era.

Anna Russell

Anna Russell, the petite powerhouse who oiled the engine of government as Houston’s city secretary for nine mayors during a nearly 70-year career defined by her sharp eye and quick wit, died Monday. She was 88.

Russell had not attended a city council meeting since October 2018, when she made the first of several hospital visits over the last year and a half. Yet for months Russell insisted she would return to work and, to the surprise of no one, continued to handle paperwork and field questions from home well into last summer.

As friends and colleagues put it, “Anna was Anna.”

“Houston will have other city secretaries, but there will never be another Anna Adams Russell,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement emailed to news media. “Today, my heart is broken following news of Anna’s death.

“Employees all over the city can claim dedication to their jobs; some can claim top seniority at their workplaces. Anna humbly made no claims and didn’t need to,” the mayor said. “I’d ask God to rest her soul, but she was hardly interested in rest. Getting the job done for the public was her constant quest.”

[…]

Russell’s role, along with her nine staffers, was to compile the council agenda, keep the minutes, and maintain all city records, including ordinances and motions, candidate filings, campaign finance reports and lobbyist registrations.

The more visible part of her duties was to oversee council meetings in a chair to the mayor’s right, calling items to the floor and enforcing speaking rules.

Her trademark, “Thank you, your time has expired,” was almost as distinctive as her voice, a sweet but steely drawl that drew its twang from her girlhood in 1930s Lubbock and its roughness from decades of cigarettes.

I’m sure we’ll hear a ton of Anna Russell stories over the next few weeks. Honestly, what makes local politics the rich well of interest that it is is precisely because of dedicated, idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind public servants like Anna Russell. She was, in a real if under-appreciated way by the larger public, the face of City Hall, much more than any Mayor ever could be. I look forward to the naming of some room or wing or building in the near future in her honor. Mayor Turner’s official statement is here. Rest in peace, Anna Russell.

Metro’s robot security guards

Not a character from a dystopian action movie, I promise.

Robot security guards are coming to a Houston-area transit center, park and ride lot and rail station in the coming months, after the Metropolitan Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 test of the techno-police Thursday.

“They have been shown to be deterrents,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.

Wendler said Metro’s agreement with Knightscope is a one-year test, from which it could expand beyond the three locations. Citing the need to provide more security to petty crimes without stretching police resources, officials sought information on the robotic rangers.

Agency officials, in consultation with the company, will decide which parking lots, transit centers and rail stops get a robot in the first year, Wendler said.

Security sentinels are becoming a familiar sight in shopping malls and some developments. In downtown Houston, a robot patrols the grounds of Allen Center.

Though many users nationally have said they are a cost-effective crime deterrent, the devices have raised alarms with some privacy concerns about a robot roaming public spaces recording everything and broadcasting back to private and public entities. Fears of hacking also have been raised.

Metro officials are likely to use a K5 robot — a 400-pound, 5’2” bullet-shaped bot that moves at a maximum speed of 3 mph — at a transit center and park and ride lot. Though a sleek R2-D2 does not sound that intimidating, its ability to record video and relay it to police is its real threat to thieves and others.

“What they have seen is people move away from it because they do not want to be videoed,” Wendler said.

If you’re thinking you might have seen one of these things before, you may have. I don’t feel like digging through my archives for this, but there was a big discussion in Houston a bit more than a decade ago about the usefulness of installing a bunch of closed-circuit cameras downtown as a crime deterrent. That was eventually scrapped, partly for cost reasons, partly for privacy reasons, partly for a general lack of evidence that the cameras did serve as deterrents. It’s possible that data is different now – for sure, camera and surveillance technology is a lot more advanced, for better and worse – but even then the one good use case for the closed circuit cameras was in enclosed spaces – parking lots, subway trains, that sort of thing – and that’s more or less what is being proposed here. So we’ll see how they work. I do hope Metro is forthcoming with data about the experience, and I hope they will admit it and move on if they don’t have much effect.

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Electric scooter injuries have surged along with their popularity in the United States, nearly tripling over four years, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Nearly 40,000 broken bones, head injuries, cuts and bruises resulting from scooter accidents were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 2014 through 2018, the research showed. The scooter injury rate among the general U.S. population climbed from 6 per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000. Most occurred in riders aged 18 to 34, and most injured riders weren’t hospitalized.

For the study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed U.S. government data on nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms.

“Improved rider safety measures and regulation” are clearly needed, the researchers said.

See here, here, and here for previous studies, and here to see this one. Clearly, helmets are going to have to be mandated, and from there it’s going to be up to cities to figure out how to safely incorporate these things into their transportation infrastructure. Bikes have been around for a long time and we’ve mostly figured them out, but scooters are new and sexy and are being pushed by Silicon Valley startups, so there are a lot of bumps in the road still to come. Hopefully we can begin to bend the curve on this. And no, I have no idea what the status of scooters coming to Houston is. Maybe that will be on an upcoming Council agenda. Assuming that scooter expansion is still the plan for these companies, which may not necessarily be the case any more. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any news lately. CNet has more.

Crunch time for I-45

The rubber is meeting the road, as it were.

Three Houston Planning Department meetings scheduled for this week, days prior to a key state deadline, could prove pivotal in shaping how Interstate 45 is rebuilt — with ramifications for years to come.

The meetings, which start Thursday, will be the first chances for residents opposing the $7 billion-plus project to realign and widen I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway to view the city’s proposed adjustments, which Houston will convey to the Texas Department of Transportation this spring.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner tasked Houston planning officials to develop a set of recommendations to TxDOT aiming to address community complaints and how the projects can overcome them. Those recommendations and TxDOT’s response, city officials said, will determine their next steps.

“He is prepared to say ‘thanks but no thanks if that is what the decision is,’” District H Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said of Turner.

In the meantime, TxDOT is moving ahead in its environmental process on the project, releasing 641 pages of its draft environmental report outlining community impacts along the roughly 18-mile route, including the removal of 1,079 homes — including 433 apartments and 486 units deemed low-income or public housing — 344 businesses, 58 billboards, five churches and two schools.

The two reports, available for public comment until Feb. 7, are the final two pieces of the draft environmental analysis TxDOT must complete before a final environmental report is released.

As state officials proceed, however, there is a growing sense that opponents — who have spent the past year vocally urging changes — are transitioning from improving the project to opposing it.

“I have come to the conclusion talking to TxDOT is a waste of time,” project critic Michael Skelly told the Jan. 11 gathering, encouraging people to lean on city and state officials to apply pressure.

Well, lots of people have concluded that the I-45 project is more bad than good, though the TxDOT plan is supported by Metro because of HOV capacity increases, which factor into its mobility plan. I would encourage you to review those city recommendations and try to attend one or more of these meetings – you can find the time and place information at either the city link or the story link. I still don’t think there’s any stopping this behemoth, but there’s still time to try to change it.

We have an Astros apology

From a former player, not a current player. It’s still something.

Dallas Keuchel

Twelve days later, an apology appeared on the south side of Chicago, from a bearded face that was constant throughout the Astros’ now-ruined renaissance.

“Was it against the rules? Yes it was,” Dallas Keuchel said. “And I personally am sorry for what’s come about the whole situation.”

Keuchel, now a member of the White Sox, became the first Astros player past or present to formally acknowledge and apologize for the electronic sign-stealing scandal that’s rocked the sport and cost four men their jobs.

The 2015 Cy Young winner spoke Friday at White Sox FanFest, directly addressing many topics his former Astros teammates have avoided. Keuchel, who left Houston as a free agent after the 2018 season, was an All-Star who threw 1452/3 innings during the 2017 World Series-winning season.

“It’s just what the state of baseball was at that point in time,” Keuchel said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “… It is what it is, and we’ve got to move past that. I never thought anything would’ve come like it did. I, myself, am sorry.”

Of the five current Astros players who’ve spoken since Major League Baseball released its findings Jan. 13, none have expressed remorse or assumed any culpability. Owner Jim Crane said this week he expects the team to come together at spring training, discuss its next steps and perhaps issue “a strong statement” of apology.

“First and foremost I think apologies should be in order for, if not everybody on the team,” Keuchel said. “It was never intended to be what it is made to be right now. I think when stuff comes out about things that happen over the course of a major-league ball season, it’s always blown up to the point of ‘Oh, my gosh, this has never happened before.’”

Keuchel said that he’s spoken to some of his former Astros teammates and reported “there is sorrow in some guys’ voices.”

Most, Keuchel said, are unhappy at Mike Fiers’ decision to speak on the record about the ploy to The Athletic in November. Fiers’ on-record account was the catalyst for MLB’s investigation.

“A lot of guys are not happy with the fact that Mike came out and said something or the fact that this even happened,” Keuchel said. “But at the same time, there is some sorrow in guys’ voices. I have talked to guys before and this will be going on for a long time and I’m sure in the back of guys minds this’ll stay fresh.”

I mean, was that so hard? It’s not even that abject, doesn’t really admit wrongdoing, but it at least acknowledges that an apology is called for. Keuchel gets a bit of a discount, for being a pitcher and thus not a beneficiary of the banging scheme, and for being a former Astro, but if you start from there and are sincere about it, what you end up with should be fine. But the longer this drags on, the less it will mean. Don’t keep us waiting.

The busking lawsuit

Interesting.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

A Houston accordionist is feeling squeezed by an obscure city law aimed at restricting where musicians can play for tips.

Anthony Barilla, also a composer whose work can be heard on the radio program “This American Life,” lodged the lawsuit in federal court recently in hopes of striking down the decades-old Houston ordinance, contending that it violates the First Amendment.

As the law stands, a performer — regardless of their talent or instrument, be it a guitar, violin or their voice — must have a permit to serenade the streets with any hope of making a buck. And that permit confines them to the Theater District.

Barilla does not consider himself solely a busker, a musician who performs in public places — often with a belly-up hat or an open instrument case to invite a toss of the coin. But he traversed Houston’s permit process in 2018 to see what would happen and to brush up on the accordion.

[…]

For most of the 20th century, musicians were barred from public street performances in Houston. Chronicle archives show that musicians began wooing the city for permits in the 1980s, but nothing serious happened until 1990, when the G-7 Summit was predicted to draw visitors to Houston.

City officials OK’d an experimental program to allow street performers — in the Theater District only. The program, if it worked and were then made permanent, would lure more people downtown, especially during conventions, then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire hoped. According to reports, only five permits were issued during the pilot.

The following year, City Council signed off on the ordinance.

Unlike Houston, some cities do not require permits. Musicians don’t need one to entertain straphangers amid the roar of New York City’s subway system. Busking has been street legal in most areas of Seattle for more than 40 years

“Houston is such a business-friendly town. This is my business,” Barilla said. “You’d think Houston, given our pro-business climate, that we wouldn’t be that way. The law is archaic. We haven’t caught up to other world-class cities.”

Let me say up front that I agree with the basic premise of this lawsuit, that the ordinance in question is overly restrictive and at the very least needs an overhaul. Busking isn’t going to be viable in many parts of the city, but there’s no reason to restrict it to the Theater District. Let people busk, as long as they’re not blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic, and as long as they’re not disturbing the peace. It would be wise for the city to offer a settlement and fix this law.

District B lawsuit has its hearing

Feels like we’ve been waiting forever for this.

Cynthia Bailey

Lawyers for the third-place finisher in Houston city council District B’s election told a judge Friday that the city erred in failing to declare an opponent ineligible because of her felony conviction and asked the court to throw out the votes that landed Cynthia Bailey in a still-to-be-scheduled runoff.

The judge, they said, should discount the votes Bailey received in the Nov. 5 election and put their client, Renee Jefferson-Smith, into the runoff against top vote-getter Tarsha Jackson.

Visiting Judge Grant Dorfman did not make a ruling Friday, but said he hoped to have a decision by the end of next week.

[…]

Jefferson-Smith’s legal team argued that Bailey’s well-documented 2007 felony conviction makes her ineligible to run under state law, and the city should have declared her as such when they they submitted a packet of supporting documents to the city secretary on Nov. 13. Bailey served 18 months of a 10-year sentence for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks from North Forest Independent School District.

Jefferson-Smith is basing her case on a state law that says a person cannot run for elected office if he or she has been finally convicted of a felony from which they have not been pardoned or otherwise released from its “resulting disabilities.”

The law does not define “resulting disabilities” and courts have interpreted it differently. Bailey has said she can run because she completed her sentence and can vote. Jefferson-Smith’s team has cited at least one case in which a candidate similarly disclosed a conviction and then was almost immediately removed from the Galveston City Council under the same law.

The City of Houston received documents from Jefferson-Smith’s lawyers on Nov. 13 — a week after Election Day, but before city council canvassed the results. The documents included a Harris County record of Bailey’s conviction and a Texas Attorney General opinion stating that restored voting rights do not mean a restored ability to run for office.

“They are not allowed to ignore conclusive proof of ineligibility,” said Lindsay Roberts, a lawyer for Jefferson-Smith. “They have to make that determination of eligibility and, importantly, they have to do so before certification.”

Attorneys for the city rejected those claims, arguing the submitted documents did not conclusively prove that Bailey had not been cleared of those “resulting disabilities.” They also said the documents were sent and received after Jefferson-Smith already had lost two court rulings in a separate lawsuit.

In that case, filed two days after the election and separate from the one heard Friday, Jefferson-Smith asked a judge for an emergency order — and then a preliminary injunction — declaring Bailey ineligible. Both requests were denied, and the First Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court have upheld those rejections.

With those initial denials in mind, Senior Assistant City Attorney Suzanne Chauvin said, the city council certified the results Nov. 18, as it is required by law to do.

“Essentially, they’re saying we should have second-guessed two rulings by the district court,” Chauvin said.

See here for the previous update. As you know, as a matter of principle, I disagree with Jefferson-Smith’s argument. I think the city should have accepted Bailey’s application, as they did with several other candidates who had prior felony convictions, and if there needed to be a legal challenge it should have happened after the filing deadline and before the election. That’s all water under the bridge now, and hopefully something the Lege will address (in a constructive manner) in 2021. For now, all I care about is getting a ruling, and then maybe a confirmed date for the next election. I don’t envy Judge Dorfman the decision, and I really hope that any appeals are resolved quickly.

HISD considers metal detectors

It’s (maybe) come to this.

Houston ISD officials are exploring the idea of installing metal detectors at the district’s middle and high schools in response to last week’s fatal on-campus shooting of a student, a step few districts in the region have taken following nationwide incidents of mass gun violence at schools.

In a blog post, Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan wrote that she will be meeting with students and community leaders to determine whether the district should increase security measures following the Jan. 14 shooting of Cesar Cortes, 19, at Bellaire High School. Authorities have said they believe a 16-year-old classmate accidentally shot Cortes while showing off a semiautomatic pistol.

“These meetings, along with reconvening safety and security council committees on every campus, will be a catalyst for increased vigilance and preventative measures in our schools,” Lathan wrote Tuesday. “Another measure the district is exploring includes assessing middle schools and high schools for metal detectors as a screening measure for entry onto campuses.”

HISD does not regularly employ metal detectors or require clear backpacks at its campuses. Aldine and Spring ISDs are the only two large Houston-area districts that use metal detectors each school day. Cy-Fair ISD, the region’s second-largest district, issued a clear backpack mandate for students following the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead.

[…]

The addition of metal detectors would represent one of HISD’s costliest and most significant security upgrades in recent years. While prices for metal detectors vary, outfitting all 106 campuses that serve grades 6 and higher could be costly, particularly if the district installed multiple machines at larger schools. Chicago Public Schools officials last year approved the purchase of an undisclosed number of metal detectors for nearly $4,000 per unit, with installation and warranty included.

HISD officials have not said who would operate and maintain metal detectors, which could carry additional costs.

Any districtwide purchases of metal detectors likely would require approval of the HISD school board. Trustee Patricia Allen, a former elementary school principal, said she supports the installation of metal detectors in middle and high schools, arguing the increase in security outweighs the logistical hurdles of screening students daily.

“You already see them so much, even at the football stadiums where they have lots of people going through those,” Allen said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

However, Trustee Dani Hernandez said she opposes metal detectors at schools, largely because of the message they send to students. Hernandez added that she heard backlash to metal detectors from community members following the November 2018 death of 18-year-old Delindsey Mack, who was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting within feet of Lamar High School grounds.

“We would need to figure out more about the cost, but also how that plays into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hernandez, a former elementary school teacher.

Here’s the blog post in question. A little back of the envelope math based on the Chicago schools’ experience suggests this would cost at least $4 million for the equipment, with likely additional costs for the personnel to operate the machines. As the story notes later, HISD will be getting an additional $2 million from the state for “safety-related upgrades”, which is both insufficient and doesn’t address ongoing costs.

Now, the additional cost this would impose on HISD may still be worth it. I’ve got two kids in HISD, and one of my older daughter’s best friends attends Bellaire, so I very much have skin in the game here, and the safety of HISD’s students is something I care a lot about. The first question is, would this be a good way to improve school security? As the story notes, the studies we have so far have not yet shown evidence that metal detectors do improve safety; there wasn’t enough data to draw a conclusion. We’ve all seen news stories of metal detectors at airports failing to detect guns. There’s already evidence that other “security” enhancements at schools, like live shooter drills, has had an overall negative effect on students’ mental health and well-being. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical.

How many explosions is too many explosions?

Unfortunately, we’re on track to find out.

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar to Houston residents.

Explosions, flames reaching into the sky, plumes of black smoke, calls to shelter in place, evacuations, injuries and deaths.

The explosion early Friday morning at a manufacturing plant was the latest deadly reminder of the potential danger posed by hazardous material facilities in the Houston area.

In 2019, there were at least five major chemical incidents in Southeast Texas.

[…]

The Houston area is home to more than 2,500 chemical facilities. A 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation found there was a major chemical incident in the greater Houston area every six weeks. The investigation found many facilities posed serious threats to the public but were unknown to most neighbors and largely unpoliced by government at all levels.

In November, the Trump administration rolled back a number of chemical safety regulations created in response to the 2013 West Fertilizer explosion that killed 15 and injured more than 200. A coalition of environmental groups sued to stop the rollback.

With those regulations off the books, companies will not have to complete third-party audits or a root-cause analysis after an incident. Companies also will not have to provide the public access to information about what type of chemicals are stored in these facilities either.

While the federal government weakened regulations, Harris County has taken a more aggressive stand with the petrochemical industry in recent months.  The county brought civil lawsuits and criminal charges to multiple chemical companies after incidents in 2019. This has led to a race to the courts as the state and the county fight over taking the lead in penalizing polluters.

I was awake and getting dressed when that explosion happened. It was loud enough that I thought it was something that happened in my house, and I’m a long way from the 4500 block of Gessner. All things considered, we’re damn lucky there weren’t more casualties.

The story goes on to list the other recent disasters, a rogues’ gallery that includes the likes of Intercontinental Terminal Company, KMCO, and the Exxon Mobil plant in Baytown. You can now add Watson Grinding & Manufacturing to that list. It’s just a matter of time before that list grows again.

And look, we all know the stakes of the 2020 election, but this list and the two parties’ responses to it are the stakes of every election. The Republicans roll back regulations that are in place to prevent and mitigate disasters, to hold the negligent companies responsible, and to inform the public of dangers in their midst. The Democrats support and enforce such regulations, and seek to make sure the people know about what’s out there. We know what we’re fighting for this year. Put “fewer giant explosions caused by under-regulated and uninspected facilities that contain all kinds of dangerous materials” high on the list of things we should be fighting for in 2022 and beyond.

Uptown BRT pushed back to July

Sigh.

Opening day for Houston’s first bus rapid transit line has been pushed back to mid-summer as construction enters the final steps along most of the route before reaching a three-month testing period.

Service is expected to start no earlier than July, said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority. That is four months later than the March opening officials predicted in mid-2019, the result of some construction delays and the desire to test more of the system at once.

“Until you get the whole corridor lined up, you really can’t deliver the service the way it is intended,” Lambert said.

[…]

Though riders will experience the bus service as a single rapid transit route from Metro’s Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10 to a new transit center along Westpark Drive — primarily along bus-only lanes along Loop 610 and in the center of Post Oak — the path involves five different projects, built by different public entities.

That includes the new transit center taking shape along Westpark, now expected to finish in March, that Uptown and transit officials view as a major hub for buses.

Work on the Post Oak lanes mostly is complete, according to John Breeding, executive director of the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the road and led efforts to add transit to the area.

Construction continues, however, on the elevated busway that will carry the BRT service from Post Oak north along Loop 610 before reconnecting the buses with North Post Oak. Work on the $58 million busway, developed by the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to finish by the end of March, TxDOT spokeswoman Emily Black said.

Testing in earnest can only happen along the line with the Post Oak and busway portions complete, Lambert said.

The previous update, which did note that there were these other parts that weren’t done yet, still had March for the grand opening. So much for that. If this means it will all open at once and not in a piecemeal fashion, I suppose that makes more sense. But as with all construction projects, you just want it to be over with.

You can’t move on from something you haven’t faced up to

That’s not how it works.

Did not age well

Neither Jose Altuve nor Alex Bregman, two principal players on a 2017 team that executed what Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred described as a “player-driven and player-executed” system to violate baseball’s rules and defraud the game, chose Saturday to address specifics of a nine-page report on the scandal that led to the dismissal of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch.

If there is remorse and apology, that will come later, perhaps next month after the ballclub gathers at West Palm Beach, Fla, for spring training. But for the moment, if there are fences to be mended, feelings to be reconciled or trust to be regained, Astros fans apparently will be left to their own devices.

Until the players speak, the focus of the Astros’ efforts to cope with and move past what some have described as baseball’s worst performance-related scandal in a century remains on owner Jim Crane, who made the decision last Monday to fire Hinch and Luhnow rather than settle for the suspensions imposed by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

By firing his manager and general manaager, said Gene Grabowski, a principal with the public relations firm kglobal, the Astros have made the appropriate sacrifice for their sins to the Lords of Baseball.

“They have thrown the virgin into the volcano,” Grabowski said.

With that, he said, the most important task facing Astros management is to move ahead, as Crane has done by apologizing to season ticket holders, contacting sponsors and receiving what he described as messages of continued support.

“You have to get past this,” Grabowski said.

[…]

Astros alumni Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman also emphasized the need to look ahead.

“When I get a spanking from my dad, he doesn’t quit loving me and I don’t quit being his son,” Berkman said. “The Astros aren’t going to stop being part of Major League Baseball. You have to accept the punishment and move on.

“This is a clean organization. This is not a dirty organization. This is not a tricky organization. All these things notwithstanding, this is a great organization, and I think it will continue to be.”

Bagwell agreed with Altuve that it’s too early for players to react to the specific charges outlined in the commissioner’s report.

“Everyone is still trying to wrap their heads around it,” he said.

Others, however, favor a more direct approach. Jeff Van Gundy, the former Rockets coach who now works for ESPN, said the forgiving nature of Houston fans and the old saw that confession is good for the soul would be a better avenue than silence.

“You don’t have to get into specifics, but you can say, ‘I’m sorry for the role that I played in this, and I promise the Astros fans that not only will I promise not to do it again, I won’t tolerate anybody else doing it,’ ” Van Gundy said.

While some fans will scoff at the idea that players did anything wrong by violating the rules in a sport where competition is everything and winning is the only thing, Van Gundy said, “The earlier you deal with it, the more forthright you are, the better.

“Saying ‘I screwed up’ is the hardest thing to do. But it’s the simplest way to be forgiven.”

I’m with Van Gundy here. Look, the main thing we know here is that other than then-coach Alex Cora, the whole “banging scheme” was player-devised and player-driven. Yet for a variety of understandable if debatable reasons, MLB chose to punish only the manager and GM. This has not only left the public wanting players to be held accountable as well, it’s also left every member of the Astros team from 2017 and 2018 under a cloud. That cloud isn’t going anywhere until the players themselves talk about their own role in what happened, whether as a ringleader, beneficiary of the scheme, or just someone who didn’t care for it but didn’t speak up about it. This isn’t complicated. The Astros themselves can feel however they want about all this, but if they want other people to move on, they need to own what they did and apologize for it.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

Meet the new Board, not the same as the old Board.

Hours after Houston ISD’s four recently elected trustees took office, enshrining the district’s first all-female school board, the new-look governing team on Thursday made its first big decision.

Trustees voted 8-1 to postpone approving a facilities assessment contract sought by the district’s administration, which would serve as a significant step toward asking residents to approve a multi-billion bond package in November. Board members will return in February to decide on the contract, giving them additional time to consider the ramifications of the deal.

Multiple board members said they wanted more discussion between the administration and trustees before spending up to $5 million on a facilities assessment. HISD likely will face headwinds in gaining support for a bond package, the result of dramatic state intervention looming over the district and a decline in public trust following months of board in-fighting.

“If it were that important, these conversations should have happened months ago,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “To spring it on brand new board members and expect a vote is unfair.”

HISD administrators said the facilities assessment would help the district craft a bond proposal, which would involve extensive construction projects at dozens of campuses, major investments in school security and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology upgrades.

Derrick Sanders, HISD’s officer of construction services, said the delay in a facilities assessment “wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but it would be a challenging one” for placing a bond request on the November ballot.

District officials have not placed a price tag on any potential bond packages, but it would likely exceed $2 billion and come with little to no increase in the tax rate. HISD residents last voted on a bond in 2012, approving a $1.9-billion proposal. Nearly all projects financed by the package have been completed.

So the obvious question to ask here, which the story did not address, is whether there could be a bond election called by the Board of Managers. It’s been long enough since the last bond election that there’s surely a need for some capital spending, and waiting four or five years till the elected Board is fully back in place could ensure that the need is too great to be sufficiently addressed. These bonds usually pass without too much trouble – the 2012 bond got 69% of the vote – but it’s not hard to imagine a 2020 issue being controversial. I don’t know what the best course of action is here, but I hope the new Board figures it out quickly. Aren’t y’all glad you signed up for this?

No free fares

For the best, I’d say.

Free fares appear to be a hard sell for Houston area transit officials, who said while they are open to exploring discounts, people boarding buses and trains will need to fork over $1.25 for the foreseeable future.

After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.

“It is just not feasible to do free fares,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.

[…]

Metro’s analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.

Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency’s lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.

Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, “it takes time to order new buses.”

The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.

“It is easy to look at it and say ‘OK, it is such a small part of our budget’ but it is really more complicated than that,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for the background. Metro says it will consider some other options like free fares for schoolchildren (they get discounted fares now), and Metro Chair Carrin Patman said this was a useful exercise while free-fare-advocate Tory Gattis said he was satisfied with the study Metro did. I agree this was worth considering, but in the end this was clearly the right call. Maybe a smaller version of this makes sense, maybe sometime in the future it makes sense, but for now Metro should focus on other things.

Despite the benefits of increased ridership, many of those urging Metro to expand service oppose the elimination of fares.

“When people don’t pay for something, there’s no value to it,” Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, told Metro board members in December.

LINK works with low-income and minority communities to increase transit offerings, something Blair said could be stunted if Metro were to give up the roughly $70 million in annual fare revenues. Such a move also could delay efforts to expand service or add routes long-sought by some voters that overwhelmingly supported Metro’s $3.5 billion transit plan in November.

“Metro will risk the overwhelming support you have earned,” Blair said.

I agree completely.