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Houston

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a drought

And by “we”, I mean most of the state.

About 80% of Texas is currently experiencing some level of drought conditions, ranging from “moderate” to “exceptional.”

The drought, which caused wildfires across the state earlier this year and prompted burn bans, is now negatively affecting farmers and ranchers.

A lack of rain during the spring resulted in lower crop production and decreased soil moisture levels, with no relief in sight.

“This is a tough situation,” Tracy Tomascik from Texas Farm Bureau told Houston Matters on Monday, comparing this year to Texas’ historic drought in 2011. “It’s something that we hoped we’d all put in the back of our minds, but this year it has a little added sting to it.”

Hay supply is down, and 78% of the wheat supply in Texas is in “poor” or “very poor” condition.

“It’s as bad as it’s been since 2011, if not worse,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said about the state’s wheat supply. “2011 was a wake-up call… I think that experience will be of considerable help this time around.”

[…]

May and June are typically the wettest months of the year in Texas and are the prime months for plant growth. Hungry plants and no rain can quickly lead to a bad situation.

“It’s a flash drought,” Nielsen-Gammon said about the combination of factors working together to cause Texas’ current weather conditions and agricultural obstacles.

The drought is also causing water supply issues statewide as officials ask residents to conserve water.

“The way the weather pattern looks, it’s going to be like that for a while,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

While Houston has not been severely affected by drought conditions, Nielsen-Gammon said that could change.

“Coastal areas have been fairly dry, and with the high temperatures, the dryness is spreading over the whole area now.”

Remember 2011? More terrible drought, wildfires all over the state (especially around Bastrop), a whole month of daily temperatures over 100 degrees? Yeah, that. Any time 2011 is in the conversation, weather-wise, it’s a bad thing.

As far as Houston goes, it’s not that bad right now, but we know how bad it can get because we lived through 2011, too. So please, pay attention to this.

For the first time in a decade, the city is asking property owners to voluntarily cut back on water usage as low rainfall and blistering temperatures push Houston closer to drought conditions.

The solstice arrived Tuesday with temperatures up to 9 degrees hotter than average, triggering phase one of Houston’s drought contingency plan, adopted to stave off water shortages in times of dangerous heat and low precipitation.

Under the plan, residents are asked to voluntarily reduce water usage by watering plants after sunset, repairing dripping faucets and ensuring sprinkler heads do not spray directly into storm drains or streets. The requested moves could become mandatory if drought conditions worsen.

City officials hope the optional measures will cut water use citywide by 5 percent.

It marked the first time the city has entered any version of its drought contingency plan since 2011.

[…]

City officials issued the following voluntary water conservation guidelines, expected to continue until the threat of drought lifts:

  • Limit outdoor watering to twice a week after sunset and before sunrise
  • Single-family homes with even-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Sundays and Thursdays; those with odd-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Saturdays and Wednesdays, with Tuesdays and Fridays reserved for apartments and businesses
  • Check and repair water leaks from dripping faucets and running toilets
  • Fix sprinkler heads to ensure sure water is not disappearing directly into the street, storm drains or gutters

Surely that isn’t much to ask. Let’s do what we can to keep 2022 from being as bad as 2011 was.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Monkeypox in the Houston area

Was bound to happen sooner or later.

Two people in the region have tested positive for monkeypox, a viral disease with typically mild symptoms, public health officials with the City of Houston and Harris County announced Saturday.

The Houston Health Department said a Houston resident who had recently traveled internationally had a confirmed case of monkeypox. Hours later, Harris County Public Health said an out-of-state resident who had visited Harris County recently also had a confirmed case. The out-of-state resident is already out of the region and back in their home state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services have said the virus does not present a risk to the general public. The CDC’s website says monkeypox is “rarely fatal” and the risk of transmission in the United States is low.

Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. It’s most notable symptom is a rash that can resemble pimples or blisters, the CDC said. It can spread from person-to-person through direct contact with the rash or body fluids. It can also spread by respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact or during intimate physical contact.

As of Saturday afternoon, three cases had already been recorded in Texas — not including the two reported in Houston that day — and 114 have been logged nationwide since the first case this year was identified in mid-May.

See here for the background. As noted, it’s not something to freak out about, but do be aware of it and exercise reasonable caution. Mostly, if you have reason to think you might have been infected, contact your local public health department and do what they tell you to do.

Fifth Circuit upholds dismissal of Methodist vaccine mandate lawsuit

Good.

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging Houston Methodist’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which last year thrust the hospital into the national spotlight as the first healthcare system in the U.S. to require the shots for its employees.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 117 Houston Methodist employees who refused to abide by the policy, was dismissed in June 2021 by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who at the time decried arguments comparing the requirement to those made under Nazi Germany.

In its opinion, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it affirmed the original ruling “because plaintiffs do not demonstrate any error in the district court’s judgment on the arguments made in that court but instead make an entirely new argument on appeal.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, said “this battle is far from over.”

“We believe employment should not be conditioned on your willingness to take an experimental shot,” he said in an email to the Chronicle. “During oral argument, the court indicated that one way to potentially address this case of first impression is to take it back to state court. We will pursue every legal avenue available to our clients, including taking this case to the United States Supreme Court.”

Woodfill added that a “companion case” has been filed in Harris County, though records of that lawsuit could not be found by press time.

[…]

The lawsuit brought three separate claims of wrongful termination, alleging violations of state and federal law. In their appeal, the plaintiffs “pivoted” from focusing on the federal law violations to state law, the appeals court notes in its opinion.

The plaintiffs “now even equivocate on whether federal law supports their claim,” according to the opinion. “Federal law does not, and the district court did not err in dismissing plaintiffs’ claim.”

See here for the previous update. As noted at the time, Texas state law isn’t exactly employee-friendly, so the odds of a better result for the vaccine refuseniks seems quite low. But hey, they have Jared Woodfill, Super Genius, on their side. What could possibly go wrong?

Charlene Ward Johnson wins HCC2

Charlene Ward Johnson

Final voting for the HCC2 runoff was yesterday. You can see the results here. Charlene Ward Johnson won with 1,278 votes, out of 2,390 cast, for 53.7% of the vote. I said there had been 4,662 ballots cast in the May special election for this and that we might not see half as many this time around. I’m glad to say I was a tad bit pessimistic about that.

Be that as it may, Charlene Ward Johnson is the newest member of the HCC Board of Trustees, and she will hold that position through 2025, when the seat is next up for election. I didn’t see any news reports about this at a first glance – perhaps something will be reported on Monday. You can still listen to my interview with her if you need to get acquainted. Congratulations and best of luck to Charlene Ward Johnson.

“Significant” suspension expected for Deshaun Watson

I should think so.

The NFL will argue that Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should receive a “significant” suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, multiple people familiar with the case said Friday.

The league “probably” will seek a suspension of one full season for Watson, a person on Watson’s side of the case said Friday. A person familiar with the league’s view of the case cautioned to be “careful” about specifying a precise length at this point for the suspension the NFL will seek. But that person also said: “Significant would be the proper term.”

[…]

Under a process that was revised in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA completed in 2020, the initial ruling on a prospective suspension or fine will be made by Robinson, now an attorney in Wilmington, Del., after retiring from the bench in 2017.

The case would be finished, with no appeals possible, if Robinson rules that there was no violation of the personal conduct policy. If she rules that there was a violation of the policy and imposes a penalty, either side could appeal to Goodell. The NFLPA pushed for revisions to the personal conduct policy in the CBA after clashes, some of which spilled into courtrooms after litigation filed by the union and players, in previous disciplinary cases. Previously, Goodell was responsible for making both the initial disciplinary ruling and resolving appeals.

It’s not clear whether Robinson will hold what amounts to a quasi-trial before making her decision. She declined to comment this week, referring questions to the league and union.

The NFL’s investigation has been conducted by Lisa Friel, the former chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who is the league’s special counsel for investigations.

Friel interviewed at least 11 of the women accusing Watson who are represented by attorney Tony Buzbee, according to a person familiar with the investigation, along with other women. She reviewed relevant available documents. The NFL’s representatives interviewed Watson over several days in Houston.

[…]

The league has made a presentation on the case to the NFLPA and Watson’s representatives, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That led those on Watson’s side of the case to conclude that the NFL will seek a substantial penalty.

It’s not clear whether Major League Baseball’s two-season suspension of pitcher Trevor Bauer under its domestic violence policy will serve as a precedent for the NFL’s proposed suspension of Watson, another person familiar with the league’s view said in recent weeks. But the NFL is aware that the length of the Bauer suspension could affect the public’s expectations and reaction in the Watson case, that person said.

Outside NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler has become involved in the case. A person familiar with the NFL’s view said the league is wary that Kessler will argue for no disciplinary action at all.

Kessler declined to comment Friday, referring questions to the NFLPA. The NFLPA could cite the lack of criminal charges, although the NFL’s policy allows discipline to be imposed without such charges.

The NFLPA’s defense of Watson will raise the issue that owners Daniel Snyder of the Washington Commanders, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys were not suspended by the league for incidents involving them and their teams. That was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the case after first being reported by Pro Football Talk.

I think one year is the minimum. The charges against Watson are considerably greater than those against Bauer, and as such I wouldn’t mind seeing him get two years as his punishment. Maybe Robinson or Friel found Watson’s accusers to be not fully credible, or maybe the NFLPA’s argument about the lack of punishment for these miscreant owners will hold some sway, I don’t know. I just don’t have any sympathy for either Watson or the Browns. Whatever the case, the expectation is that there will be an answer by the start of NFL training camp, which is to say by late July.

Houston wins its bid to be a 2026 World Cup host

Excellent.

The World Cup is coming to Houston.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, chose Houston as one of 16 sites for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, the first edition of the tournament to be co-hosted by three nations: the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Sixty games will be played in the U.S., including all from the quarterfinals on. Canada and Mexico are to host 10 games each.

Houston did not stage matches the last time the U.S. held the World Cup in 1994 — Dallas was the closest venue — but the Bayou City is now getting its shot.

[…]

World Cup games in Houston — likely five or six — will be played in 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium. Chris Canetti, the local bid committee CEO, said he is hopeful Houston hosts some knockout round matches as well as group stage matches. NRG Stadium is not a candidate for the semifinals or finals because FIFA requires a minimum of 80,000 seats for those games. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and AT&T Stadium in Arlington are believed to be the top contenders to stage the final.

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which hosted the 1994 World Cup final, was left out, as was a combined bid representing Baltimore and Washington, D.C., meaning the United States capital will not play a role in its biggest sporting event in 2026.

FIFA will also select two training sites out of five proposed venues: PNC Stadium, Houston Sports Park, AVEVA Stadium, Rice University and University of Houston.

This will be the first 48-nation World Cup, up from the 32-team format used since 1998. In a tournament likely to run from June 11 to July 12, but possibly start and end a week later, there will be 16 groups of three nations. Each team will play two first-round games instead of three, meaning one nation in each group opens against an opponent who will have already played. The top two in each group advance to a 32-nation knockout bracket.

Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, said some of the last decisions on host cities were not made until Thursday. The decisions, he said, were made “to ensure fans did not have to travel too far, to ensure everyone has a fantastic experience.”

To reduce travel, FIFA plans to group participating teams by region. Houston is in the Central along with Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, Monterrey, Mexico, and Mexico City.

The East region is Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and New York/New Jersey. The West: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium) and Guadalajara, Mexico.

“This is the biggest, most popular, most prestigious, the most important sporting event in the world,” Canetti said. “Bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Final Four, bigger than the Olympics and for our city to be able to land this event is spectacular. It’s going to be something unlike anything we’ve ever seen here before and it’s going to bring great value and great benefits to our city.”

As noted before, this has been a years-long process, and it’s great to be among the chosen locations at the end of it. You can see a map of the host cities in the story. Congrats to everyone involved. Just let me know when tickets will be on sale. CultureMap has more.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

Would you believe there’s still Renew Houston litigation out there?

This hit my mailbox on Friday.

Today, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in the City’s favor in Perez v. Turner, a challenge to Houston’s drainage fee, which provides the City with $125 million per year to pay for drainage infrastructure projects.

The Court found that plaintiff’s challenges failed because of Houston’s authority as a home – rule city to enact a drainage program.

“The City remains committed to protecting its citizens and their homes from flooding. The City’s continued ability to charge a drainage fee will allow it to do so in a fiscally responsible way and undertake essential drainage projects now and in the future,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner.

What the heck? Off to the Supreme Court website I scurry, and I find this.

Plaintiff Elizabeth Perez filed this case in 2015 challenging the City of Houston’s assessment, collection, and expenditure of a “drainage fee.” Perez alleged that the ordinance authorizing the drainage fee was invalid because the ordinance was premised on a faulty amendment to the city charter. She sought a variety of relief for herself and a class of similarly situated taxpayers, including a declaration of the drainage fee ordinance’s invalidity, an injunction against the City’s collection of drainage fees, and reimbursement of drainage fees already paid.

The nature of this case changed dramatically in November 2018, while the case was on appeal. The City passed a new charter amendment curing many of the defects Perez alleged in the drainage fee ordinance. Although the parties’ briefing is less than clear about the effect on this case of the 2018 charter amendment, Perez conceded at oral argument that the passage of the new charter amendment significantly truncated her original claims. As we construe what remains of this case after the November 2018 amendment, Perez has two ongoing claims—one for reimbursement of the drainage fees she paid prior to 2018, and one for a narrow prospective injunction against the future expenditure of fees collected prior to 2018. As explained below, we affirm the lower courts’ dismissal of these claims, but we remand the case to the district court to allow Perez to replead in light of intervening events.

What follows was a longish and very technical opinion that my non-layer brain could not quite wade through. I remember the re-vote on Renew Houston in 2018, which became a likelihood after SCOTx ruled in 2015 that the original 2010 ballot language “obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee”. The case was sent back to the district court, which then voided the referendum. The re-vote was subsequently held to address those issues. One of the original plaintiffs filed another lawsuit after that 2015 ruling to get back the money she had paid in drainage fees and to compel the city to refund anything they had previously spent from ReBuild; this ruling was an outgrowth of that later litigation, which I either didn’t notice at the time or didn’t follow. I think the bottom line at this point is that it’s very unlikely that any new challenges to Renew/ReBuild Houston will succeed, but the plaintiff is welcome to try her luck again in the district court, and maybe in another five years or so we’ll get a final ruling on that.

Too much Deshaun Watson news

The lawsuit counter ticks up again.

The official number of lawsuits pending against Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will indeed increase to 26.

Attorney Tony Buzbee tells Josh Voight of WEWS in Cleveland that two more women will be suing Watson.

Buzbee said that one of the plaintiffs came to him via a referral from a lawyer in Atlanta. The other plaintiff saw last month’s feature regarding the allegations on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

So how many more will there be? Last week, Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times reported that Watson got massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period. The 24th lawsuit against Watson, filed last week, contends that Watson received more than 100 massages from “random strangers” he found on Instagram.

Seems to me we can’t answer that question just yet. Not until we know what the total number of women who could plausibly sue him is. And that number, no one (except maybe Watson himself) has any idea what it is.

Speaking of which, Watson could certainly do more to make this all stop, if he wanted to.

“I just want to clear my name,” Watson said, explaining that he wants to let the facts come out in a court of law. This means that, for now, he intends to keep fighting these cases. All of them. The 24 already filed. The two more to come. And any others that may eventually be filed.

The process will take time. None of the cases will go to trial until after March 1, 2023. And, without settlements, 26 trials will take a lot of time. The cases likely will linger into 2024. Depending on the final number of cases filed, the trials might not end until 2025.

Watson also was asked about the contention (not a report, but a contention) from one of the lawsuits that he offered $100,000 to each of the plaintiffs last year.

“There was a process that was going on back in November with another organization,” Watson said, without specifically addressing whether settlement offers were made to resolve the cases so that he could be traded to Miami. However, his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, already has said publicly that the Dolphins wanted the cases to be resolved before a trade would happen, and that an effort was made to do so.

Watson was asked whether he stands by his statement from March that he has “no regrets” about what happened.

“I think that question kind of triggered a lot of people,” Watson said, explaining that he was saying he never assaulted, disrespected, or harassed anyone. He acknowledged that he does regret the impact of the existence of the various cases has had on “many” people.

And what of the report from the New York Times that Watson received massages from at least 66 women in a 17-month period? Is that number accurate?

“I don’t think so,” Watson said, before deferring to his lawyers.

I don’t know what happened between Deshaun Watson and all these women. I do know that it’s impossible to believe that nothing untoward happened.

At some point, the NFL needs to decide what it believes.

Last month, Deshaun Watson‘s lawyer said they expect to hear something from the NFL in June. As of tomorrow, June is already halfway over. And there’s no indication that the league is ready to do anything.

Then again, there rarely is any such indication of what the league will do, until the league does it. If the league will be trying to suspend Watson without pay to start the 2022 season, time is of the essence.

Remember, it’s a three-step process. First, the league office proposes discipline. Second, the Disciplinary Office (retired judge Sue L. Robinson) evaluates the case, conducts a hearing (if she deems it necessary), and makes a decision. Third, unless Judge Robinson decides to impose no discipline at all (which would end the process), the Commissioner handles the appeal. His decision is final.

It will take time for the second and third steps. At the latest, it needs to be resolved before Week One. Ideally, the Browns will have an answer before the start of training camp. (Then again, the Browns can’t complain about the current uncertainty; they made this bed.)

With two more lawsuits to be filed, pushing the total to 26, and with no indication as to what the final tally will be, it’s making more and more sense for the NFL to press pause on Watson’s career via paid leave, letting him focus on putting these 26 cases (and counting) behind him for good.

That is a thing the league could do. I’m sure the league would like to see these stories end.

I will say again: The longer this goes on, the worse it looks.

A Houston police detective testified this week that she believed Deshaun Watson committed crimes after investigating 10 criminal complaints against him, according to a pretrial deposition transcript obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

The detective, Kamesha Baker, said she expressed her opinion to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. But she wasn’t called to testify before the grand jury in Harris County, Texas, and doesn’t know why the grand jury didn’t indict the Cleveland Browns quarterback on criminal charges. She said she believed Watson committed criminal indecent assault, sexual assault and prostitution in cases where money was exchanged and there was consensual sex.

“Did you feel confident that you had the evidence needed to pursue those charges?” Baker was asked in the deposition.

“Yes,” Baker said.

“And was there any doubt in your mind as the investigating officer that a crime had occurred?”

“No,” Baker said.

Baker testified in a pretrial deposition for the civil litigation against Watson in Houston, where he has been sued by 24 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and early 2021. Eight of those women also filed complaints with Houston police about Watson’s conduct, in addition to two other women who filed police complaints who have not sued Watson in civil court.

That one of the detectives involved believed this is perhaps not surprising. It doesn’t mean it’s true. The point is, there is still a lot we the public don’t know about these cases. And like I said, the more we find out, the worse it all looks. Sean Pendergast has more.

Calling all lifeguards

The city needs you.

Lifeguard shortages are keeping most Houston community pools closed as summer arrives with scorching heat and near record-breaking temperatures.

Just 12 of 37 aquatic centers operated by the Parks and Recreation Department are scheduled to open for the season, and even fewer were welcoming swimmers Tuesday. The pools will each operate three days a week on a rotating basis as parks department officials seek lifeguards to fill vacancies.

That ratio marks a slight improvement on last year, when 10 aquatic centers opened amid widespread staffing shortages. City officials blamed the paucity of lifeguards on its inability to recruit high school and college students, who make up the majority of its summertime employees.

“Local high schools and colleges stayed closed to off-campus visitors” due to COVID-19 safety protocols, said Leroy Maura, the director of Houston Parks and Recreation Aquatics. “We were not able to get in and recruit and that put us in this bind.”

The 37 aquatics centers require about 180 lifeguards to operate at full capacity. For decades, Maura said, the department could expect up to 150 of those lifeguards to return for subsequent summers. That changed with the pandemic. In 2021, 40 lifeguards came back. This year, only 24 returned.

[…]

Maura, the aquatics director, asked Houstonians to remain patient as his department recruits more lifeguards. He said he hopes to gradually open more pools as the summer scorches on.

I sure hope so. As the story notes, it’s going to be a hot, hot summer – hell, it already is. The schedule for the city’s polls is here, and you can find information on how to apply for a lifeguard job there as well. If you know someone 16 or older who can meet the requirements, the pay starts at $13.66 an hour. I worked way worse jobs than that back in the day.

OK, now I know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension will look like

In my last post about the construction of the White Oak Bike Trail extension, I said that I couldn’t quite envision what the finished product would look like. That was partly because there were three things that looked like they might be part of that finished product, partly because it wasn’t yet clear how the trail was going to get across the little bayou culvert that separated the construction area, and partly because there hadn’t been any construction on one side of that culvert yet. Without any further information, I was just going to have to wait until later in the process, when hopefully the final shape would become clear to me.

Turns out I needn’t wait that long. I was tipped off by Alex Bunin via email about the project plans online. The best view is from this document, which is labeled “Rendering” under the “Exhibits” folder. Here’s a screenshot:

I actually took that from this PowerPoint presentation of the full project, which is the “PowerPoint Presentation” link under “Meeting Materials”. From this, it’s clear that what I had interpreted as a stairway/pedestrian path on the north side is actually the start of a retaining wall, and what I had seen as the path itself closest to the bayou is just a path for the construction equipment, with the actual trail-to-be in between the two. There will be a bridge over the culvert, but it will be farther away from the bayou, over an area that wasn’t originally dug out – if you look at this Construction Phasing Map, you can see that the bridge will be over an extension of that culvert that has been excavated as part of the first phase. You can see the pictures I took of that from April.

Just driving past the construction this week, I see what looks like the beginning of the bridge over that culvert extension. I suspect that when I take the next batch of pictures, it will be much more apparent. And that’s exciting! It’s both real progress, and it should be easier to gauge how much left there is to do once that is in place. Indeed, if you look at the feedback to questions about the project, the official word is that they expect to be finished in mid-July. I’ll keep you up to date as we go.

March For Our Lives

I sure would like to think that all this activist energy means that things are different this time.

Hundreds of Houstonians gathered near City Hall in downtown Saturday for the student-led March for Our Lives, one of dozens of events planned across the nation today to rally for stronger regulations on guns.

The protest comes almost three weeks after 21 were killed in a mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. In Houston, demonstrators marched just over a half mile from City Hall to outside the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some explicit chants broke out as demonstrators called for voters to oust Cruz in the next election.

The event followed a demonstration of about 150 people in The Woodlands, where advocates also worked to register voters.

Katherine Chen, high school senior and executive director of MFOL Houston, said her experience as a student has included three instances of gun violence.

“The first time I had a brush with gun violence was the community college across the street from my middle school had an active shooter,” she said, remembering the sounds of helicopters and the commotion of the scene directly facing her classroom.

“That’s not something that should happen to kids at school. Especially not when you’re 12 years old.”

[…]

MFOL started in 2018 following the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and rallies in support of new gun safety laws.

Among MFOL’s sought reforms: banning assault-style weapons or raising the age to purchase one from 18 to 21; outlawing high-capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition; implementing “red flag” laws to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others; expanding background checks to include all gun sales; and establishing a “cool-off” period for someone seeking a firearm.

There were other rallies like this one around the state and around the country. The next step is to turn this into action at the ballot box, for all the reasons we have discussed a million times before.

I hesitate to be optimistic, because we have certainly seen this kind of outrage and emotion in other public rallies, and we know how they all ended up. But maybe this time it is a little different. It feels a little different, though I admit that may just be extremely wishful thinking on my part. But then, this part is actually different.

A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday announced a deal on framework of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence that includes funding for mental health and school security. Thus far, 10 Republican senators stated their support of the deal.

The agreement is currently in principle as legislative text has yet to be drafted. The deal comes in the wake of a series of mass shootings nationwide, including the tragic elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas late last month.

The deal includes enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, funding for the expansion of mental health services and school security, and state grants to implement so-called “red flag” laws championed by Republicans that permit law enforcement to seek temporary removal of firearms from those who pose threats to themselves or others.

The deal closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in order to prevent a domestic abuse from purchasing a gun if they are convicted of abusing their partner.

Additionally, it seeks to crack down on illegal straw purchasers and firearms dealers without a license.

It’s still not enough – the House bill that passed included banning the purchase of these weapons by anyone under the age of 21, which really should be the starting point – but we’ve not gotten this far on anything like it in the filibuster-everything era. It still needs to actually pass, and it may face resistance from the more progressive wing of House Democrats, who have some leverage here, but it would be something. That’s almost shocking, which says a lot of other things about where we are. But it’s something. The Trib has more.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

We will learn Houston’s fate as a World Cup site this week

It’s been a long road.

On June 16, FIFA will announce its host cities for the 2026 Men’s World Cup set to be held within the U.S., Canada and Mexico. If Houston is one of the 16 locations chosen for the 48-team tournament, the city’s robust international soccer culture will serve as a prominent backdrop.

The Houston metro area is more racially and ethnically diverse than the United States as a whole, and is notably home to the nation’s fourth-largest Hispanic and Latinx population. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Harris County’s Hispanic population grew by 363,000 from 2010 to 2020, the largest increase of any county in the United States.

Houston’s global culture is reflected in its two professional soccer teams. The Dynamo’s roster includes players from 13 different countries, including eight in Latin America. Seven countries are represented on the Dash, including Mexico and Argentina.

[…]

As part of the pitch from the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee, in which Dynamo FC majority owner Ted Segal has taken an active role, the Dynamo offered up PNC Stadium and its Houston Sports Park practice ground as locations for training or other events around the World Cup.

That would give the Dynamo some operational responsibility for the tournament. But more importantly, [Dynamo President of Business Operations John] Walker said, “I think it’s about the buzz that it’s going to create in the city for the next four years around soccer.”

“The programming that will go on that leads up to it will be so soccer-focused and we think that’s a benefit to us,” he continued. “Because the more discussion about soccer that is going on in the city, the more relevant it becomes as a sport and hopefully our teams become relevant as well.”

NRG Stadium would serve as the primary venue for World Cup games in Houston. The arena, with a capacity of 72,000, has hosted soccer friendlies featuring powerhouse European clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

The city made its initial pitch in 2017, and survived the first round of cuts the following year. All that was happening while the joint US/Mexico/Canada bid was still competing to be the host countries for the 2026 FIFA World Cup; they were officially named as hosts later in 2018. We got annual updates with not much in the way of actual news after that, and the most recent dispatch was last October. I sure hope we make it after all that. I plan to buy some tickets if we do.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

Texans to be added as defendants to some Watson lawsuits

On and on we go.

Attorney Tony Buzbee said Wednesday that he plans to add the Texans as defendants in some of the 24 civil lawsuits women have filed against Deshaun Watson.

Buzbee said the franchise facilitated the former quarterback’s massage sessions at a local hotel, enabled his pursuit of massages away from team facilities by providing equipment and a non-disclosure agreement and “knew or certainly should have known” about his alleged sexual misconduct.

Buzbee said he decided to add the Texans to some of the lawsuits after a deposition with Houston Police Department detective K. Dawn Baker, who helped present the special victim unit’s criminal case against Watson to the Harris County district attorney’s office. Court records show that Baker was interviewed at 1 p.m. on Tuesday at Buzbee’s office. Two grand juries — one in Harris County and one in Brazoria County — declined to indict Watson on criminal charges.

“What has become clear is that the Houston Texans organization and their contracting ‘massage therapy company’ facilitated Deshaun Watson’s conduct,” Buzbee said in a statement. “In many of these cases, the Texans provided the opportunity for this conduct to occur. We believe the Texans organization was well aware of Watson’s issues but failed to act. They knew or certainly should have known.”

Buzbee said the Texans provided rooms for Watson at The Houstonian Hotel for his massages. Three women who filed suit against Watson said massages occurred at the hotel. In one lawsuit, Watson informed one of the women he had a private suite where the session could take place.

Watson acknowledged the Texans arranged for him to have “a place” at the hotel, according to a deposition obtained in a New York Times report that said the franchise enabled their star quarterback’s behavior. Watson said his access to the property wasn’t under his name, according to the Times, and a woman who gave Watson a massage at the hotel said the room was registered to a member of the Texans’ training staff.

Buzbee said the Texans also provided massage tables, although the franchise had its own training resources, which supported Watson’s pursuit of massage therapy away from the team’s facilities. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, has attributed the quarterback’s frequent pursuit of independent appointments to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Times, Brent Naccara, a former Secret Service agent who is the Texans’ director of security, also gave Watson an NDA form after one of the women posted text messages, Watson’s phone number and his Cash App receipts on Instagram in early November 2020 along with the message, “I could really expose you.”

See here for the background. We’re still waiting for the NFL to decide what to do about Watson, and it seems to me that question needs to be expanded to include what to do about the Texans. I really wish I lived in a world where nobody acted like Deshaun Watson, and nobody acted to make life easier for people like Deshaun Watson. Sean Pendergast has more.

The NYT takes a closer look at the Deshaun Watson situation

It’s even worse than it looks.

It is time, Watson and his representatives say, for everyone to move on.

Yet a New York Times examination of records, including depositions and evidence for civil lawsuits as well as interviews of some of the women, showed that Watson engaged in more questionable behavior than previously known.

The Times’ review also showed that Watson’s conduct was enabled — knowingly or not — by the team he played for at the time, the Houston Texans, which provided the venue Watson used for some of the appointments. A team representative also furnished him with a nondisclosure agreement after a woman who is now suing him threatened online to expose his behavior.

Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lawyer, said his client “continues to vehemently deny” the allegations in the lawsuits. He declined to respond in detail to the Times’ questions, but said in a statement, “We can say when the real facts are known this issue will appear in a different light.”

The Texans did not respond to specific questions about Watson’s use of team resources. They said in a statement that they first learned of the allegations against him in March 2021, have cooperated with investigators and “will continue to do so.”

Watson has said publicly that he hired about 40 different therapists across his five seasons in Houston, but the Times’ reporting found that he booked appointments with at least 66 different women in just the 17 months from fall 2019 through spring 2021. A few of these additional women, speaking publicly for the first time, described experiences that undercut Watson’s insistence that he was only seeking professional massage therapy.

One woman, who did not sue Watson or complain to police, told the Times that he was persistent in his requests for sexual acts during their massage, including “begging” her to put her mouth on his penis.

“I specifically had to say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy. “And that’s when I went into asking him, ‘What is it like being famous? Like, what’s going on? You’re about to mess up everything.’”

[…]

Since the first wave of suits were filed against Watson last year, the main allegations against him have become familiar. Women complained that Watson turned massages sexual without their consent, including purposely touching them with his penis and coercing sexual acts.

It’s not clear when he began looking for so many different women to give him massages. Hardin has said his client needed to book appointments “ad hoc” when the coronavirus pandemic began, though Watson began working with numerous women before then.

Not all of the women who gave Watson massages between October 2019 and March 2021 have detailed their interactions with him. Some who have shared their experiences say they had no problems with him. Others describe troubling — and similar — behaviors.

The 66 women are:

— The 24 who have sued him, including two who filed suits within the last week. In the most recent suit, the woman said Watson masturbated during the massage.

— A woman who sued but then withdrew the complaint because of “privacy and security concerns.”

— Two women who filed criminal complaints against Watson but did not sue him.

— At least 15 therapists who issued statements of support for Watson at the request of his lawyers and gave him massages during that period.

— At least four therapists from Genuine Touch, the massage therapy group contracted with the Texans.

— Five women identified by the plaintiffs’ lawyers during the investigation for their civil suits.

— At least 15 other women whose appointments with Watson were confirmed through interviews and records reviewed by the Times.

A deeper look at the lawsuits, including a review of private messages entered as evidence, shows the lengthy efforts by Watson to book massages and the methods he used to assure women that he could be trusted.

It’s a long story and worth your time to read. Here’s a brief Twitter thread from the story’s author, if you need more of a preview. Remember that the NFL still has not said what its investigation has revealed or what its discipline for Watson will be, and please note as Sean Pendergast pointed out, there could still be more criminal charges against Watson, as the most recent accusers were not part of the original grand jury hearings. Every day this story gets worse, and we’re not finished with it yet. Defector has more.

Complaint #24 filed against Deshaun Watson

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

24th civil lawsuit was filed against former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Monday, as Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee referenced last week. The lawsuit details another woman’s account of Watson’s alleged predatory behavior during massage therapy sessions, which “mortified” the woman and resulted in her leaving her field.The woman chose to come forward after reading that Watson said he has no regrets and has done nothing wrong, the lawsuit says.

Watson, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns in March, has maintained his innocence and said during his initial press conference with his new team that he “never assaulted,” “never disrespected,” and “never harassed any woman in my life.”

The latest suit follows a 23rd that was filed Tuesday by a woman who also claimed Watson sexually assaulted her during three sessions in 2020 and claimed the owner of a Houston-area spa facilitated the massages for Watson, knew he was attempting to have sex with the therapists and that Watson paid the owner at least $5,000 for the work.

Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin said that it was two of his lawyers who met with the woman, and they “vehemently deny there was any coercion or intimidation involved” in a meeting he described was “so congenial,” the woman joined the attorneys for dinner afterward.

Hardin also claimed that “happy endings” in massage therapy sessions are not a crime in a radio interview with Sports Radio 610 Friday, comments that were referenced in the most recent lawsuit.

[…]

Hardin told 610 hosts Seth Payne and Sean Pendergast that “doing something or saying something or being a way that makes you uncomfortable is not a crime, and so we’ve had two grand juries find that and nobody seems to want to listen.”

“I don’t know how many men are out there now that have had a massage that perhaps occasionally there was a happy ending,” Hardin said. “All right? Maybe there’s nobody in your listening audience that that never happened to. I do want to point out if it has happened, it’s not a crime. OK? Unless you are paying somebody extra or so to give you some type of sexual activity, it’s not a crime.”

Hardin issued a statement after the radio show appearance that clarified his defense that “Deshaun did not pay anyone for sex” and that he “was using the term hypothetically and not describing Deshaun’s case.”

“I have reiterated to others it’s not ok to do anything that a woman does not agree to do,” Hardin said in the statement. “These women have alleged assault in their pleadings. I was speaking in a hypothetical situation. If there is a consensual sexual encounter after a massage, that is not a crime nor the basis for a civil lawsuit. I was not talking about what Deshaun did or did not do or expected or did not expect.”

See here for the previous entry. Maybe ease up a bit on the media appearances, Rusty. As Sean Pendergast notes, those comments are part of this 24th suit against Watson. It’s impossible to read either of those stories and not just feel gross about the whole rancid situation. We’re still waiting to hear what action the NFL will take, by the way. I won’t be surprised if these latest complaints have given them some pause.

On a side note, this paywalled story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran in the print edition of the Chron on Tuesday. It connects the Watson situation with the Brian Flores lawsuit against the NFL, for which the Texans are also named as defendants. Worth a read if you have access to either of those sources.

UPDATE: Just saw this big NYT piece about Watson and the many massage therapists. I’ll get to it tomorrow. And there’s more from Sean Pendergast that you need to read, too.

Early voting is underway in the HCC2 runoff

Apparently, I missed the start of it, which was on Monday.

See here for the background. Early voting will run through next Tuesday, June 14, having started this Monday the 6th. You can find locations here and the map here. Polls are open every day from 7 to 7 except for Sunday, when they will be open from 12 to 7. According to the daily EV report I got yesterday, 264 in person ballots have been cast so far, 84 of which were at the Nassau Bay location. That report doesn’t show any mail ballots being returned, but I have to assume that’s an error of some kind. Regardless, as I suggested before, this will be a very low turnout affair. If you live in HCC district 2, your vote counts for a whole lot.

I don’t really know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension is going to look like

There’s not a whole lot of change since the last update a month ago, at least in terms of how things look and what the final shape of the update might be. There are two particular areas of question for me, and that’s what this update will focus on. First things first, what exactly are the building on the west side of the extension?

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudwood_060522

This picture looks a lot like the one from last month’s update, and I’m still not sure what they’re doing with the part on the right. The difference in color and the shape of the brock wall make me think this will eventually be a stairway, but the more I look at it the less I understand why. There’s not really anything analogous to this elsewhere on the trail, and it’s far enough away from what looks like the actual trail that I wonder what the reason is for the separation. Could it be leading to something other than back to the trail and its junction with the MKT Trail? I have no idea, and if it is I don’t know what it would be leading to. I guess I could approach this from the MKT Trail side, but I’m leery of entering the construction area, which I’m sure would be viewed as trespassing.

I also note the flat surface immediately to the left of the maybe-stairs, which is now used by the construction machinery. Is it possible this will remain like that and serve as a path as well? What in the world would be the purpose of it if it does? All we can really do is wait for the construction to get to a point where it all makes sense. In the meantime, it’s making me a little crazy.

The other item is the connection across that culvert that I’ve noted before:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertView_060222

The concrete retaining walls, and whatever that tunnel for bayou overflow water is, appears to be the main focus of the construction lately. The question I had before still remains, which is how the extension to the west of that culvert will connect to the still-to-be-laid-out extension to the east of it. At this point, the only way forward appears to be over the culvert, but as yet there’s no indication what the plan to accomplish that is. While there’s more dirt piled up on the east side of it now, there’s no actual construction activity over there yet. Like I said, the anticipation is killing me.

With the completion of the MKT Bridge repairs, this is the only construction project to complete. Maybe that will move things along faster. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on it and letting you know what I see.

The limits of Vision Zero

A long read about a tough problem.

Los Angeles was not the first U.S. city to sign on to Vision Zero: Chicago (2012), New York City (2014) and San Francisco (2014) had already adopted the Scandinavian-born safety movement. But L.A. moved quickly, revamping 18 corridors — including the Hollywood and Highland intersection — with “Vision Zero safety countermeasures” like curb extensions and protected left turn signals. In 2017 the prestigious Transportation Research Board cited the city’s effort as national model, producing a report intended “as a guide to help cities develop their own robust, data-driven Vision Zero process.”

But since 2015 the streets of Los Angeles have grown more deadly, not less. In 2021, 289 people died on L.A. roadways, a 20-year high. “Is Vision Zero a failure?” a headline in the Los Angeles Times recently asked.

Residents of other American cities might pose the same question. In New York City, traffic deaths in 2021 were the highest since committing to Vision Zero seven years earlier. Portland, Oregon, saw more traffic deaths last year than it had since 1990, and Austin set a new all-time record (both became Vision Zero adherents in 2015). Deaths are surging in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well. In fact, it’s hard to find any Vision Zero cities where traffic deaths have declined. (A rare exception is Hoboken, New Jersey, which went three years without a single fatality.)

While some have blamed Covid-19-related societal disruption for the growing toll, U.S. cities were already struggling to keep traffic fatalities from rising, let alone reducing them, before the pandemic hit.

Vision Zero’s track record in the U.S. contrasts sharply with Europe, where road deaths have been drifting downward for years. In 2019, Helsinki had exactly three traffic fatalities — and none was a pedestrian or cyclist. For comparison, the capital of Finland has roughly as many residents as Las Vegas, a Vision Zero city where 304 people died on the road that same year.

Despite Vision Zero being one of the hottest ideas in traffic safety, its European success has not translated across the Atlantic. Current trends suggest that is unlikely to change, absent a fundamental rethink around policy implementation.

“Vision Zero had something of a honeymoon phase,” said Leah Shahum, director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network. “Now we’re butting up against the system.”

The system, for US cities and road networks includes streets designed to maximize automotive traffic flow, national vehicle safety standards that don’t take pedestrian safety into account, local obstacles to implementing various traffic-calming projects (see, for example, the resistance to the West 11th Street project), a lack of speed and red light cameras, and more. The predictable result is more traffic fatalities than we should have. Go read the rest.

Now I know the difference between those two Army Corps of Engineers lawsuits

Some good timing for me here.

A federal appellate court on Thursday reversed an earlier decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not to blame for flooding homes downstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs after Hurricane Harvey.

The ruling brought new hope for thousands of people after U.S. Judge Loren A. Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims passionately dismissed their lawsuits in 2020.

“These were flood waters that no entity could entirely control,” he wrote at the time.

The case will return to the lower court, according a news release from the McGehee, Chang, Landgraf, Feiler law firm, which represents the plaintiffs.

The lower court will again consider if the Corps is liable for the flooding that occurred after the Corps opened the gates on the dams, sending water pouring down Buffalo Bayou.

So yesterday’s post was about developments in the upstream lawsuit, in which as we know the Army Corps of Engineers was found liable. I must have not seen the 2020 story about the dismissal of the downstream lawsuit. It’ll be interesting to see what the judge makes of it now. Hopefully the next time there’s news about it I will catch it.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

What does the Army Corps of Engineers owe reservoir flooding victims?

We’ll soon find out.

Christina Micu sat on the witness stand and tearfully explained how she’d made a list of everything she lost when Hurricane Harvey flooded her four-bedroom home. Her son’s toys. Her kitchen stove. A rocking chair her mom had given her.

She threw it all away — and wants to be paid back for it.

“A lot of things were taken from me when we were flooded,” Micu said. “A lot of them are irreplaceable. I’ll never have them back, from heirloom items to baby pictures.”

Micu gave her testimony in Houston Tuesday as the long-awaited trial kicked off before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to determine what the government owes her and her neighbors for flooding their homes.

Senior Judge Charles F. Lettow, who is presiding at this week’s hearing, found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable following a previous proceeding three years ago. The Corps held water behind two dams west of town to lessen flooding in central Houston when days of rain drenched the region in 2017. The vast majority of residents behind these massive earthen dams did not know they lived in the reservoirs.

After delays caused by the pandemic, the judge will consider what is owed to Harvey victims by examining a handful of individual flooding cases as examples. The outcomes will set criteria for what happens for thousands of others.

“Plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the government in order to save downtown Houston,” said attorney Daniel Charest, as photos of the flooding flashed on computer screens. “They only want to be made whole.”

This was the residents’ only chance to be paid back for their lost private property rights, Charest argued. And not only had they lost property, the value of the homes would drop as a result of the flooding the government inflicted, he said.

Representing the U.S. government, attorney Laura Duncan said the neighborhoods where homes flooded are still desirable. The real estate market wasn’t impacted, she argued.

There were two lawsuits filed over this. In 2019, the judge ruled that the Army Corps was liable – it’s not clear to me whether this is the outcome of one of those suits or if they were combined – and we are now at the damages portion of the trial. I don’t know what to expect at this point, but it seems likely to me that the homeowners will get something. It’s a question of how much.

UPDATE: This Chron story from Thursday afternoon, in a fortuitous bit of timing, answers my question about which lawsuit this is about. Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

Maybe this is finally the end of that zombie same sex employee lawsuit

I dream a dream.

The Texas Supreme Court has declined to consider a challenge aimed at preventing the city of Houston from offering benefits to employees’ same-sex spouses.

The ruling is the latest blow to two Houston residents’ prolonged fight against a policy they consider an illegal use of taxpayer dollars.

Plaintiffs Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks have waged a legal battle against the policy since 2013, when the city, then led by former Mayor Annise Parker, granted government benefits to municipal employees’ same-sex spouses. Parker was the city’s first openly gay mayor.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court declined to review the pair’s case against the city, which originated nine years ago and has failed to find footing even in the conservative-leaning Texas judiciary.

[…]

Of the pair’s decade-long campaign to overturn her administration’s policy, Parker said Tuesday she hoped the court’s decision would quash future challenges.

“I didn’t do it to make a point,” Parker said of the policy. “I did it to be fair to all married city employees. Marriage should be marriage. Equal should be equal.”

See here and here for the previous updates. These guys and their stooge lawyer Jared Woodfill have more than proven that they really really hate gay people, but surely even this kind of rabid bigotry has its limits. The bell has rung, the lights are out, the doors have closed, and Elvis has left the building. Go find a less destructive hobby, fellas. I’ve heard gardening is nice.

23rd lawsuit filed against Deshaun Watson

That may not be the end as well.

A 23rd lawsuit has been filed against former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The latest suit, filed Tuesday by a massage therapist, says Watson sexually assaulted her during three sessions in 2020. The lawsuit also claims the owner of a Houston-area spa facilitated the massages for Watson, knew he was attempting to have sex with the therapists and that Watson paid the owner at least $5,000 for the work.

The lawsuit also claims one of Watson’s attorneys found the woman’s contact information in Watson’s cell phone, took her to dinner in “an effort to intimidate her” with “an apparent attempt to determine” if she was filing a lawsuit, and attempted to convince her to say “nice and positive things about Watson,” which the woman refused.

Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin said that it was two of his lawyers who met with the woman, and they “vehemently deny there was any coercion or intimidation involved” in a meeting he described was “so congenial,” the woman joined the attorneys for dinner afterward.

The attorneys met with the woman to see if she was one of Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee’s anonymous plaintiffs, Hardin said, since Buzbee, who represents the women, refused to identify his clients at the time.

[…

The woman changed her mind about filing a lawsuit after watching the HBO “Real Sports” episode that aired May 24 and delved into the previous lawsuits filed against Watson. The woman had initially “agonized” over whether to bring a lawsuit against Watson, the lawsuit says. She had no intention of doing so initially, but her name still “found its way into the public sphere” once the lawsuits began to emerge. The Chronicle does not identify victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission.

Even after sharing her story in a July 2021 interview on an online stream, she “had no intention of filing a lawsuit,” the lawsuit says, because she “did not want to put herself and her family through the turmoil” and “did not want to subject herself to further abuse and ugliness” that she’d seen the other women experience after filing their lawsuits.

Buzbee, who represents the other 22 women who have filed suit, confirmed that the latest case has been referred to him and said “our team will be filing another lawsuit, similar to the others already filed, this week.”

See here for some background. It’s not surprising that the appearance by some of the plaintiffs on “Real Sports” has brought more complainants out. It helps knowing that you’re not alone.

A copy of lawsuit #23 is embedded in the story, and note the comment at the end about #24 being in the works. An announcement from the NFL about a what kind of discipline Watson will face from the league is still expected soon. Sean Pendergast has more.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

HCC special election runoff will be June 18

From last week:

The Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System has called a Special Trustee Runoff Election for June 18, 2022 in HCC geographic District II. The position for geographic District II is to be filled for a term continuing until December 31, 2025.

The candidates entitled to a place on the ballot for the Runoff Trustee Election in Trustee District II are:

Charlene Ward Johnson

Kathy “Lynch” Gunter

For additional election information, please contact Harris County Election Administrator: https://www.harrisvotes.org/ or HCC Office of Board Services at 713-718-8398.

Johnson and Gunter were the top two votegetters in the May election. There were 4,662 ballots cast for that in May, helped in part by the statewide special Constitutional amendment election. This time around it will be the only show in town, and I’ll be surprised if it gets as many as half as that total. The winner may receive about a thousand votes total. I hope I’m underestimating, but did you even remember this was a thing? Had you heard anything about it before reading this post? I’m guessing no, and thus my pessimism about turnout. My interview with Kathy Gunter is here, and my interview with Charlene Ward Johnson is here. If you live in this district or know someone who does, please vote or make sure they vote.

By the way, there is also the CD34 special election on June 14, featuring two Democrats and two Republicans; one of those Republicans is their nominee for the new CD34 and had raised some $300K as of the April finance reports. As of the weekend, there were no finance reports for any of the other candidates, so I have no idea if the (decent-looking on paper) stand-in candidate that the Dems managed to recruit has had any success raising money. Early voting for this race starts today, which means that it will go the full two weeks (minus Memorial Day). It’s not listed yet on harrisvotes.com, but given that the HCC runoff is on a Saturday, I would expect early voting for it to run from Wednesday, June 8 to Tuesday the 14th. I’ll let you know when I can confirm that.

Oh, and if no one in the CD34 election gets to 50%, we’ll have a runoff there, which will mean an election in (I presume) July as well. Isn’t this fun?

Houston vies for 2024 DNC

It would be nice, but I feel like I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends.

Houston is vying to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention held the summer before the next presidential election, in which Texas could be a highly-sought battleground state.

The city is competing with Chicago, Atlanta and several other major cities to host the internationally-televised, week-long presidential nominating extravaganza before voters head to ballot boxes in 2024. City Council approved the bid on Wednesday.

Officials are betting that Houston’s track record as a seasoned host to Super Bowls, petroleum conventions and, this weekend, the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting will help lure the DNC to the Bayou City. Another bonus? Its position as a Democratic stronghold in one of the country’s largest conservative states.

Texas’s rapidly changing electorate — and its role at the center of national debates on gun control, abortion rights and immigration — may make it an ideal place to energize voters within the state and across the country, said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas Austin.

“The fact that Houston is even a possible destination for the convention shows the degree to which Texas has become a competitive state in the eyes of Democrats,” Blank said.

For those hoping to turn the Lone Star state blue, he said, hosting the convention and the media spectacle it ensues would offer a valuable chance to reach undecided voters and highlight up-and-coming local politicians.

The same arguments were made in 2020 as I recall, and we lost out to Milwaukee, in the much more traditional swing state of Wisconsin. I can already see Atlanta having the edge on us for similar reasons. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

And for the record:

The city is not being considered to host the 2024 Republican National Convention, city officials said, because the dates “conflicted with other events” at convention venues.

I know someone was wondering about this, so there you have it.

Stalking Coco, the food delivery robot

A delightful tale by Chron food editor Emma Balter, who was determined to prove to herself that Coco the food delivery robot actually worked as advertised, even on Houston’s notoriously un-pedestrian (and presumably food-delivery-robot) streets. It took a couple of tries to place an order that would actually be delivered by Coco, and we pick up the story from there:

I placed an order on DoorDash, this time for the Diavola pizza and a Coca-Cola, and loudly squealed when I received a text leading me to a Coco tracker page. Exactly 32 minutes later, we saw a Bollo staffer load a pizza and a Coke into a Coco, which departed less than a minute later.

Coco whizzed out of the restaurant’s parking lot onto the sidewalk on West Alabama Street, and within the first 10 feet of its journey, encountered a pronounced step between two slabs of uneven pavement. Coco bumped against it but was immediately able to surmount the obstacle. I was very impressed.

It careened around the corner onto Greenbriar Drive and picked up speed, so much so that I had to break out into a slight jog to keep up with it. Two minutes later, Coco was faced with an orange cone and yellow caution tape; it paused briefly and went around it on the street shoulder. Another minute went by, and Coco was met with protruding tree roots. It slowed down almost to a stop, then awkwardly but successfully navigated past it. Coco sped up again—at which point I was convinced it was taunting me for doubting it. By the time we reached Westheimer Road, I was out of breath from running after it, although it was unclear if this was due to me being unfit, giggling uncontrollably, or both. (I was humbled to later find out that Coco only travels at a maximum speed of 5 MPH.)

Once at Westheimer, Coco arrived at a crossroads, literally: How would the little fella get to the other side of the busy street? It hung out, facing the road in front of Kevin Spearman Design, for about 30 seconds as cars whooshed by in both directions. It moved another 10 feet to a different spot, before getting barked at by a dog, then giving up on its perch a minute and a half later. Coco retraced its steps for almost a whole block, but just as I thought it might have been returning to the restaurant, defeated, it darted in front of traffic in a blatant jaywalk, narrowly avoiding a silver Chevy Cruz traveling westbound toward it.

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I exclaimed as I witnessed the scene, recorded in a video that is now on Chron’s TikTok for posterity.

Read the rest and judge for yourself if this is a better idea than your typical human-delivered meal, picking it up yourself, or (vastly my preference) eating at the restaurant. I too have seen a couple of social media posts from friends who have observed a Coco robot in the wild, but I have not yet witnessed one. Have you seen or interacted with a Coco, whether in the city or out in the woods? Leave a comment and let us know.