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Houston City Council

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.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Houston updates its noise ordinance

This was probably inevitable, though it sure took a long time.

Houston bars, nightclubs and restaurants must obtain new permits to play amplified music within 120 days under a revised ordinance aimed at cracking down on disruptive late-night noise without sacrificing the city’s vibrant nightlife.

City Council approved amendments to the noise ordinance in a 15-1 vote Wednesday, two years after council members first began considering ways to address disputes between homeowners and neighboring businesses. Complaints against bars and clubs nearly doubled in the first three months of 2022.

The revamped noise ordinance sets stricter limits on nighttime noise and requires businesses abutting homes to obtain permits to play amplified music. It also creates a new administrative hearing process for bars and nightclubs that violate noise limits, giving business owners the chance to craft a mitigation plan within 10 days of the violation or risk losing their commercial sound permits for up to a year.

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

Permitted businesses can play amplified music up to 75 decibels, which is about as loud as landscaping equipment, until 10 p.m. on weeknights or 11 p.m. on weekends. After those cutoffs, music would have to stay below 58 decibels until 2 a.m., as measured from the property of any resident who calls the Houston Police Department to complain.

At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who shepherded the rule changes to the vote, said the amendments target repeat violators that “flaunt the rules” and are “destroying quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

“These changes aim to strengthen current rules and bring more businesses into compliance,” Alcorn said Wednesday.

[…]

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, council members did not discuss the city’s shifting demographics or the apparent connection between gentrification and increased noise complaints. Under the ordinance, enforcement largely will rely on nonemergency calls for service or 311 complaints, a feature experts said may lead to inequitable treatment among neighborhoods.

The changes moved ahead over objections from At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the sole dissenting vote. Kubosh said he worried it will have little impact while overburdening police officers with enforcement.

“Where is the actual solution here?” Kubosh said after the vote. “Why would we tie up police with noise when they are busy responding to murders, aggravated assaults and people stealing catalytic converters?”

Not mentioned in this story and forgotten about by me until I went looking in my archives is that Council had passed an update to the noise ordinance back in 2011 that was aimed at big vibrating bass sounds, as well as making the language of the ordinance more specific. It did not have an auspicious debut, though perhaps by now it has been more successful in its application. Noise complaints in various gentrifying parts of the city, especially but not exclusively the Washington Avenue corridor, have been a thing for a long time. I’ve expressed some skepticism in the past towards the complainers on the grounds that the noisy bars and music venues were there first, but after all this time I think this approach makes sense. Maybe we can at least get some consistency, so that everyone knows and understands the rules from the beginning.

As for CM Kubosh’s complaint regarding enforcement, he has a point but the same thing could be said about literally any other law. I would not make noise enforcement a top priority for HPD, but I can think of some things above which it should be elevated. CultureMap has more.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

Here’s your public meeting schedule for Houston City Council redistricting

Attend one and be In The Know.

Houston residents will have a chance to preview potential changes to Houston’s 11 City Council districts at a series of public town hall meetings in April and May.

[…]

The town hall meetings will start at 6 p.m. Residents can find redistricting information, sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting.

The meetings are set for:

Tuesday, April 19 : District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Kingwood Park Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Dr., Kingwood

Monday, April 25: District H, Councilmember Karla Cisneros, Moody Park Community Center, 3725 Fulton St.

Tuesday, April 26: District A, Councilmember Amy Peck, Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd.

Monday, May 2: District J, Councilmember Edward Pollard, Sharpstown Park Community Center, 6855 Harbor Town Dr.

Tuesday, May 3: District C, Councilmember Abbie Kamin, Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Blvd.

Wednesday, May 4: : District K, Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, Fountain Life Center 14083 S. Main St.

Tuesday, May 10: District I, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, HCC Southeast Campus, 6815 Rustic St.

Thursday, May 12: District G, Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman, Grace Presbyterian Church, 10221 Ella Lee Lane.

Monday, May 16: District D, Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, HCC South Campus, 1990 Airport Blvd.

Tuesday, May 17: District F, Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, Alief ISD Center of Talent Development, 14411 Westheimer

Wednesday, May 18: District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Johnson Space Center Special Event Room, 2101 E. NASA Pkwy.

Thursday, May 19: District B, Councilmember Tarsha Jackson, Acres Home Multi-Service Center, Senior Service Room, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd.

See here and here for some background. Most likely these will end up being minor changes, unless there’s further effort to get rid of the At Large positions. That said, there’s always some support for or opposition to joining or splitting particular neighborhoods – there was an effort to put all of the Heights into a single Council district back in 2011, for example – and that might be a thing that you have opinions about. Attend one or more of these meetings and find out for yourself.

City Council approves paid parental leave for city employees

Good.

City of Houston employees will have access to paid parental leave for the first time beginning in May after a decade-long push to adopt the family-friendly policy that advocates hope will help the city attract and retain working parents.

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the new leave policy, which will give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also includes paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

Council members, many of whom described their struggles with pregnancy and childcare ahead of the vote, greeted its approval with cheers and tears. City workers previously had to accrue vacation time or take unpaid leave after welcoming a child.

“Parental leave is not a vacation,” said District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

See here for the background. I got one week off when my first kid was born – there wasn’t an official company policy in place at the time, it was just my manager (a father of three) telling me to take the week off, which didn’t count as vacation or sick time. I don’t even remember what happened with kid #2 – maybe I had a week off, maybe I didn’t, who knows. We have a policy now that would have allowed me to take either eight or 12 weeks off, I forget which. Too late for me, so I haven’t investigated the matter too closely. Anyway, this is a thing that everyone should have access to as a matter of federal policy, but until we get there, let’s plug all the holes we can. Kudos to City Council for getting this right.

City Council to return to in-person meetings

I feel like I should always append a “For now” onto commentary about things like this. You know, for all the obvious reasons.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wants all City Council members to return to the chamber next week for meetings, the first such requirement since May 2020.

City Council went virtual after its first member tested positive for COVID-19, about two months after the pandemic began to upend life in Houston. The body met digitally until the summer of 2021, when it began holding joint meetings that gave council members the choice of joining in person or on Microsoft Teams.

Attendance has varied, but several members typically join the meeting online. On Wednesday, eight of the body’s 16 members attended in person.

“I want you back around the horseshoe,” Turner said Wednesday, referring to City Hall’s arc-shaped table in the second-floor council chamber. “The technology has been fine, but I want you back around the horseshoe next week.”

Still feels a little weird to me to have things going back to full-on in-person as before. You can fill in your own proverb about COVID not being done with us if you want. That said, we are right now in a period of low transmission, and many people do want to get back out into the world. It’s hard to justify high-alert requirements under these conditions. I figure the only way to get people to respond the way we’ll need them to when the virus does come back is to ease up now so we can say “hey, we backed off when the science said we could, now we have to tighten up again”. I can’t say that will work, but at least it feels like it has a chance.

Paid parental leave for city employees

This is a thing that should have happened a long time ago.

City of Houston employees soon could be eligible for up to three months of paid parental leave under a policy change expected to reach City Council next week.

The proposal, set for council consideration next Wednesday, would give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also will include paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

The city’s workforce of about 22,000 employees currently has no paid parental leave. They must use accrued vacation time for those days off. If approved by council, parental leave will not be limited to women.

The policy change was the result of recommendations from the city’s Women’s Commission, formed in August 2021 at the recommendation of District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” Kamin said. “No parent should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for yourself and your family.”

However late, good for the city to do this. Lord knows, most city employees are not paid much, so at the very least this will help them a little with recruiting and retention. We should have this as a matter of national policy, but until we can get there we’ve got to plug the holes one by one. I look forward to seeing this get passed.

Chron story on City Council redistricting

Lots more info now.

As Houston begins to redraw its City Council map for the 2023 elections, two districts representing western portions of the city, including Montrose, the Heights, River Oaks, and Uptown, among other neighborhoods, have out-sized populations that likely will have to be reduced, according to census data.

Meanwhile, majority-Hispanic districts on the Near Northside, East End and in southwest Houston — predominantly Sharpstown and Gulfton — now include fewer residents than the average district and likely will have to expand.

The population distribution, released district-by-district on Tuesday, is based on the 2020 census, which the city must use to create new boundaries. That survey was conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and under-counted Hispanic and Black populations nationally, according to the Census Bureau.

[…]

City staff presented the population numbers but have not yet begun to discuss how to redraw the lines. They are aiming to maintain relatively equal population numbers, have easily identifiable boundaries, and retain the integrity of neighborhoods and communities of interest.

Another priority: “preserve incumbent-constituency relations,” which means they will try to keep communities in their existing districts when possible. That also makes it unlikely any incumbent council member will be drawn out of his or her district. Eight of the 11 current district council members are eligible to run for re-election.

While redistricting often is overtly political at the county, state and national levels, city offices are nonpartisan. City council redistricting is more focused on balancing populations and demographic representation.

Residents can sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting. In addition to 11 district council members, the city has five at-large council members elected by voters citywide. Houston is the only large city in Texas that still elects at-large members.

The city has hired a law firm, Thompson & Horton, to help the planning and legal departments produce the maps and defend against any legal challenges.

One such lawsuit already has been promised. The League of United Latin American Citizens has said it plans to target Houston’s at-large seats, arguing they should be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts. Hispanic residents make up 45 percent of the population, but only one council member right now is Hispanic, Robert Gallegos of District I.

The group also plans to pursue a charter amendment, which would present the same argument to city voters.

“It’s just a glaring example of inequitable representation.” said Sergio Lira, a local leader with LULAC. When other cities converted at-large seats to district members, he added, “the effect was more minority representation.”

See here and here for some background. This PowerPoint presentation is a good overview including the current district populations, and the Let’s Talk Houston page for redistricting has the schedule, the current Council map, the dates for each community meeting, and more. I don’t have anything else to add, I’ll obviously be paying close attention to all this, and I would encourage you to attend one of those community meetings if you can, they will have a lot to offer for you.

Council adopts vape extension to smoking ban

Good.

The city outlawed vaping in public spaces Wednesday, amending Houston’s smoking ordinance to include electronic cigarettes.

City Council voted 16-0 to approve the amendment, proposed last year by the Houston Health Department in response to growing scientific consensus on the dangers of vaping.

The amendment adds all types of e-cigarette devices — including vape pens, electronic pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, which bars cigarettes from enclosed public places and seating areas and within 25 feet of any building. It does not affect hookah bars or other private areas where smoking is permitted.

“You can now go into bars and restaurants without fear that someone vaping nearby will be impacting your health,” said District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, chair of the council’s Quality of Life Committee.

Gallegos cited the public health benefit of regulating e-cigarettes, which are filled with a liquid nicotine derived from tobacco that becomes an aerosol when the user inhales. Ultra-fine particles emitted by the vapor and toxins from the devices’ heating elements can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, federal studies suggest, even when nicotine-free vape liquid is used.

The council member offered few details on how the ban will be enforced, but said law enforcement would likely extend a “grace period” to vape users in the coming months.

See here for the background. As I recall, there were grace periods for each of the previous additions to the smoking ban. There was some fuss about enforcement with the previous amendments as well, though from today’s vantage point it hardly seems like it amounted to anything. My expectation is that places will update their signage, some people will need to be tapped on the shoulder and informed of the revised ordinance, and modulo an unhappy vaper or two that will likely be the extent of it. I suppose in a world where a non-trivial number of people were giant assholes about wearing masks during COVID that some vapers could make public displays of resistance that are designed to go viral. I’m not too worried about that, but I will note it because I can’t say it won’t happen. I don’t expect it to, but you never know.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

City Council to consider adding vapes to smoking ordinance

Sounds reasonable. I’ll be interested to hear what the opponents have to say.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a proposal to bar the use of e-cigarettes and any kind of vaping in public spaces under Houston’s smoking ordinance.

The move would update the city’s rules for public smoking, which were written before electronic cigarettes existed, Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal said Monday.

Houston currently bars tobacco smoking in enclosed public places and seating areas, and within 25 feet of any building. Smoking in covered bus stops and light rail stops also is prohibited.

The measure would add all forms of vaping — including electronic cigars, pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, enacted in 2007 to reduce public secondhand smoke exposure.

Health officials proposed the amendment in light of rising e-cigarette use among middle and high school students, Villarreal said. As many as one in 10 Houston middle school students vape, according to health department data.

[…]

While scientists do not have a full picture of the long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes, research suggests the ultra-fine particles within the vapor can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, said Ronald Peters, Jr., a retired professor at the University of Texas at Houston’s School of Public Health who studied teen vaping behaviors. Banning public e-cigarette use is a common-sense way to reduce the risk of exposing children and vulnerable people to those potentially harmful vapors, he said.

In addition to removing vaping aerosols from public settings, the ban would have the added benefit of reducing kids’ exposure to all forms of nicotine use, he said.

If you’ve been around this blog for awhile, you know I’ve closely followed the various efforts to restrict smoking in public places. I’m all in favor of such things, though to my surprise in searching for the origin of the city’s ban, which was first proposed in 2004 for restaurants, it turns out I was an incrementalist at first. Go figure. After nearly two decades of lived experience, I see no real problem with keeping all forms of smoke away from the general public. Vaping is less objectionable than tobacco, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that the availability of e-cigarettes has enabled some smokers to transition to something less damaging to them. But they have also served as an on-ramp to nicotine for kids, and if there’s a case to be made that limiting where vaping is allowed will help reduce its appeal to kids, I’m all for it.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out at Council. There was a lot of opposition from some folks back in the day, mostly bars and musicians who worried about the effect on their livelihood, but all these years later I have a hard time imagining that kind of organized resistance to this. Still, it took several tries to get to where we are, with small steps taken each time, so it would not surprise me to see a somewhat watered down version of this pass at first, to be revisited at a later date. We’ll see if I get any press releases from a pro-vape/anti-ban constituency like I did with regular smoking back in the day.

UPDATE: A later version of the story contains this bit of interest:

Most restaurants support including e-cigarettes in the ban, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Great Houston Chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association. Health officials consulted the chapter on the proposed amendment in December, she said.

“Many restaurants have already been enforcing a no-vaping rule at their own discretion,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon. “Overall, what we have seen is most restaurants have treated vaping like cigarettes. They have not allowed it.”

Definitely a difference from before, especially for restaurants that also had bars. No guarantees, but that will help the ordinance get passed.

City Council redistricting is on the dock

Here’s a schedule of events related to redistricting for Houston City Council. Some of this has already happened. Last week, unless it got tagged in which case it will come up again at the next Council meeting, Council should have adopted a “Resolution containing Redistricting Criteria for establishing single-member Council districts and Redistricting Guidelines for proposed plans from the public”. As we know, Council districts need to be approximately the same size, with a bit of wiggle room on either end, and as of the 2020 Census there are some significant differences that will need to be ironed out.

Normally, and unlike ten years ago when two new districts needed to be added as a result of a lawsuit settlement from years before, this is no big deal. Move a few precincts around to get everyone within constitutionally acceptable ranges, and move on. There are some other items that will surely come up, including the elimination of At Large seats and the separation of Clear Lake and Kingwood into their own districts. Those are optional, and much less likely to happen, though there will be voices calling for them. There will be community input town halls in April and May, a draft plan produced in June, public hearings in July, a revised plan based on feedback from those town halls in August, and if all goes well, an adopted plan in September. I’m sure there will be plenty to talk about at each step of the way.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

January finance reports are always worth a look, if only as a ritual to start the new year. We’re a year out from election season truly beginning for Houston, but as we now have two brand name contenders for Mayor already, we should check in and see how our current electeds are doing in the fundraising department. I last looked at these reports in July of 2021. Let’s see what folks have been up to since then.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       311,976    156,329        0     723,455

Peck          25,620     13,989    5,000      27,442
Jackson        2,775      8,725        0      27,367
Kamin         14,620      7,824        0     124,434
E-Shabazz      8,440     13,625        0      15,282
Martin        56,350     32,011        0     162,311
Thomas        
Huffman       21,550     24,921        0      27,040
Cisneros       9,495      2,033        0      25,758
Gallegos      50,355     16,218        0     114,905
Pollard      151,275     12,946   40,000     441,900
C-Tatum       10,000      8,576        0     118,827

Knox          13,385      5,227        0      17,884
Robinson      50,595     11,758        0     189,134
Kubosh        33,200     31,914  196,000      73,174
Plummer       14,191     22,440        0      25,473
Alcorn       153,700     26,652        0     158,067

Brown          3,000      6,067   75,000      38,887

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

Mayor Turner is the biggest recipient of campaign cash, which is usually how it is. He won’t be on the 2023 ballot, but we will have at least two charter referenda in our future, and I’m sure he’ll want to be able to have some influence over them. As was the case with Mayor Parker and term limits in 2015, he might want to add one or two more to that list, on policy matters that have been discussed but not yet addressed. I’m thinking of the stupid revenue cap, and a second try at an equal rights ordinance, this time for the charter. I have no special insight on these matters, just a long memory and a searchable archive, both of which I endeavor to use for good and not evil.

The fact that we have two high-profile Mayoral candidates in place (well, as much as one can be at this early hour) doesn’t mean that there aren’t other potential Mayorals out there. Last time I noted CM Ed Pollard’s prodigious fundraising, in which he amassed an amount that far outstripped his possible need for re-election in his district, and noted that he has been on some people’s lips as a possible candidate for Mayor. His January finance report does nothing to turn that speculation down, though also as noted before he may have his eye on some other prizes as well.

On the other end of that spectrum is the one person I had felt most confident about as a 2023 Mayoral candidate, and that’s City Controller Chris Brown, who seemed a natural fit for the Mayoral candidate role and who has demonstrated fundraising prowess in the past. Not these past six months, though, and his cash on hand total is looking awfully paltry. Does that mean anything? It’s too early to say. But now that John Whitmire and Chris Hollins are out there doing Mayoral candidate things, the time to decide whether or not one wants to join them in that is not far off. Michael Kubosh, who is currently doing Michael Kubosh things, falls in between the two of them in fundraising action. He’ll be facing the same decision as well.

A person who turned it up several notches after a sedate second half of 2021 is CM Sallie Alcorn, who was a top fundraiser for her initial election and now seems to be preparing for her second race. Note that in recent years, the old “blackout” period for fundraising was eliminated, so incumbents can get a head start on building up their treasuries. Fewer of them have need to do that now, as about half of them are term-limited. Some of those term-limited folks will be leaving with a decent amount of cash in their kitties – I’m thinking Dave Martin, Robert Gallegos, and David Robinson. It’s not clear to me what if any office they might use those funds for in the future – maybe one of them has an eye on Controller – but they have them if they want them.

Not much else of note. Greg Travis is now filing state reports, so he’s been swapped out for Mary Nan Huffman, who still has a few bucks in her account. I did not find a report for Tiffany Thomas. I’ll do HISD and HCC next to finish this off. Let me know what you think.

Chip your dogs and cats

It’s the law now in Houston.

The city now will now will require resident pet owners to get microchips for their dogs and cats, and will ban so-called ‘puppy mill’ breeders from providing animals to pet stores.

City Council voted unanimously [last] Wednesday to revise its animal code for the first time since 2014, including those changes and others to try to rein in overpopulation of animals on the city’s streets and in its shelter.

“For the most part, all of these changes were really supported by the animal welfare community, which is great,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who helped craft the revisions.

Pet owners, already required to license pets with the city and prove they have been vaccinated against rabies, now will have to microchip them.

The chip will replace the city’s license and rabies tags and will make it easier to return lost animals to their owners, officials said. Animal control officers will be able to scan an animal’s microchip and return it to its owner without bringing it back to the shelter, easing the burden on that facility.

The city plans to focus on helping residents comply with the new rule initially, rather than concentrating on enforcement, officials said. Shelter employees will spend at least a year educating residents about the changes and providing opportunities to get the device installed before enforcing it. The city offers to install them for $15 and will announce details on future opportunities to do so, likely including chances to get the device for free.

Even when enforcement does begin, it likely will be limited. Many residents do not license their animals with the city and face little consequence, although they can face a fine if their animal runs away and winds up in the city shelter.

The benefit of this for you, the pet owner, is that if your dog or cat gets lost and is subsequently taken to a city of Houston shelter, they’ll be able to ID your pet and contact you to get it. Our dog is an indoor dog who always has his collar and tags on, but he’s been an escape artist in the past and we got him from a shelter after he got away from whoever had him before us. I expect to have a talk with our vet about getting him chipped at his next appointment. The benefit for the city is fewer animals at the shelters, which is a longstanding need. It’s a good idea all around.

Huffman wins District G election

No runoff needed.

Mary Nan Huffman

Mary Nan Huffman, an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union, has won a special election to become the next District G representative on City Council, according to the unofficial returns.

With all voting centers reporting Tuesday night, Huffman finished with 54 percent of the vote, enough to clear the threshold to win without a runoff.

Community organizer and volunteer Piper Madland came in second with 30 percent, followed by attorney Duke Millard with 12 percent, retired Houston Fire Department assistant chief Roy Reyes, Jr. with 4 percent, and Houshang “Hank” Taghizadeh with 0 percent.

The election in west Houston was triggered to replace Councilmember Greg Travis, who resigned his post late last year to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. Travis will remain at City Hall until his successor is sworn in.

[…]

Off-cycle elections typically feature meager turnout, and that was true in this race.

Roughly 8,300 people cast ballots in the election, a turnout of about 6 percent. That is down from 29,500 votes and a 23 percent turnout in the 2019 general election. The district has more than 137,000 eligible voters.

See here for the previous update, and here for the final unofficial vote totals. Huffman was just over 50% after early voting, and expanded on that on Election Day. I assume she’ll be sworn in shortly after the vote is canvassed, so maybe by the end of next week.

As for the turnout question, let’s fill in the rest of that table from the previous post:


Election        Mail   Early   E-Day  Total  Mail%  Early%
==========================================================
May09 Dist H     647   1,259   2,280  4,186  33.9%   45.5%
May18 Dist K   1,737   1,867   1,531  5,135  41.2%   70.2%
Jan22 Dist G     191   4,101   4,154  8,446   3.7%   50.8%

Remember, “Mail%” is “Mail” divided by “Mail + “Early”, and “Early%” is “Mail + “Early” divided by “Total”. As previously noted, final overall turnout as a percent of registered voters was 4.46% in H in 2009 and 6.01% in K in 2018. Going by the Election Day reporting (click on the box with the check in it, which is the “Voter Turn Out” tab), turnout here was 6.10%, just beating out the District K special in 2018. Did the previously-discussed lack of mail ballots result in a reduction of overall turnout, or did it mostly just shift voting behavior from mail ballots to in-person ballots? We can’t say from one data point. Might be worthwhile to check the voter files for previous odd-year elections to see who the regular mail voters had been and then see if they showed up for this one. I don’t have the time for that now but maybe someone else does. Whatever the reasons were, it’s a striking difference and will be worth paying attention to in future elections. Anyway, congrats to CM-elect Huffman, who will be on the ballot again next year for a full term.

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

District G special election final early turnout

I’m going to start this post with some numbers, to provide context.


Election        Mail   Early   E-Day  Total  Mail%  Early%
==========================================================
May09 Dist H     647   1,259   2,280  4,186  33.9%   45.5%
May18 Dist K   1,737   1,867   1,531  5,135  41.2%   70.2%
Jan22 Dist G     157   4,102                  3.7%

In the comments to my previous post, I was reminded that there was another recent special City Council election, the one in 2018 to succeed the late CM Larry Green, which I had overlooked. You can see the totals for that and the 2009 District H special election above, with the reminder that the 2009 election was done before the Council lines were redrawn and Districts J and K were created. Now compare those to the District G special election totals. Looks a little different, don’t they?

“Mail%” above is the share of mail ballots in all early votes – in other words, it’s the “Mail” column” divided by the sum of the “Mail” and “Early” columns, with the latter representing early in person votes. “Early%” is the share of all pre-Election Day votes, so “Mail” plus “Early” divided by “Total”.

It’s hard to say exactly what is happening in District G, but it is very obvious that the share of mail ballots is way lower than we’d normally expect. Perhaps this won’t have much effect on final turnout, as the early in person number is pretty good in comparison. We’ll have to see what Tuesday brings to make a guess about that. For what it’s worth, final overall turnout as a percent of registered voters was 4.46% in H in 2009 and 6.01% in K in 2018. I don’t know how many RVs are in District G right now, but I do know that in November 2019 there were 129,611 of them. That means we’d need a final turnout of 5,780 to reach District H’s level, and 7,790 to get to District K. That would mean 1,521 or 3,531 total votes on Tuesday, respectively. The former should be easy, the latter might be a stretch, though again it depends on whether people who might have otherwise voted by mail are still voting in this race. I should also note that District G is normally a high-turnout place – 28.83% in 2019, second only to District C and its 30.01% mark. That figure was 19.76% in H and 23.85% in K for 2019, so just equaling the special election turnout mark for those districts here is not much of an accomplishment. Unless a lot of people show up tomorrow – which could happen! We don’t know! – then I’d have to call turnout for this race a bit underwhelming.

Just too many variables in play. Another thing to consider is how much money the candidates have had to spend to inform voters about the race and push them to the polls. The Friday Chron story about the last day of early voting touches on that.

The candidates are: Mary Nan Huffman, an attorney for the Houston Police Officers’ Union and former candidate for Harris County district attorney; Piper Madland, a community organizer and volunteer; Duke Millard, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor; Raul “Roy” Reyes Jr., a retired Houston Fire Department assistant chief; and Houshang “Hank” Taghizadeh — though only “Taghi” will appear on the ballot — who said he works in construction.

City elections officially are nonpartisan, but Huffman, Millard and Reyes are running as conservatives. Madland is progressive, and Taghi has not responded to Chronicle inquiries and does not appear to be actively campaigning.

The candidates have focused mostly on flooding and public safety as they campaign for the seat. Huffman has raised $50,000 for her bid and spent $35,600; Madland has raised $26,000 and spent $16,000; Millard has raised $2,600 and spent $9,400; and Reyes and Taghi do not appear to be raising money.

Not a whole lot of money in this race. I’d be interested to know, if you’re in District G, if you’ve had any contact from any of the candidates. There will almost certainly be more money in the runoff, and I’d bet turnout notches up a bit as well, as it did in H in 2009; Martha Castex-Tatum won District K outright in 2018, so no runoff there. There are 15 polling places open tomorrow, from 7 AM to 7 PM, and you can vote at any of them if you’re in the district. I’ll have results on Wednesday. Go vote, and vote for Piper Madland.

Nobody is voting by mail in the District G special election

Here’s the early voting report through Saturday for the District G special election. A total of 1,608 ballots have been cast in the first six days, of which 1,569 have been in person and thirty-nine (39) have been by mail. Yes, thirty-nine. That’s out of 260 total mail ballots that have been sent to voters who have requested them.

To put this in a bit of perspective, in the November 2021 election, the HISD District I race had the smallest number of mail ballots cast. In that election, 1,438 people voted by mail out of 9,480 total votes. That’s about fifteen percent of votes cast by mail – we’re at 2.4% mail ballots in this race so far. In the November 2019 District G election, there were 2,308 mail ballots cast out of 29,500 total. That’s a much smaller 7.8% of the total, but still more than three times the rate of what we’re seeing so far. Given the increase in voting by mail since 2020, it’s clear something is happening here.

As to what that is, you have to assume that voter suppression bill SB1 is largely to blame. People will vote by mail if it’s available to them, but with only 260 mail ballots being sent out, zero of which had been returned by the first day of early voting, it’s clearly not available to the vast majority of District G voters. The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office is not allowed to send ballot applications to eligible voters. The candidates are, but given the compressed timeline for this race and the likely lack of funds for them so far, I have to assume they haven’t done so. We don’t know how many, but we can assume that a larger than usual number of mail ballot applications are being rejected. The result speaks for itself.

I don’t want to overstate what is happening here. This is a weird election, and as noted it seems likely that none of the candidates has been sending VBM applications to people. That won’t be the case in the primaries or the 2022 general election, and the parties can send applications as well. It’s still shocking to see such low numbers. I should note that we have basically no data for city of Houston special elections – the last one we had was the May 2009 District H special election, which was pre-redistricting and for which there was a much longer lead-up – so I can’t begin to guess how this might affect turnout. A total of 4,141 people voted in that District H race, and we could easily exceed that here. Of course, G is a high-turnout district while H is not, and even with there being fewer districts in 2009 there are far more registered voters in G right now (over 129K in G in 2019 versus 93K in H in 2009), so just surpassing H’s raw total means nothing. Given all the weirdness of this election and the many factors that could be affecting it, who knows what effect what the lack of mail ballots might have. But surely there is some.

Early voting starts tomorrow for the District G special election

Yes, it’s time again for an election.

See here for the background. As noted, the interactive map for early voting locations is here. The PDF with locations and times is here. Early voting will run from Monday the 10th through Friday the 21st, except for Monday the 17th, as that is MLK Day. Hours are 7 AM to 7 PM each day except for Sunday the 16ht (noon to 7 PM) and Thursday the 20th (7 AM to 10 PM). Here are the four locations for early voting:

1. Harris County Administration Building – Conference Room; 4th Floor
1001 Preston Street
Houston, TX 77002
Directions
2. La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Houston Galleria Area – Small Meeting Room
1625 W Loop S
Houston, TX 77027
Directions
3. Terrace Banquet Hall – Terrace Room
2424 South Voss Road
Houston, TX 77057
Directions
4. Nottingham Park – Meeting Room
926 Country Place Drive
Houston, TX 77079
Directions

There are five candidates running, one of whom is Democrat Piper Madland. Gotta get her into the runoff, and then anything can happen. If you’re in District G, make sure you and your neighbors get out and vote.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about the candidates.

District G special election lineup set

Hey, did you know there was another filing deadline this week? It’s true!

Greg Travis

Five candidates are running to represent west Houston as the next City Council member for District G.

Councilmember Greg Travis resigned the post in October to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He will remain in the seat until his successor is elected.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Thursday to put their name on the ballot.

The candidates are: Mary Nan Huffman, a lawyer and the former GOP candidate for Harris County district attorney; Piper Madland, a community organizer and nonprofit worker; Roy Reyes Jr., a retired firefighter; Duke Millard, a former federal prosecutor; and Hank Taghizadeh, who works in construction.

The special election will be Tuesday, Jan. 25. Early voting will run from Monday, Jan. 10, through Friday, Jan. 21, except for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17. The polls will be open 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. except for Sundays, when the open at noon. The city still is finalizing the list of voting sites.

See here for the background. This is of course one of the Republican districts in the city, and there’s every reason to expect it will stay that way following this election. Piper Madland is the lone Democrat running, which should at least give her a decent shot at making it into a runoff. I’ve got a whole lot of primary interviews to do, and there’s a very short runway for this election, so I may defer doing interviews for this race until we go to overtime. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2023, as that is when outgoing CM Travis’ term is set to end.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

Special election set for District G

Our first election of 2022.

Greg Travis

The special election to fill west Houston’s District G seat on City Council will be Tuesday, Jan. 25.

City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to call the election. Candidates interested in the position have until Dec. 16 to file for a place on the ballot.

Councilmember Greg Travis, who currently holds the post, resigned last month to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

“I’m going to miss you all,” Travis told his colleagues after the vote. He will remain on council until his successor is sworn in.

Several people already have signaled interest privately in running, although it is not clear whether anyone plans to file to run for the seat Wednesday. If no candidate wins more than half the vote in the Jan. 25 contest, the election would require a runoff.

[…]

Special elections for council seats typically are low-turnout affairs. The previous two contests — in 2018 and 2020 — attracted between 5 and 7 percent of eligible voters.

See here for the background. Obviously, someone is going to file for the seat. I presume the story meant that it wasn’t clear whether or when any of the “signaling interest” candidates will file. This is a Republican district and there’s no reason to think the next Council member will be anything but a Republican. It’s more a matter of whether they’ll be in the performative grievance class that is now the GOP mainstream or if they’ll be in the old school bidness-friendly group. The latter would be refreshing these days. The filing deadline here is basically what it is for the primaries, so we’ll know in about five weeks who’s doing what.

CM Travis resigns to run for HD133

Did not see that coming.

Greg Travis

City Councilmember Greg Travis on Wednesday announced he is running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, effectively resigning his District G post at City Hall.

Travis told supporters at a River Oaks fundraiser and in an email Wednesday evening that he would seek the Republican nomination for House District 133 in west Houston.

The Texas Constitution forbids council members serving four-year terms from actively campaigning for another office while they hold their seats, and Travis’ announcement automatically triggers his resignation.

“I am torn between representing you at Council or representing you at the State House in Austin,” Travis wrote to his constituents. “I have chosen the latter as I feel I can do more for our families, this District, and Houston in general as a State Representative.”

At the fundraiser, Travis told his supporters he would have continued in his council seat if the law allowed.

The city will have to call a special election to replace Travis on City Council within 120 daysaccording to the Texas Constitution.

[…]

One of Travis’ District G predecessors, Bert Keller, also has announced a campaign for the seat. Keller served on City Council from 1999 to 2003. Republican attorneys Mano DeAyala and Shelley Barineau are running as well. It does not appear any Democrats have joined the race yet. The primary elections are March 1, and the general election will be Nov. 8, 2022.

HD-133 has been solidly red, but this year’s redistricting process might have made it slightly more competitive. Former President Trump carried the previous boundaries of the district by 4.1 percentage points. He would have won the newly-drawn district by less than 1 percentage point. Sen. Ted Cruz, though, carried the new district by 7 percentage points in 2018.

You can see the State House electoral data for 2020 here. That actually shows Trump winning it by two points, 50.3 to 48.4, but that’s a bit misleading, as Republicans did a lot better downballot. John Cornyn won it by almost 12 points, for example, and some of the statewide judicial candidates did better than that. That said, the district as constituted shifted pretty strongly over the decade, as Mitt Romney won it by 35 points in 2012. It should be Republican in 2022, but they won’t be able to take it for granted. (The same was true for the old version of HD133.)

I fully expect Dems to have a decent candidate for this district – the lines on the new maps are barely dry, so we’re still very much in the exploratory phase. They’ll be the underdog, but they should be able to get the support they need. With the Democratic boosts given to HDs 134 and 135, and with HD132 a bit more remote, HDs 133 and 138 are the closest House districts on the menu. We should start seeing candidacy announcements (including, one hopes, from a certain former member of Congress from El Paso) soon.

As for the special election in District G, while the city has to call it within 120 days, I would expect it will still fall on a uniform election date. That means next May, barring anything unforeseen, with a June runoff. Those of you in that district, get ready for that.

What about City Council and redistricting?

Of interest:

The embedded image is a table of population figures for Houston City Council by district, broken down by race and ethnicity. The “target” population for each district, which is to say basically the total city population as enumerated by the Census (2,304,580) divided by 11. That number is 209,507, and as former County Clerk numbers guy Hector DeLeon observes, it’s the mostly Black and Latino districts that would need people added to them to meet that.

Note that the red negative numbers are in relation to the target population. If you want to know how each district has changed since 2011, when City Council was expanded to 11 members, part of a court settlement from some years before, you can review the actual population totals that the districts had at that time here. There’s some variation in there, with a range of 180K to 199K and a target of 190,859. A little variation, up to about five percent in either direction, is tolerated to accommodate other factors like communities of interest.

With that, you can see that districts H and I actually lost a little bit of population, while J is basically the same. To the extent that there was an undercount in Houston, due to COVID and Trump malfeasance and whatever else, those are the districts where you would expect it to manifest. District C grew by about 46K, districts D and G by about 40K each.

The big question is whether or not City Council is required to redistrict. It’s my understanding that the charter mandates a review of population figures to ensure that the districts are not “materially unbalanced”. As you may suspect from that kind of wording, there’s some discretion in there. There’s also some time, since the next city elections are in 2023. HISD has elections in 2021, but their filing deadline has already passed, and there wouldn’t be time to review and redraw their boundaries for this November in any event. So, it’s 2023 for them as well.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County

As we know, this is not an election year for city of Houston offices. That usually makes for a pretty dull summary of finance reports, since it’s just incumbents and about half of them are term-limited and thus not really motivated to do much. But I had last checked on these in January 2020, which was the conclusion of the 2019 election cycle, and I didn’t want to wait till next year for a first look. And you never know what you might find.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       185,055     76,357        0     522,058
Peck          14,915     10,892    5,000      18,072
Jackson       19,700     14,126        0      33,317
Kamin         79,860     10,697        0     115,828
E-Shabazz     36,000     19,879        0      20,468
Martin             0      3,473        0     130,577
Thomas        
Travis        34,950      5,886   21,000      76,500
Cisneros       1,000        456        0      18,296
Gallegos       2,075      8,620        0      77,372
Pollard      280,908     11,371   40,000     303,572
C-Tatum       58,718      6,847        0     117,013
Knox          11,685      4,571        0      16,510
Robinson      58,983     16,085        0     149,046
Kubosh        60,910     24,318  206,010      65,667
Plummer       30,770      6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn         3,200      5,251        0      31,013
Brown         24,550      3,892   75,000      19,281

Edwards            0      2,580        0      45,081

Sorry, no links to individual reports this time – the city of Houston’s reporting system spits out downloaded PDFs, which I have to rename and upload to Google Drive to be able to provide links for them, and it ain’t worth the effort at this point. I’ll do that in 2023, when things heat up.

One of these things is not like the others. I’ve been asking folks who they think will run for Mayor in 2023, partly to see how my own speculations have turned out. One name that has come up a lot is that of Ed Pollard, the first-term Council member in District J. Let’s just say his July report does nothing to temper that kind of talk. To put it mildly, one does not need $300K to run for re-election in a low-turnout district like J, and that’s more than two years out from the actual election. Pollard may have his eye on something else, of course – he ran for HD137 in 2016, and who knows what opportunities the next round of redistricting may present – but if one is being mentioned when the question of “who is thinking about running for Mayor” comes up, this is the kind of finance report that supports such talk.

Other names that come up when I bring up the question include Michael Kubosh, Chris Brown, and Amanda Edwards. Neither of the first two has raised all that much, though they both have the capability. Kubosh has knocked $60K off his loan total, which may have contributed to his lower cash-on-hand total. As for Edwards, she’s the opposite of Pollard at this point.

The one person who has been openly talked about as a candidate – by someone other than me, anyway – is Sen. John Whitmire, who has enough cash in his treasury to not sweat the small stuff. He recently announced his intent to run for re-election in 2022, which is completely unsurprising and not in conflict with any 2023 speculation. Mayor Turner ran for and won re-election in HD139 in 2014 before officially beginning his Mayoral campaign in 2015.

Beyond that, not a whole lot to report. Mayor Turner has some money on hand if he wants to influence a charter amendment or two. CM Tiffany Thomas did not have a report that I could find – sometimes, the system is a little wonky that way. The only other number of note was for term-limited CM David Robinson, who has added over $100K to his cash on hand since last January. Maybe that’s a sign that he has his eye on another race, and maybe that just means that some people are good at fundraising. I’ll leave that to you. Next up, HISD and HCC. Let me know what you think.

Council will decide when charter amendment votes will be

Fine, but they should be this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday promised to bring a charter amendment petition to City Council before a key August deadline to order an election for this year.

A diverse coalition of groups, including the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341 and the Harris County Republican Party, delivered the petition in April, and the city secretary confirmed the signatures earlier this month. The measure would allow any three council members to place an item on the council agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under the city’s strong-mayor format.

The council can put the charter amendment on the ballot this November or during the next city elections, which are in November 2023. Turner said he was not sure the city would order an election this year, prompting concern among petition organizers and supporters, who have sought an election in November. The last day to order an election for this year is Aug. 16.

“It will come before you, and this council will decide whether it goes on this year’s ballot or on the next city ballot,” Turner told his colleagues at the City Council meeting Wednesday. “I won’t be making that decision, we will be making that decision.”

The fire union is pushing a separate charter petition, which it delivered to City Hall last week, that would make binding arbitration the automatic resolution to contract impasses. The city and union have been in a deadlock since 2017, and have contested the contract talks in court battles.

[…]

The mayor said the city has to decide if it is going to take each charter petition individually, or if it would be smarter to lump them together in a single election, “which, from a cost perspective, would be quite wise,” he said.

“What we will have to decide is whether or not you do these one at a time, and every time you put it out there it’s a cost to the city (to run the election),” Turner said. “Now, there’s another one that was just delivered to the city secretary (last) week… Let’s say that gets the requisite signatures, do we do another election on that one?”

The fate of the most recent petition from the fire union is less clear. Turner said it takes the city secretary an average of three months to count the signatures, even with added personnel the mayor says he has approved for their office. That would mean workers likely will not finish verifying them before the Aug. 16 deadline to order an election.

The union has alleged the city is slow-walking the count for the second petition. The Texas Election Code allows the city to use statistical sampling to verify the signatures, instead of vetting them individually, as the city is doing now.

See here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, but I don’t think it is commonly used. Not sure what the objections are to that. I say do them both in the same election, and it should be this election. I’d rather just get them done, if only from a cost perspective.

Charter amendment referendum likely #2 on its way

Pending signature verification.

The Houston firefighters’ union says it has collected enough signatures on a petition to make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration.

The city secretary now must verify at least 20,000 signatures, the minimum threshold for getting a petition-driven initiative on the ballot. The petition drive is one of two the Houston Professional Fire Fighters is pushing for this November, along with one that would give council members more power to place items on the City Council agenda.

The city secretary verified signatures for the first petition, filed in April, last week. A broader coalition is advocating for that proposal, as well.

The union has said it hopes to place both items on the November ballot, although Mayor Sylvester Turner has signaled the city may not comply with those wishes. The mayor said last week a required council vote to place the items on the ballot may not happen this year.

“There is no obligation, I think, on our part to put anything on the ballot for this year,” Turner said then.

State law does not lay out a specific timeline for when council must take that vote, though it does require it to do so. The last day to order an election for November would be Aug. 16.

When the council does vote, it has two options for selecting the date: the next uniform election date, which would be November 2021; or the next municipal or presidential election, whichever is earlier. That would be the November 2023 in this case.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said it does not matter whether the city is allowed to push off the election; it should respect the will of the petitioners and place the initiative on the November ballot. He said the union is prepared to go to court to get the charter amendments on the ballot this year.

See here for more about the other charter amendment referendum. I’m inclined to support this one, but I haven’t paid much attention to it yet so I’ll want to hear more before I make a final decision.

As for when to have the referendum, I’ll just say this much: Baseline turnout in 2021, a non-municipal election year, where the only items that will be on everyone’s ballot are the constitutional amendments (none of which are exactly well known at this point) and only some people will have actual candidates to vote for, is about 50K. Baseline turnout in 2023, when there will be an open seat Mayoral race, is at least 200K, probably at least 250K. Turnout in 2015, with HERO repeal also on the ballot, was over 270K, and in 2019, with the Metro referendum also on there, it was over 250K.

Point being, in 2021 you start with the hardcore voters, who have probably heard something about your issue and whose support you hope to earn, and seek to get lesser-engaged folks who agree with you to show up. In 2023, you have to put a lot more effort into persuasion, just because so many more people will be casting ballots, and many of them will start out knowing nothing about the issue. A lot of those less-engaged voters from scenario #1 are more likely to show up because of the Mayor’s race. Your message here is one part about introducing them to your issue, and one part about voting all the way down the ballot, because the charter amendments are at the bottom and you want to make sure they don’t miss them.

Given that, it’s a reasonable question to ask which environment you’d rather be in for the purpose of passing your referendum. It’s not clear that one is inherently more advantageous than the other, but the strategy for each is different. Needless to say, the 2023 scenario is more expensive, though a sufficiently funded referendum effort can have a significant effect on turnout, even in a 2023-type situation. The platonic ideal is for higher turnout since that is a truer reflection of the will of the people, but you want your item to pass, and you play the hand you’re dealt.

Now having said all that, I think if the petition signatures are collected and certified in time for the item to be on the next ballot, that’s when it should be voted on. I don’t know what Mayor Turner’s motivation may be for preferring to wait until 2023, which he is allowed to do. I just think we should have the votes this year.

We will have that charter election

For that thing I still don’t have a pithy name for. Someone form a PAC and throw me a bone here.

A petition filed in April by a group seeking to give City Council members the ability to place items on their weekly meeting agenda contained enough valid signatures to trigger a charter referendum in November, the city secretary reported Friday.

In a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and council members, City Secretary Pat Daniel said her office verified that 20,482 petition signatures — above the threshold of 20,000 — contained the name, signature and other required information of registered voters who live in Houston. The city secretary’s office counted 31,448 of the nearly 40,000 signatures submitted by the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition, the group behind the petition drive, according to Daniel.

The referendum, if approved by voters, would amend Houston’s charter to allow any three council members to place an item on the council’s weekly agenda. For now, the mayor wields almost full control of the agenda, including the ability to block any measures, under the city’s strong-mayor form of government.

Three council members already are allowed to call a special meeting and set the agenda, but the maneuver rarely attracts a required quorum of council members.

The charter amendment coalition — a politically diverse mix of groups that includes the Houston fire union, the Harris County Republican Party, the conservative group Urban Reform, Indivisible Houston and the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — has said it intends to place the measure on this year’s November ballot. City Council has until Aug. 16 to approve the referendum ahead of the Nov. 2 election.

See here, here, and here for the background. City Council has until August 16 to put the item on the November ballot. I expect this to pass, but I don’t plan to vote for it, for reasons I have already explained. I hope I’m wrong about the sideshow effect of this.

Supreme Court upholds Houston historic preservation ordinance

Blast from the past.

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld Houston’s ordinance regulating the preservation of historic districts, after residents argued it was an illegal zoning measure.

Two homeowners in the Heights challenged the law, arguing that it constituted zoning and therefore required a ballot measure approved by voters to take effect. Houston, the largest city in the country without zoning, requires voter approval to implement it.

Supreme Court justices declined on Friday to back that argument, though, affirming lower court rulings that the ordinance is not extensive enough to be considered a zoning regulation, and it does not regulate how people use properties.

“In sum, the Ordinance does not regulate the purposes for which land can be used, lacks geographic comprehensiveness, impacts each site differently in order to preserve and ensure the historic character of building exteriors, and does not adopt the enforcement and penalty provisions characteristic of a zoning ordinance,” Justice J. Brett Busby wrote in the opinion.

[…]

Houston adopted the ordinance in 1995, allowing the city to establish historic districts and requiring owners there to get approval to modify, redevelop or raze properties. If a city board declined a property owner’s application, though, the owner could wait 90 days and get a waiver to proceed with the desired changes, a gaping loophole that rendered the ordinance toothless.

The city revamped the ordinance in 2010 under then-Mayor Annise Parker, ending the waivers and making the regulations more enforceable. It allows only for modifications that are compatible with the area’s architecture, as defined by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Some backers of the ordinance since have argued the board does not uniformly apply its rules.

The lawsuit over this was filed in 2012. I confess, I had not given it a moment’s thought since then. For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, now you know how it turned out.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

Downtown kiosks

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a plan to install up to 125 interactive digital kiosks around the city, a proposal that has drawn support from city officials who tout the advertising revenue benefits and opposition from some who equate the kiosks to sidewalk billboards.

If approved by council, the city would have Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC install at least 75 kiosks within the next three years, focusing on commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. The kiosks, which are designed to resemble massive smart phones, would display dining, transit, event and lodging options and provide free Wi-fi and 911 access, among other features.

The city would receive 42 percent of the revenue generated from digital advertisements displayed on the kiosks, providing an estimated $35 to $50 million over the course of the 12-year contract, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Under the agreement, IKE Smart City would guarantee a minimum payment to the city of $11 to $16 million over the 12 years, depending on the number of kiosks installed.

City officials would have the option to extend the contract for another 10 years, in two five-year increments, if IKE Smart City meets certain performance goals. The company would pay for installation of the kiosks without using any public dollars.

Opponents of the kiosk proposal include Scenic Houston, a nonprofit that helped push for the city’s 1980 sign code that bans any new billboards. In a letter sent Friday to Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, Scenic Houston Executive Director Heather Houston said the board “strongly feels that the digital kiosks constitute digital billboards with a primary purpose to advertise.”

Icken disagreed, arguing Houstonians and tourists would find the kiosks helpful in navigating the city.

“I just don’t think of this as a digital billboard,” Icken said. “I believe they are interactive display screens, much like your iPhone, that allow people to get information.”

The kiosks also would display local job listings, arts and culture options, such as museums and theaters, a list of government buildings and services in the city, and a list of homeless shelters. Advertisements could not include racially derogatory, political or sexually explicit content, nor any ads for tobacco products.

Cooke Kelsey, chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee, said the group also is concerned that business owners would lack the ability to prevent kiosks from being placed on sidewalks in front of their establishments.

Additionally, Kelsey argued the kiosks would defy the purpose of the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which he said generally is supposed to be used for traffic-related street signage, such as stop signs.

“That’s what a right-of-way or easement is, an understanding that they use it for those types of purposes,” Kelsey said. “So, putting an 800-pound smartphone in front of your front door, even if it’s a map, that’s stretching it. If they’re starting to broadcast messages that have nothing to do with traffic, you’ve gone way outside of that.”

The embedded image is of one of these things in San Antonio, from a Scenic Houston action page to email your opposition to City Council. I get the concerns, especially about sidewalk space, and I agree that business owners should have a say in whether one of them is on their sidewalk. There are already colorful direction-oriented signs around downtown, which these would either supplement or supplant. I guess this would feel like less of a big deal if our bus stops had advertising on them, as they do in many other big cities. Honestly, my reaction is a shrug, perhaps because I just don’t see these things on the same level of ugliness as billboards. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, I don’t know. CM Sallie Alcorn is on record in the story as being opposed, while CM Ed Pollard is in favor. I predict someone will tag this, and then we’ll see what the rest of Council thinks. What’s your opinion? Campos, who does not like them, has more.

Where are we with Houston police reform?

It feels like it’s been on the back burner for awhile, but we’re about to get some action this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston officials are developing a system for residents to report police misconduct online and will announce changes later this month to the city’s body camera policies and Independent Police Oversight Board, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner responded Tuesday to written questions from the Chronicle, more than six months after his police reform task force released a lengthy report with more than 100 recommended changes to the Houston Police Department, including stricter disciplinary rules for officers and an overhaul of the police oversight board. Though the mayor endorsed “almost all” of the task force’s recommendations at the time they were released, he has yet to announce any major policy changes and has enacted only a handful of the smaller proposals that task force members said could be carried out within 90 days.

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

“We haven’t made any meaningful progress since the George Floyd protests, just forget about it,” said Alan M. de León, an organizer with MOVE Texas. “Whether the oversight board, union contract negotiation, or crisis intervention, on no front are we making meaningful progress, and that’s completely disappointing.”

The mayor, who controls the city council agenda and policy changes, said he plans to hire staff within the city’s Office of Inspector General — including a deputy inspector general — as his task force recommended. Turner also said he supports body cameras recommendations, including publicly releasing footage of major incidents within 30 days and installing dashboard cameras in all cop cars, and promised more details later this month.

Those pushing for police reform hope new Police Chief Troy Finner, a native Houstonian who took over Monday, will push reform. Since being appointed in March, Finner has promised to meet with and listen to reformers.

“You could tell he wanted changes to happen,” said Harrison Guy, a police reform task force member who met with Finner twice last year. “I feel like (former chief Art Acevedo) led with a lot of ego, so I felt like he got in the way of a lot of change.”

[…]

Lacy Wolf, president of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said Turner’s administration has not updated task force members on the status of their recommendations. However, Wolf said after seeing bureaucratic barriers that delay reforms, he is more forgiving than some fellow union members.

“But if I put myself back in that place I was at (last summer), I could see why people would be frustrated.”

Bobby Singh, another member of the task force, said he believed Turner viewed policing reform as among the most significant policy issues of his administration.

“This is going to be a legacy line item for him,” he said.

I sure hope so. Someone once said that it’s better to be right slow than to be wrong quick. There are limitations to that, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling like this has taken too damn long, but when all is said and done either Mayor Turner has delivered on this promise or he hasn’t. I believe he can, but we still have to see what changes he makes.

One more thing:

In September, HPD joined Harris County’s cite-and-release program, which allows police officers to issue tickets for various low-level crimes instead of arresting people, fulfilling another task force recommendation.

But despite much fanfare, reform advocates say the city has failed to provide data about whether police are actually using the new rules to arrest fewer residents than before it was enacted. They said city officials told them no information was available.

“It seems like the police department is completely ignoring the mayor’s executive order, and has no intention of complying unless the county collects this data,” said Nicholas Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.

Not to get all “run it like a business” on you, but one thing I have learned in a million years of working for a large company is that if you can’t (or don’t) measure something, you can’t say anything about it. Either you provide an objective metric to show how something is or isn’t changing over time, or it’s all talk. This should be an easy fix, and it’s the only way anyone will know if HPD is doing what it says it’s doing. We have to do better than this.