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Houston City Council

Big Tex Storage

I’m strangely almost nostalgic for a controversy like this.

A group of Heights residents are lobbying legislators to protest the development of a storage facility at the site of the former Stude Theater, which was demolished after the property was purchased late last year.

The residents held a protest on Feb. 6 at the former theater.

The protest comes after a petition was formed by a community group called Stop BigTexStorage that, as of Feb. 6, is almost at its 5,000 signature goal. The petition calls for the Houston City Council to stop the permitting for Big Tex Storage Heights at 730 East 11th Street because they believe the project is poorly suited for its location and will have a negative impact on the community.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also attended the protest. Lee suggested the city look into a compatibility ordinance and for the developers to meet with the community to try and find a common ground.

“I know these homeowners are angry about the fact that they have something being constructed where they didn’t have any input, any acknowledgment that this is a community, a community of families,” said Lee.

[…]

“We don’t know of any historically appropriate seven-story storage facilities,” SBTS said in a statement. “Our concern is with the size and function of the structure. It will be large and not contribute in a meaningful way to the neighborhood streetscape, and in any form, will detract greatly from the charm of the neighborhood that so many moved here for… We want them to realize the depth of anger about this project and the breadth of support for opposing it,” said SBTS in the statement. “We elected them to represent all our interests, not a select group of developers.”

This location is about a half a mile from my house, on a surprisingly small property. I had a hard time picturing where this place was supposed to be when I first heard about it because it just didn’t seem like a storage facility, which I imagined would be a full city block in size, could fit into this space. Clearly, that’s one reason why they’re building vertically. It still seems weird and out of place, but as The Leader News notes, that’s life in Houston for you.

Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros also has expressed disappointment over a project she called “so out of character” for the community, even though the proposed storage facility would be outside of her district. The council member who serves the area, Abbie Kamin, did not criticize the project directly but pointed out Houston’s lack of zoning laws and encouraged residents to push for more neighborhood protections.

Unfortunately for the thousands of petitioners who oppose Big Tex Storage, there is little they can do to prevent the business from setting up shop in the neighborhood. The property is located just outside one of the seven historic districts in the Greater Heights, meaning developments there are not required to adhere to the design standards of a historic district.

Margaret Wallace Brown, the director of the city’s Planning & Development Department, said the property owner and developer, Bobby Grover of Grover Ventures, has followed all the city’s laws and protocols and has nearly completed the permitting process, with only the fire marshal left to sign off on it. Wallace Brown said the property was platted as an unrestricted reserve in December, with no variance request and no notification to nearby residents required.

Grover said in December, when an 81-year-old theater-turned-church was demolished at the site, that construction for Big Tex Storage was scheduled to begin in March and be complete by January 2022.

“There is nothing that will stop him unless he decides not to do this,” Wallace Brown said. “He is following all of the City of Houston rules.”

Grover, in a statement, indicated he could be willing to address the concerns of the neighborhood, saying, “We look forward to working with Heights residents and organizations on this project.” He said the storage facility is being designed to complement the architectural character of the Heights, with “honed brick, la Habra stucco and architectural metal panels,” but did not respond to a question about whether he would be willing to reduce the planned height of the structure.

Big Tex Storage has existing locations in Montrose, River Oaks and Garden Oaks, with the latter self-storage facility located at 3480 Ella Blvd.

[…]

Even if Heights community members cannot convince Grover to reduce the scale of the Big Tex Storage development, residents have means of preventing similar projects in the future. Kamin said she plans to partner with the HHA on a presentation for residents next week that will outline the city’s planning and permitting processes as well as the tools homeowners have for protecting the character of their neighborhoods.

One of those tools is seeking a historic district designation from the city, which requires the support of at least 67 percent of property owners in a proposed district. According to Roman McAllen, the city’s historic preservation officer, such a designation likely would have prevented the demolition of the old building on 730 E. 11th St. and would have required the upcoming development to conform with the scale of surrounding structures.

“However, there isn’t a (historic) district there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the theater was not landmarked.”

I like the idea of historic designations where appropriate, but there was nothing special about the old theater, which was later a church, at least from the outside. It was a nondescript box that had nothing going on. Maybe it was different on the inside, or maybe there was something special about it and I’m too much of a troglodyte to have noticed it. Be that as it may, I’d rather see it be replaced by something that adds to the neighborhood – housing, retail, dining, that sort of thing – but that’s the way it goes in the parts of town where anything is more or less allowed to go. Honestly, I’m puzzled how a storage facility can be economically sensible in a high-property-value area like that, but what do I know.

If you are the petition-signing type, there is a petition for this. I expect construction to start on schedule, barring weather delays, and I expect to be fully annoyed by the construction activity blocking the sidewalk and likely a lane of traffic on West 11th, but it is what it is.

Finally, I can’t let this go by without noting the similarity of the Big Tex Storage monster to the iconic Ashby Highrise, which remains the gold standard for scary cartoon buildings. And thinking about the Ashby Highrise led me to remember the greatest parody of such a movement I’ve ever seen and its accompanying iconography, the classic Get Ashby High sign. I saw that nailed to a telephone pole on Shepherd near Bissonnet however many years ago, and I knew I needed to take a picture of it. I pulled onto a side street, parked and ran over to snap that shot. Good thing I did, because it was gone a couple of days later, and I never saw another such sign again. Always take that picture, kids, that’s the moral of the story.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

CM Jackson’s residency questioned

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Tarsha Jackson

The election in Houston city council’s District B was put on hold for a year as courts addressed whether one of the two finalists for the seat, Cynthia Bailey, was eligible to run for office.

Now, the winner of last month’s runoff, Tarsha Jackson, is drawing scrutiny of her own, just weeks after she prevailed against Bailey and took office at City Hall as District B’s city council member.

Some civic leaders in District B are asking the city attorney’s office to review Jackson’s eligibility because she lives in a portion of Harris County that Houston annexed for limited purposes. Residents in those areas can vote in city elections — Jackson’s voter registration shows she lives in District B — but state law appears to bar them from running for office. The Texas Local Government Code says residents in those areas are “not eligible to be a candidate for or to be elected to a municipal office.”

A city map of Houston annexations shows the north Houston address where Jackson lives was annexed by the city in 2002. The city planning department said it was a limited purpose annexation, in which the city does not collect property taxes but can levy a sales tax. Jackson does not pay city property taxes on her home, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.

That could make Jackson ineligible, although the city has not taken a stand on the issue. City Attorney Arturo Michel declined an interview request.

[…]

The city does not vet candidates’ addresses in determining eligibility. Instead, city attorneys confirm the address listed is in the district they hope to represent. The mayor’s office said in 2019 it declared eight candidates ineligible after those checks and others to ensure candidates have marked a box swearing they have not been convicted of a felony. More than 100 people ran for city council in 2019.

Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, said she did not know about the phrasing in the Local Governmental Code or her neighborhood’s annexation history. She votes in District B elections and said she did not have any concern about eligibility. Jackson said she disclosed her address on her ballot application and the city allowed her to run. She said her mind is on getting to work for District B residents.

“I’ve been forthright on everything when I applied to run to represent the residents of District B. My address is on all the documentation,” Jackson said. “I looked at the criteria we needed to run, and as far as I’m concerned, I met that criteria.”

She was sworn in by Mayor Sylvester Turner on Dec. 21.

Doug Ray, an Austin-based attorney with Ray & Wood who specializes in election law, said it is possible someone could pursue what is called a quo warranto lawsuit, a special type of filing designed to challenge officeholders. The county or district attorney would have to bring the suit themselves, or on behalf of another individual if they approve the claim.

“It’s within their discretion, and if they don’t sign on, it would be subject to dismissal,” Ray said, referring to the county and district attorneys.

He said the annexation question gets complicated based on the different types. The planning department said Jackson’s neighborhood is part of a limited purpose annexation through a strategic partnership with a municipal utility district.

“Assuming all those things are true … that limitation would apply,” Ray said of the barrier on running for office.

Man, I don’t know what to say. As the story notes, the city generally doesn’t enforce this unless there’s a complaint or it’s otherwise brought to their attention, as was the case with Michelle Bonton in 2019. On the one hand, the uneven nature of the enforcement is frustrating, and we always seem to hear about these things at a time when it’s too late to do anything about them. I generally have no patience for non-city of Houston people who try to run for city of Houston offices. (Plenty of them find various ways to bend the rules to make themselves appear eligible – I can think of at least one other serving right now.) This case feels more like a technicality, but one should probably be aware if one is paying city of Houston property taxes or not, especially if one is planning to file for a city office. Against all that, there was a ton of time for this information to come out, and the people of District B waited a long time for this election. What are we supposed to do with this information now? I guess we’ll see if someone pursues this. I don’t know what else to say.

Still waiting on that sewer consent decree

Should be ready soon, once the federal court signs off on it.

Help finally could be on the way in the form of an agreement between the city of Houston and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at upgrading the city’s embattled sewer system.

The proposal would cost an estimated $2 billion over 15 years and could increase water rates as soon as next spring.

Houston’s hundreds of sewage overflows each year, often caused by broken or clogged pipes, contaminate streams in violation of the Clean Water Act, and drew the EPA’s attention a decade ago.

Rather than fight the violations in court, the city and EPA negotiated a “consent decree” mandating actions Houston must take to reduce spills across its more than 6,200 miles of sewers, 384 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

City Council approved the agreement last year. Federal officials spent months responding to comments on the proposal, and then, in August, asked a federal judge to approve the document and put it into effect. No ruling has been issued.

“After its review of the motion to enter, we expect that the court will approve entry of the consent decree,” said Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones.

The nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper has asked the court to withhold its approval until the agreement is improved, arguing that, among other deficiencies, it does not sufficiently address historical inequities.

A Houston Chronicle analysis four years ago found that a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur in low-income communities of color. And an analysis of Houston 311 service requests from the last two years shows historically Black southside neighborhoods such as South Park, South Acres and Sunnyside are among the most likely to report sewer problems even though high-income neighborhoods, in general, are more likely to call 311.

Kristen Schlemmer, Waterkeeper’s legal director, said her group feels the decree is needed but that it must deliberately prioritize repairs in historically neglected communities and require more transparency about the spills that occur there.

“What we would have liked to see the city do is to start with the impact on low-income communities and communities of color and craft its consent decree around that,” she said. “Instead they came up with their whole plan and when we raised the issue of environmental injustices, they’re like, ‘Well, completely incidentally, we’re addressing some of those issues.’”

EPA officials declined comment, citing the pending court action. In court filings, attorneys for Houston and state and federal regulators have said the decree is citywide and will not overlook any area. They also have noted that it requires the city to publish annual reports on the decree’s implementation and monthly reports tallying the location of each spill.

“Low-income communities are not being neglected,” one August filing stated. “Rather, low-income communities, especially those communities with higher numbers of (spills) and aging infrastructure, are being addressed with the ‘worst first’ prioritization.”

The decree would force Houston to clean its 5,500 miles of gravity-driven sewer pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to invite blockages by pouring grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

The agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing, cleaning and repairing the city’s sewer system, and prioritizes fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms, including the area around Mama Seafood.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. This will likely cause your water bill to go up, though we don’t know yet by how much. That wouldn’t be necessary now if we had been doing this all along, but here we are. If you don’t like it, go build yourself a time machine and travel back to, I don’t know, 1985 or so and yell at Kathy Whitmire about it. Otherwise, just know that there will be fewer sewer overflows in the future. That’s worth a few extra bucks a month on your water bill.

Please shut up, CM Travis

And delete your Facebook account while you’re at it.

CM Greg Travis

The mayor, city activists and some of District G Councilmember Greg Travis’ colleagues are denouncing offensive comments he made online about former first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

On Facebook, Travis posted a meme that shows a photo of Obama, speaking demonstratively while sitting down, next to a photo of current First Lady Melania Trump, who has her legs crossed. Travis wrote, “Yep. Just saying,” on the post. In comments, he said affirmative action, the program that gives minorities preference in university admissions, was the reason Obama was admitted to Harvard Law School.

“It’s called Affirmative Action. Doesn’t take much—she was born with her qualification,” Travis wrote. “She isn’t the brightest bulb in the lot.”

Travis also wrote that Harris’ career was owed to a former romantic partner. Without him, Travis said, “she’d be working in an office cubicle.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “would be nothing without Bill,” he wrote.

Ashton Woods, a founder and leader of Houston’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, said on Twitter the comments are evidence Travis “hates black women” and wrote: “DEMAND HIS RESIGNATION,” with a call for people to sign up to speak at the next city council meeting on Jan. 5.

“It’s enough. We don’t need to talk representation at city council, because if he says things like this what other ideologies is he taking with him to work… with the most women ever elected to Houston city council,” Woods said. “It says to me that he has a problem with well-educated Black women.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said he asked Travis to take down the post and comments, which it described as “offensive.”

“The mayor is disappointed by the post and has no other comment at this time,” Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director, said.

Travis is unapologetic. He said the post was a meme that has circulated for years, and the comments represented his opinion. He only deleted them because the mayor asked him to do so “as a friend.”

The Press has screenshots, if you missed seeing the posts in question. No question that CM Travis is an idiot and a waste of space on Council, but there’s literally nothing anyone can say or do that will get him to resign, and he’s in his second term so he won’t face the voters again. CM Tiffany Thomas called for Travis to be censured, citing the precedent of then-CM Jim Westmoreland, who was censured in 1989 for his egregiously racist statements about the late Congressman Mickey Leland. I’m fine with that, but we should recognize that things like censure only work on people who are capable of feeling shame and remorse. Maybe the Council members who are justifiably angry about this can find a way to shun CM Travis until he expresses some regret for his actions. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but it’s a thought.

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

Let’s please find more opportunities to avoid using unpaid prison labor

More like this, in other words.

CM Abbie Kamin

As Houston officials hashed out the budget last spring, City Council members Abbie Kamin and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz quietly asked to send a routine contract back to the Turner administration.

The $4.2 million deal was needed to replace tire treading on the city’s commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. The city was about to award the contract on May 12 to the lowest bidder, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which offered to complete the work for some $750,000 less than the only private bidder, Southern Tire Mart.

The state agency was able to offer a lower price in part because it does not pay its workers. The agency relies on the labor of prisoners, who do not earn wages when they work in Texas, one of a few states that do not pay workers in correctional facilities.

At the council members’ request, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration put out a new request for bids, this time including language that required compensation for workers. Three private vendors applied — TDCJ did not — and on Oct. 27 the city selected Southern Tire Mart for the $4.6 million contract.

CM Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said the change was necessary to ensure the city does not funnel money into what they described as an amoral and unjust system. They hope the city will continue to bypass the state agency in future contracts while they lobby state legislators to address the pay issue.

“Our hope is that we can have a citywide policy,” said Kamin, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “The important thing out of this example is that sometimes it’s the little things that may not be really exciting, but that can have a profound change on the systemic and lingering effects of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

Evans-Shabazz, like other critics of the state’s no-pay practice, likened such prison labor to slavery. If they earned wages, the workers could use that money for phone calls or commissary items, she said.

TDCJ “told me they use the money for their employees. Well, that just doesn’t sit well with me and it seems more like ‘slave labor,’” Evans-Shabazz said. “Being an African American, that certainly doesn’t sit well with me. … I just think that’s dehumanizing.”

[…]

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institute, said work is relatively fundamental in prisons across the country. The group estimates half of all prisoners have a job of some kind. Much of that work involves prison operations, from janitorial duties to laundry.

It’s also common for prisoners to do work for state agencies, but Texas is among several states that do not pay prisoners for such work, Bertram said. Prisoners in the El Paso County Jail were recently enlisted to transport the bodies of people killed by COVID-19. They refused to work for free and are being paid $2 an hour, according to the Texas Tribune.

Even in states that do pay, Bertram said, the wages often are not enough to cover phone calls, commissary items and costly payments for health care. Job-training benefits often are also lacking, she said.

“When you look at the jobs people are getting offered and you think, ‘Does any job like that exist on the outside?’ you start to think this training might not amount to anything,” Bertram said. “It’s never been a better time to realize that people who are incarcerated are very much part of the economy and deserve to be supported.”

There’s a lot of history and other backstory to this that I skipped over in the article, so go read the whole thing. Suffice it to say that people – all people, prisoners included – should be paid a fair wage for their labor. If you must, consider that a firm like Southern Tire Mart was unable to compete with the sub-minimum wages that the TDCJ was able to get by with, until CMs Kamin and Evans-Shabazz stepped in and altered the calculus. They’re now seeking to get a bill passed in the Lege that would mandate pay standards for prisoners, which Reps. Ron Reynolds and Alma Allen will carry and which I fully support. Sorry, but there’s no moral argument for taking advantage of the artificially cheap labor of an involuntary workforce. I’m happy for the city of Houston to show some leadership on this, and I hope other cities and counties will take notice.

The next elections

Just a reminder, there are two elections on the calendar for December:

See here for the background. The first link in that tweet goes to this County Clerk press release, which came out right after the election was officially set by the court. Doesn’t look like early voting information is available at harrisvotes.com yet, but I expect it will be soon. Oh, and if somehow you or someone you know who lives in the district is not registered to vote, the deadline to do so and vote in this election is tomorrow.

Meanwhile, up north:

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Saturday that Dec. 19 will be the date for the special election runoff to succeed state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper.

The runoff in Fallon’s solidly red district pits state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed earlier this year over her refusal to close her business due to coronavirus restrictions.

Early voting for the runoff will start Dec. 9, Abbott said.

Luther and Springer finished close together in the Sept. 29 special election, which included three other Republicans and a Democrat. Luther edged out Springer, 32.17% to 31.93%, ahead by 164 votes out of 68,807 total.

That story is from October – there were just too many other things happening around then to blog about a two-months-out special State Senate election, but now is a better time for that. If Rep. Springer wins, then there will be another special election to fill his seat. Some years we get a fair bit of shuffling after the November election. In 2019, we had a special election to fill SD06 after now-US Rep. Sylvia Garcia was elected in CD29, then another special election to fill HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado won that race. Specials were also needed in HDs 79 (Joe Pickett resigned due to health issues) and 125 (Justin Rodriguez was appointed to Bexar County Commissioners Court). You never know what may happen this year. One way or another, it’s always election season somewhere.

Here comes a charter amendment effort

I’m neutral about this, at least for now.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association and a coalition of other groups are launching a referendum campaign to give city council more power at City Hall.

The fire union and other groups announced the effort Monday outside the union’s headquarters. The petition, if it garners enough signatures, would ask voters to give city council members the ability to place items on the council’s agenda if they get two of their colleagues to join the request.

The mayor currently has near-total control of what appears on the council’s weekly agenda, a feature that historically has led to consternation for members and advocates on all sides of the political spectrum.

“It’s a small ask, but it will give citizens a big voice at City Hall. We’re a city of more than 2 million (people), and if you’re a citizen out there with an issue that you care about for your neighborhood or your community, and you don’t have connections at City Hall or the backing of some large group, it’s very hard for you to get your voice heard,” said Charles Blain of Urban Reform, a right-leaning advocacy group. “And that’s unfair. But that’s not the problem of any one elected official, that’s the system of government that we have in the city of Houston.”

The coalition needs to gather 20,000 signatures within 180 days to get the item on the ballot. The organizers did not identify a specific election date they are eyeing for the referendum.

Blain stressed the politically diverse coalition behind the effort, which includes the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-leaning Indivisible Houston, Houston Young Republicans and the Houston Justice Coalition. City Councilmember Amy Peck, a conservative, also attended the news conference and said she supports the campaign.

Blain said the effort was not meant to further one cause or group. Instead, he said, it seeks to give residents a more accessible track to voice their concerns and get them addressed.

The immediate effect of such a change would be to eliminate, or at least weaken, any mayor’s ability to stifle council consideration of an issue or measure he or she does not support.

[…]

Turner said he respects the group’s ability to petition, but he thinks the current system is just fine.

“I think what is being proposed would create chaos and confusion,” Turner said, arguing it would lead to more combative and contentious politics akin to the federal government. “What it ends up doing is, it takes you away from the critical things that are important to the people in the city of Houston. There are a total of 17 of us on city council, and if, for example, only three can continuously bring up additional things, then you’ll be spending all of your time dealing with those items, and it takes away from everything else.”

The referendum organizers said council members still would need to win a majority of their colleagues to pass the measures, a political reality they said would discourage frivolous or unrealistic agenda items.

The story quotes HPFFA President Marty Lancton saying this isn’t about the firefighters’ differences with Mayor Turner. Imagine me raising my eyebrows here.

As the story notes, this idea has come up before, but has not gotten anywhere. In theory, I don’t have a problem with the idea. It’s still going to take a majority to get something passed, and I have no doubt that every Mayor has has refused to put things that likely would have gotten a majority vote from Council on the agenda. Any Mayor worthy of the office will have various ways to at least discourage things they don’t like from getting passed. Maybe this will make more people pay attention to Council races, especially At Large Council races. (Yeah, I know, probably not.)

It’s an interesting question to ponder what might be different in Houston now if we’d had this provision all along, or at least for the past 20 or 30 years. I can’t think of any specific ordinance that might have been passed – Mayors, like other politicians, generally prefer to do things that are broadly popular, or failing that things that will be more likely to get them re-elected than less likely. If you can think of something that would be law today were it not for one or more Mayors brazenly suppressing the will of the public, please specify in the comments.

I will say, a change like this is going to have the effect of making City Council more like Congress or the Lege. Plenty of legislators make their bones not on passing bills but on stirring up trouble, after all. If this were in place today, I feel confident that the threesome of Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, and Greg Travis would feel free to bring forth many items for Council’s consideration. If all that did was waste time and annoy the Mayor, I’m pretty sure they’d consider that worth the effort. I’m picking on those three, but you could look at any time in the city’s recent political history and find a trio of troublemakers; almost every Council member has at least one issue they care a lot about that they could get two others to support, whether it goes beyond that or not. The average Council meeting will get longer with this on the books, is what I’m saying. Raising the threshold to bring forth an agenda item to, say, six or eight, would cut down on this, and ensure that most of the things that do get introduced this way are good candidates to be adopted, and not just used to score a point.

I would also expect this to encourage various special interests to ramp up their contributions to Council members (and candidates) with an eye to them sponsoring ordinances these interests favor. That’s got to be more efficient than going all in on a Mayoral candidate. I mean, this happens now, but it’s more complicated.

This may sound like I’m negative on the idea. I’m not, but I’m not sold on it either. I really would like some examples of things that would be in place in Houston now if Council members had this power. I’d also love to hear what former Mayors think of this, now that they no longer have to deal with it. What do you think?

Don’t park in a bike lane

It’s illegal now, and you will get a citation.

Houston city council on Wednesday made it illegal to park in or otherwise block the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, a long-sought change by cyclists fed up with dodging cars and other obstacles in their designated paths.

Council voted 15-2 to pass an ordinance to forbid people from blocking the dedicated lanes that are physically separated from roadways. The prohibition applies to 120 miles of bike lanes, and violations will be punishable by a $100 fine.

Councilmembers Mike Knox and Edward Pollard voted against the measure, but did not explain why. Council did not discuss the ordinance.

Previously, there was nothing in the city’s code that prohibited blocking the lanes. The city had to post “no parking” signs along the lanes in a sometimes futile effort to keep them clear.

Nick Hellyar, a board member for the nonprofit Bike Houston, hailed the ordinance as a pragmatic step toward safety.

“Bike Houston has been fighting for this for forever,” said Hellyar. “It’s just some of that common-sense government that sometimes we need to push a little harder for as advocacy groups.”

Warnings will be given for the first 90 days, and an amendment proposed by three Council members to offer a free bike class in lieu of the fine – sort of like defensive driving class for illegal parkers – was adopted. Motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the off-road bike trails, so in a sense all this does is standardize the bike trails around the city. I approve.

District B runoff officially scheduled

Hooray!

Cynthia Bailey

At long last, voters in the north Houston neighborhoods that make up City Council’s District B will get to select a new representative in December.

Visiting state District Judge Grant Dorfman on Monday ordered the long-delayed runoff to be held Saturday, Dec. 12, almost exactly a year after the election was originally scheduled last year. Tarsha Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, will face off in the election.

That is the same date for any runoffs necessitated by the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

Tarsha Jackson

Council member Jerry Davis, the incumbent set to leave office last January, has remained in the seat to ensure the district had representation during the legal fight. Davis narrowly was defeated in his July runoff against state Rep. Harold Dutton for the District 142 seat Dutton has held since 1985.

District B includes nearly 200,000 people from many historic north Houston neighborhoods, such as Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens and Settegast. The district stretches up to include Greenspoint and Bush International Airport. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents, 47 percent, in the city.

See here for the background. Not much else to say here, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for this. It’s time to finally get a new Council member in District B.

We are finally about to get that District B runoff scheduled

About damn time.

Cynthia Bailey

A court hearing set for Oct. 19 finally could end the election dispute that has delayed a runoff in Houston city council’s District B for nearly a year.

A state district judge is scheduled to hear an unopposed motion to set the election for Saturday, Dec. 12, which would be almost exactly a year after the initial runoff on Dec. 14, 2019.

Houston, Harris County and the three candidates involved in the dispute support that election date, according to legal filings.

Tarsha Jackson

That would mean voters in District B, which is concentrated in north Houston and stretches up to Bush International Airport, could elect a new representative in December.

Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey were the top two finishers in the general election last November and now would proceed to the runoff.

[…]

The runoff could not be held on Nov. 3 because state law mandates it be held on the same date as the original election, which was a Saturday.

The date of the court hearing was delayed because state law prescribes a maximum amount of time between the court order and the runoff. Oct. 19 was the earliest date possible for a court order to get on the Dec. 12 ballot, according to legal filings.

See here for the previous update. December 12 is the date that a city runoff election would have been held this year, if there had been any city elections on the November ballot. It’s always the second Saturday in December. It sounds like this court hearing is pro forma, so once it’s over we should have an official, scheduled runoff election date. All I san say is “Hallelujah”.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.

Appeals court upholds District B ruling

We will finally get a runoff election in District B.

Cynthia Bailey

An appeals court ruled early Tuesday that Houston did not err when it declined to disqualify a District B city council candidate who had a felony conviction, clearing the way for a long-delayed runoff in the district.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, the third-place candidate in the race who filed the lawsuit, said she does not plan to appeal the ruling, which would effectively end the nine-month dispute.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision and I pray that Cynthia Bailey and Tarsha Jackson remain safe as they continue on with their campaigns to become the next City Council Woman for District B,” Jefferson-Smith said in a statement.

Tarsha Jackson

“It’s been long enough and the District deserves to know who will represent them. My family and I are truly excited about the opportunity to move forward and focus on what’s ahead in our lives.”

It is not yet clear when an election can be held. Attorneys involved in the case said they believe it will return now to the lower court, where visiting judge Grant Dorfman can order a new election date. In February, he ordered a May 2 election, which was derailed amid appeals.

One wrinkle is that the Texas Election Code mandates the runoff be held on the same day of the week as the original election, which was a Saturday, according to Assistant Harris County Attorney Doug Ray. That would mean the District B race cannot go on the Nov. 3 ballot, he said.

See here for my previous update. The law in question is quiet clear, mandating that a runoff election that was delayed by an election contest must be held on the same day of the week as the originally scheduled runoff. I hate the idea that this election can’t be held on the same day in November that everyone will be voting anyway, but I don’t know what can be done about it, other than Judge Dorfman saying “screw it” and daring someone to challenge him.

The central question of the case is whether Bailey, who finished second and qualified for the runoff with Jackson, is eligible for office despite her felony conviction.

Jefferson-Smith, who finished third and missed the runoff, had argued she is not. Jefferson-Smith filed two lawsuits seeking to have Bailey removed from the runoff ballot.

The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, like others that have handled the case, did not address directly the question of Bailey’s eligibility. A state statute says candidates cannot have felony convictions from which they have not “been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” but it does not define that phrase, which has led to varying interpretations and enforcement.

Instead, the court addressed Jefferson-Smith’s claim that the City of Houston erred in administering the election by failing to declare Bailey ineligible. Her team had sent the city a packet of documents, after the election but before the vote was certified, proving Bailey was convicted.

A trial court judge said the packet did not conclusively prove Bailey was ineligible because it did not say whether she had been pardoned or otherwise released. (Bailey has argued she is released because she completed her sentence.)

In a decision posted after midnight, the three-justice panel of the First Court of Appeals agreed.

“Because the documents that Jefferson-Smith presented to the Mayor’s Office in connection with her Demand for Administrative Declaration of Ineligibility present a fact question—whether Bailey has been pardoned or otherwise relieved of her disabilities—that the Mayor had no authority to resolve, the Mayor had no ‘duty imposed by law’ to declare Bailey ineligible and made no ‘mistake’ in declining to do so,” Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote.

Candidates who run for office in Houston check a box on their application form swearing they have not been finally convicted of a felony. The city verifies they have checked the box but does not vet their accuracy.

I’ve read the decision, and while it’s pretty dry and technical, it’s easy enough to understand. The takeaway I got from it is that Jefferson Smith might have prevailed had she taken somewhat different actions, but given what she did do, it wasn’t enough to meet the requirements of the law. I suppose it’s possible the Supreme Court could have seen it differently – for what it’s worth, the panel that ruled on the case was two Republicans and one Democrat – but Jefferson Smith ultimately chose to end her pursuit, and for that I thank her. Now let’s get this election scheduled. Houston Public Media has more.

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

Rental assistance

We’re going to need a lot more like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston on Wednesday added another $20 million to its rent relief program, aimed at helping thousands of tenants catch up on late rent payments.

City council voted unanimously to add the money Wednesday, more than doubling the initial program the city launched in May. Private donors, including Texans owner Janice McNair, gave $5 million toward the effort, and the city devoted another $15 million from the federal money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The program requires concessions from landlords for them to receive the funds. They must forego eviction proceedings through September for all of their residents, even if only one of them is set to receive assistance. They also must waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to a payment plan for residents that are behind.

“The concern was, you took the money, and then a month later, you’re still trying to get them out,” said District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The application window will open first for landlords, and then their tenants will be able to apply. Thomas said that will open some time in the next two weeks.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls for a grace period ordinance that would give residents more time to catch up before getting evicted, said the assistance and resulting concessions provide for a more fruitful approach. He said a grace period worsens the financial liability those tenants will have to cover later down the road.

“When their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated,” Turner said of cities that have implemented similar policies. “What will happen is that at the end, the hole is so much bigger.”

Advocates have said a grace period would provide blanket coverage to residents who will not get access to the city’s relief funds, which Turner and others have acknowledged cannot meet the overwhelming demand.

See here for the city’s press release. I’m not sure why the city preferred this approach, but I do know that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep people in their apartments if at all possible. Losing their homes, especially at a time like this, will have devastating and long-term consequences, and not just for the newly homeless people – there will be more strain on the city’s social services, and it’s not like there will be a long line of other folks waiting to take the now-vacant apartment. We really need the Senate to act on the bill that the House passed months ago, because there are millions of lives at stake. If nothing else, surely we can all agree that putting a bunch of people out on the street is not going to help the economy. Keeping folks in their homes is the right answer no matter how you ask the question. All levels of government need to do their part.

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

Chas Moore watched in shock one night in 2017 as Austin City Council voted on the city’s proposed police contract.

He and other criminal justice reformers had spent months observing contract negotiations and lobbying council members to reject a deal they said was too expensive and lacked crucial accountability measures.

The city’s 10 council members and mayor raised their hands to vote the deal down.

“I don’t think anyone thought that would happen,” said Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition. “Historically people fight police unions — and they do not win.”

The vote sent police back to the negotiating table, and the resulting contract included a slew of reforms — at half the cost of the previous version.

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

Activists here want to change that as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract this year. They are again seeking the right to observe deliberations and to try to change provisions they say protect officers accused of wrongdoing. But while other cities with similar bargaining rules allow residents to observe negotiations, Houston does not, aided by what critics say are gaps in the state’s government code that do not clearly require union contract negotiations to be open to the public.

Houston’s police budget in 2020 tallied about $911 million — by far the largest allocation in the city budget’s general fund. While other cities across the U.S. slashed police budgets, Houston’s City Council unanimously in June passed a budget with a $20 million increase for the police department.

The pressure for reform rose around the country in the wake of the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd in police custody, and organizers say it’s overdue here.

Not long after that Austin contract rejection, community organizers in Houston sought to observe police contract deliberations here.

Local criminal justice advocate Tarsha Jackson said she approached City Hall in 2018 to try to share community concerns — but the criminal justice reformer with the Texas Organizing Project said she found an opaque process.

“It was not public. It was like a guessing game,” Jackson said.

The contract was settled behind closed doors without them getting a chance to see it or offer their input.

“As we’re having these conversations around police accountability and reform, how can we have these conversations without the community?” Moore asked regarding the efforts around the country to get a seat at the table during contract negotiations.

We all recognize that a big piece of police reform must be done via the collective bargaining process. Given that, and given the action items that the reformers are seeking, they need a seat at the table or those items will not be addressed. The Lege can and should address some items as well, but they already have a lot on their plate, and it’s never a good idea to depend on a particular bill making it through the Lege, because so many things can happen to knock it off course. This is something we can do now, because the new CBA is coming up soon.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

So let’s talk about HERO 2.0 again

Surely now is the time.

In November 2015, 61 percent of Houston voters rejected a city ordinance that would have barred employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, a devastating blow for LGBTQ advocates in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Four and a half years later, two-thirds of the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court extended federal workplace protections to gay and transgender employees across the entire country, with Justice Neil Gorsuch — a conservative jurist appointed by President Donald Trump — penning the majority opinion.

The ruling marks a stunning turnaround for LGBTQ Houstonians, who lacked such protections under local, state or federal law before Monday. Still, they remain subject to discrimination in public places, meaning a restaurant owner may no longer discriminate against gay and transgender employees but can refuse service to LGBTQ customers.

Houston’s anti-discrimination measure — branded by supporters as Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, and by opponents as the Bathroom Ordinance — would have applied to employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation. It would have protected 13 classes on top of sexual orientation and gender identity: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, and family, marital or military status.

Supporters of the local anti-discrimination law say they will continue tentative plans to push for a second version of the measure in 2021, the next city election, to ensure the remaining classes and locations are covered. They also say a local ordinance would provide an added layer of protection for members of Houston’s LGBTQ community beyond the Supreme Court ruling.

“It is very clear, if you put it in the context of what’s happening in our country right now, that having de jure employment protections doesn’t mean that the problem is solved,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor and first openly gay mayor of a major American city. “Because, in fact, we’ve had protections around race for a very long time and we still are trying to work hard to dismantle systemic racism. So, it is a big step forward, but there’s still much work to do.”

Houston’s LGBTQ advocacy groups have eyed the 2021 election since their first attempt ended in a resounding defeat. Monday’s court ruling will strengthen their case and their odds of success, contended Austin Davis Ruiz, communications director for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.

“If you can no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as it’s decided in this interpretation of the word ‘sex,’ then it should be able to be extended to all these other areas that still lack federal protection,” Ruiz said.

[…]

Alternatively, Houston City Council could pass an anti-discrimination ordinance if Mayor Sylvester Turner were to place it on a meeting agenda and the majority of the 17-person council approved it. Turner, who controls the City Council agenda, did not address that possibility in a statement Monday praising the Supreme Court ruling. Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to say whether he thinks the ordinance should go through City Council or the November ballot.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Turner said he was working with his LGBTQ advisory board to find “opportunities to do more public education” on the issue, but stopped short of saying he would advocate for a ballot measure in 2021.

We were talking about this last November, during the Mayoral runoff. I argued at the time for waiting until 2022, in order to get a better turnout model, but the engagement and outreach strategy is what really matters. Certainly, this could be passed by Council, but there would almost certainly be another referendum to overturn it, so you may as well have the election on your own terms. And despite what happened in 2015, there’s no reason why it couldn’t pass this time. It’s mostly a matter of making sure that Democratic voters vote in favor of a position that is almost universally held by the Democratic politicians those voters vote for. There are a lot of ways this can be accomplished, but the one thing I’d call absolutely vital is organizing and preparing a message strategy for it ahead of time. There’s no better time than now to be doing that.

The current status on local police reform efforts

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

CM Letitia Plummer

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Now, as for that executive order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

Council adopts recycling bin fee

From last week:

Beginning in July, Houston residents will find a new $1.14 fee on their monthly water bills for leasing the city’s garbage and recycling bins.

A divided city council voted 8-6, with three members absent, to pass the new fee Wednesday after it was delayed twice at previous meetings. The fee will be in place for four years, and then it will have to return to council for consideration again because of a sunset amendment posed by Councilman Michael Kubosh.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the $5 million in new annual revenue the fee is expected to generate is needed to maintain the city’s stock of the bins, particularly in light of Houston’s budget difficulties. The dollars will be deposited in a separate account for that purpose. Turner said the city cannot afford to keep providing the bins for free.

“We have strained Solid Waste to the limit in this city,” Turner said. “The point is, we’re simply asking people to pay for the bins, just for the bins.”

Houston mayors and councils — including Turner — long have resisted the idea of monthly garbage collection fees like those imposed in every other major Texas city. As of last year, Austin charged a monthly garbage fee of between $25 and $50, San Antonio charged roughly $20, Dallas charged $27 and Fort Worth charged between $12.50 and $23.

Turner said he has resisted fees at those levels because the public would not allow them. He said he instead chose the “lowest denominator” — which he has insisted is not a garbage collection fee — amid pleas from Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes for a more robust fee to improve service.

Hayes told council Wednesday that 30-40 percent of complaints the department receives are related to missing or damaged bins.

“This is one of the lowest-hanging fruits to deal with one of the highest complaints that we get from customers,” Hayes said.

Nonetheless, the 57-cents-per-bin fee sparked a spirited debate around the council table.

You know me, I’ve long been in favor of a dedicated fee for Solid Waste. It’s never made sense to me that Houston funds this entirely out of general revenue. If I have any objection to this it’s that we didn’t go all the way and pass a fee to entirely fund the Solid Waste department. (Yes, I know, the timing for that would be lousy now, but we could have done this any time before now.) Maybe when this fee has to come up for a vote again in four years, we can finally have that debate. In the meantime, I hope this means that the Solid Waste department will be quick and responsive about replacing lost and damaged bins. The point was to improve the service, so let’s make sure that happens.

Mayor Turner and others test negative for COVID-19

They were tested following the news about CM Plummer’s infection.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and two of his top aides have tested negative for COVID-19, the mayor’s office announced Thursday.

Turner was tested for the novel coronavirus Tuesday by Kelsey-Seybold, the health care provider for most city employees. Turner’s chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, and one of his aides also tested negative Thursday, while another aide and members of Turner’s security detail were awaiting test results.

The mayor urged Houstonians to get tested even if they are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

“The results will help you take better control of your health during the pandemic,” Turner said. “While my test result was negative, I will continue to practice social distancing and wear a face covering to do my part to stop the virus from spreading in our community.”

Several city council members also got tested Tuesday, according to Turner’s office, a day after Councilwoman Letitia Plummer learned she had tested positive for the virus. At least two council members — Sallie Alcorn, who sits next to Plummer, and Tiffany Thomas — are quarantining and skipped Wednesday’s council meeting. Alcorn tested negative for COVID-19, one of her staffers confirmed Thursday.

Plummer’s staff members also were tested for COVID-19 earlier this week. She began quarantining at home last Thursday, one day after attending a city council meeting.

See here and here for the background. At least now we know who else had been self-quarantining; that detail was not in the previous story. I presume none of CM Plummer’s staff tested positive, though we don’t know that for sure. Not much else to say except I hope this is the extent of it.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

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

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

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

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

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

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