Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston City Council

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.

CM Plummer tests positive for COVID-19

Get well soon.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first elected official in the city to have a confirmed infection of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Plummer, a first-term council member and dentist, has been quarantining at home since Thursday and received her results Monday, she said. She briefly went to the emergency room on Saturday to receive fluids, but otherwise has been at home.

Her staff members will be tested for the virus Tuesday, she said. Her dental office staff have all tested negative, as have her three sons.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said the administration is working to ensure any council member or staff member who wants to get tested can do so Tuesday at City Hall, though they are still are working through the details. Mayor Sylvester Turner is scheduled to unveil his proposed budget Tuesday.

“We have to be careful. This is a great wake-up call for a lot of people,” Martin said. “We think this is over? No. For us, it’s just beginning.”

[…]

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

First things first, I wish CM Plummer all the best for a speedy recovery, and I am glad that no one in her family or office appear to have been infected. I hope that’s true for all of her colleagues and other contacts as well. This is a shock, but it’s not really a surprise. Sooner or later, this was going to happen to someone in local elected office – as we have already discussed, it has happened elsewhere, in some cases with fatal results. We all hope and pray for a better outcome here.

But look, it’s not great that Council has continued to meet in person like this, even with masks. Go back and read this link I posted in th weekend roundup. Even sufficiently distanced, and even with masks, having people in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a high-risk scenario for coronavirus. City Council, and every other elected body, needs to give very serious thought to transitioning their meetings online, like now. If the Lege isn’t working on a contingency plan for this as well, even with their next meeting not scheduled until January, they’re needlessly risking the lives of their members, their staff, their security and other support personnel, and everyone else who crowds into the Capitol every two years. If SCOTUS can handle its business over the phone, these folks can do so as well. The alternative is an outbreak that prevents a quorum or upends the elected balance of power, and that’s without considering how many of these people are in high-risk categories. Let’s not be stupid about this. Hold the meetings online, and don’t delay. I don’t want to hear any excuses.

Cities and counties are going to need their own bailout

This story is about the rough financial future that the city of Houston faces as we go through the coronavirus shutdown, but it’s not just Houston that is in this position.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration continues efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, another dire challenge looms for City Hall: its budget.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices has thrown an already cash-strapped spending plan into more arduous territory, raising the specter of the first furloughs or layoffs of city employees since 2011.

Controller Chris Brown, who recently finished a recession stress test for the city’s coffers, has said he thinks the situation is likely to rival the recession that began in 2008, approaching the test’s worst-case scenario: a budget deficit in excess of $300 million.

He told council members Tuesday they should begin dusting off the recession playbook.

“Unfortunately, they had to do some furloughs and cut some expenses and things like that, because you can’t control the revenue right now,” said Brown, the city’s independently-elected financial watchdog. “These are tough decisions that are going to have to be made, I think.”

Turner said budgeting is always difficult under a revenue cap, but the city in the past has forged its way through challenging deficits and will do so again.

The mayor would not say whether he thinks layoffs will be necessary, but he sees other actions that can help cut the deficit. Turner plans to use some of the city’s current fund balance, which is projected between $187 and $203 million. The rainy day fund, he pointed out, will also have $15 million when it comes time to adopt the budget.

Some job vacancies have already gone unfilled, he said.

“We always assume there is going to be a budget shortfall with the revenue cap,” Turner said, referring to Houston’s voter-imposed ceiling on increased property tax revenue. “There’s always some elephant in the room. The elephant here now is the coronavirus and the impact on your sales taxes.”

The city’s two largest streams of money are property and sales taxes. All eyes are on the latter, which are expected to take an unprecedented hit as most businesses have been ordered to close and the region’s residents have been told to stay home in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.

It’s not just sales tax revenue, which will hammer the state budget as well. No one’s flying into or out of the airports, no one is staying in hotels or renting cars or booking conventions. All of those things affect the enterprise fund, which is a part of the city’s budget that is largely not subject to the revenue cap. And as noted, it’s not just Houston. Every city, in Texas and elsewhere, will be facing this. Part of the solution here, very simply, needs to be a federal relief package for local and state governments, all of which would otherwise have to lay people off and drastically cut back on services, all of which would just further exacerbate the recessionary effects we are now feeling. Just as we expect business activity to more or less return to normal once everyone can leave their homes again, we should expect local tax revenues to more or less return to normal. All of that assumes that the business are still there to return to, which is why we needed the first stimulus bill, to prevent them all from suffocating in the meantime. We all want to return to normal, but we have to do everything we can to preserve what was normal until we can get back to it. That’s what the federal government can do, and what it needs to do.

But we should also recognize that forcing cities and counties and states to observe “balanced budget” requirements at a time like this is not only ridiculous, it’s self-mutilating. Mandating an artificial deadline for when one number must be shown to equal or exceed another is beyond stupid and pointless, and that’s even more so if we not-unreasonably assume that the feds will eventually come in with a check to make up for the sales taxes that did not happen. The single best thing Greg Abbott could do with his emergency powers once we’re at or near a point where we can begin to think about easing up on the stay-at-home rules is to declare that all “balanced budget” requirements are suspended for the next two budget cycles, along with the revenue cap that was passed in the last Lege. That won’t be carte blanche for cities and counties to start spending like crazy – they’ll still have to get their budgets to “balance” later on – it will just be a recognition that this was something entirely beyond their control, and they deserve a chance to recover from it. It won’t happen, of course – I’m sure Greg Abbott and the entire army of financial ghouls he has behind him are salivating at the prospect of forcing their local nemeses to slash their budgets – but it should. I will never stop beating this drum.

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

District B ruling appealed

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Chron overview of the HD142 primary

Also known as the How Mad Are People At Harold Dutton? primary.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Longtime state Rep. Harold Dutton is facing the most serious re-election test of his 35-year political career in an acrimonious primary against two Democratic opponents.

The race, which has generated few headlines but produced ample tension between the candidates, pits Dutton against Houston District B Councilman Jerry Davis and transportation logistics executive Richard Bonton. A fourth candidate, Natasha Ruiz, does not appear to have a campaign website and has yet to file any campaign finance reports.

Imperiling Dutton’s re-election is a well-funded challenge from Davis, who since 2012 has represented much of the same northeast Houston territory as Dutton, including Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and Trinity/Houston Gardens.

The candidacy of Bonton, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2018, also raises the prospect that Dutton could be forced into a runoff for the first time since his initial run for the seat in 1984, said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

“I think it’s a very competitive race,” Adams said. “Harold is a long-standing incumbent, but that cuts both ways, because Jerry has a lot of recognition from his city council races.”

Nothing has drawn more attention in the race than Dutton’s role in crafting a 2015 law that requires the Texas Education Agency to penalize a district if any of its schools fails state standards for five consecutive years by closing the school or replacing the school board.

[…]

Dutton shrugs off the criticism over HISD, noting that the law received widespread bipartisan support when it sailed through the Legislature five years ago.

“I stand by it totally,” Dutton said. “I just couldn’t in good faith sit there and do nothing while these students linger in the education toilet. HISD, like most school districts, could have taken the opportunity to fix the schools. That’s what could have happened and should have happened, but didn’t happen.”

I just don’t know what to make of this one. It’s certainly the strongest challenge Rep. Dutton has faced in a long time – he made it through the Craddick years without being targeted – I just don’t know how much people will hold the TEA takeover stuff against him. He’s right, the bill had broad support when it passed, and there’s certainly a case that if a school continues to struggle year after year, it’s being failed by its district as much as anything else. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much money, he probably doesn’t have much of a field operation (since he’s never needed to have one, and he’s far from the first name you think of when you think of team players in the countywide campaign), and he doesn’t have much in the way of establishment organizational support. Labor has mostly sided with Davis (with the exception of the Texas State Teachers Association, which may see him as a friendly incumbent), as has the GLBT Caucus, while HBAD has endorsed Bonton, and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats co-endorsed Bonton with Dutton. Maybe the high expected turnout will help him, as he’s likely the best known name on the ballot even after Davis has won three elections, and maybe less-frequent voters will feel less affinity for him. I really have no idea. If you live in the district and have seen the campaign activity there, please leave a comment.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

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


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

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

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

HouStrongPAC       0     10,000        0      51,717

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jerry Davis situation

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

CM Jerry Davis

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

To date, no one has challenged Davis’ eligibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey stays on District B runoff ballot

Hopefully, this is the end of the line.

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

District B lawsuit has its hearing

Feels like we’ve been waiting forever for this.

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DMN profile of Amanda Edwards

Second in the series, focusing on now-former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards.

Amanda Edwards

On the day of her last Houston City Council meeting, outgoing at-large member Amanda Edwards wasn’t in the mood for goodbyes.

“In my mind it’s not really closing a door,” Edwards said as she drove a reporter past homes damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. “It’s kind of remodeling and expanding. I’m completely ready to turn my next position on its head in terms of what people have grown accustomed to thinking it is.”

After just one term on the council, Edwards is running for Senate against incumbent Republican John Cornyn, a bodacious move that reflects her considerable confidence and the changing perceptions of what it takes to win a high-profile post.

[…]

Edwards, 37, was born in Houston to Isabella and Eugene Edwards.

Her parents were health care providers; Eugene was a pharmacist and Isabella is a retired physical therapist.

Eugene Edwards was diagnosed with cancer when Amanda was 10 years old, and he died when she was 17.

The questions Edwards had about his treatment helped shaped her views on health care.

From her father “skunking” her in table tennis and both parents stressing education, Edwards developed a competitive spirit.

She boasts about her skills in basketball, ping-pong and volleyball.

“Just ask the mayor,” she said, alluding to a basketball game between the council and staff and the mayor’s staff, in which she starred.

Edwards has degrees from Emory University and Harvard Law School. At Emory in Atlanta, she worked in six neighborhood community development corporations.

After college, she served as board president of Project Row Houses in Houston, where she helped redevelop homes as living art pieces.

She said she ran for council in 2015 to promote servant leadership. She won easily.

“I knew that a lot of things I felt strongly about were issues of leadership, like how to appropriately invest in under-resourced areas alongside the will of the community,” she said.

Edwards touts her work in bringing venture capital to Houston, as well as her push to develop neighborhoods without harmful gentrification.

She’s campaigned heavily on her work to help neighborhoods mend after Hurricane Harvey. Edwards and her community partners canvassed affected homes to determine what victims needed and how to improve the allocation of aid.

Here’s the interview I did with Amanda Edwards in 2015, when she first ran for Council. I included the bits from this story about her time on Council because I would not have known it off the top of my head. That’s partly because this was behind-the-scenes stuff, and partly because in our system here in Houston, Council members usually only make news if they’ve done something dumb or they’ve gotten into a fight with the Mayor. It’s good to be reminded that they do a lot of things we don’t easily see.

As for her candidacy, I guess I’ve been a skeptic. I doubted the reports that she was thinking about running, and I have my doubts she can break out in this field. I’ve long believed that she had a path to being Mayor in 2023, which may be affecting my perception. Edwards says in this story that people have underestimated her for her whole life, and I may be doing exactly that. I look forward to seeing her Q4 finance report, that’s for sure. Having said all this, I do think she’ll be a compelling candidate in November if she makes it through the primary, and whatever happens in March I fully expect we’ll be hearing plenty from Amanda Edwards.

(Previously: Chris Bell.)

Mayor Turner’s second term begins

He’s on the clock now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Freshly sworn in Thursday morning, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner promised to make significant strides in street repairs and flood control while boosting services for the city’s homeless in his second term.

He also called on private businesses and nonprofits to be more generous in their giving, saying they are crucial to helping the cash-strapped city fund his signature initiatives, including the Complete Communities neighborhood program.

“We ask financial institutions, businesses, developers, nonprofits and endowments to leverage their resources with the city and with one another to share the risks and expedite the transformation,” Turner said his inaugural speech at the Wortham Center. “Though many have stepped forward to assist, we are still missing that level of support, the investments that will serve as game-changers for those under-served communities in our city.”

Turner easily prevailed in the Dec. 14 runoff election over second-place finisher Tony Buzbee. In a post-election interview with the Chronicle, Turner promised to make transformational changes in his final term, including restructuring the fire department, accelerating the city’s permitting process and repairing streets as top priorities.

See here for some background. Turner is the first Mayor to have a four-year lame-duck term, but being in one’s last term has not been a hindrance to getting big things done in the past. Mayor Parker shepherded HERO through in 2015 (yes, that subsequently went south, but it was still passed by Council) and Mayor Brown oversaw the completion of the Main Street light rail line and the passage of the 2003 referendum that led to more light rail being built in his last year. I don’t think anyone will perceive of Mayor Turner as being in his last term until the candidates for the next Mayoral race begin to make themselves known. So barring big external events that force themselves onto the priority list (you know, like another big flood) I’d expect him to have the opportunity to get more big things done. He should have a fairly amenable Council, and at least some of the items on his list will have broad support. We’ll see how he does.

District B runoff lawsuit hearing set

Let’s hope for a quick verdict.

Cynthia Bailey

The stalled runoff in Houston city council District B likely will have to wait until May, if not longer, leaving north Houston neighborhoods without a new representative for months after the council convenes in January.

The election has been mired in a lawsuit that county officials said forced them to pull the race from the Dec. 14 ballot, when the dozen other city runoffs were decided. It then also missed the deadline to make the Jan. 28 ballot, when the county was holding a special election for a vacant seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

While the lawsuit inched a bit closer to a resolution Friday, with set of a trial date on Jan. 24, county officials said the runoff could not be held on March 3, when a slew of primary contests will be decided. Texas law states that “no other election may be held on the date of a primary election.”

County officials said the next scheduled election would be May 2, when smaller cities and school districts typically hold municipal and board elections, though a judge could have discretion on whether to schedule a special election. Harris County Special Assistant Attorney Douglas Ray said the County Clerk’s office would need about seven weeks notice to conduct a special election.

[…]

Presiding Judge Susan Brown set the Jan. 24 trial date Friday and tapped former Harris County Judge Grant Dorfman to be the special judge on the case.

The appointment is required by state law, which calls for a special judge whose judicial district does not include any territory covered by the election and who does not live in the territory.

See here and here for the background. At this point, there are three possible outcomes:

1. A final ruling from a court. That doesn’t mean it has to go all the way to the Supreme Court, just that the higher courts refuse to hear an appeal. The ideal situation here is for this to happen in time for the May election. I don’t even want to think about how much longer this could get dragged out if there isn’t a final resolution by mid-March, which would be the legal deadline for this election to happen in May.

2. Renee Jefferson Smith quits pursuing the case. Maybe that happens after the district court rules, or maybe she just decides at some point it’s no longer worth it to her. The first possibility could happen, the second seems extremely unlikely.

3. Cynthia Bailey could choose to withdraw from the runoff and concede the election to Tarsha Jackson. In theory, if she did that today, Tarsha Jackson would be sworn in with the other Council members in January. I say “in theory” because Jefferson Smith could continue to litigate, with the claim that Bailey shouldn’t have been on the ballot at all, so either the whole election should be done over or there should be a Jackson-Jefferson Smith runoff for the seat. I don’t think that argument would get very far in a court, but she might be allowed to make it, in which case we’d still be on hold till that was resolved. I also think it’s highly unlikely that Bailey would throw in the towel – she’s come this far, she’s making a principled stand on a righteous position, she’s not the one holding everything up – but it’s a thing that could happen.

Add it up, and the the best case scenario is likely the May 2 election. Hope for the best, that’s all I can say.

Meanwhile, in other Council race news:

With that, the District H race is settled. Congratulations to Karla Cisneros for her victory, and my sincere thanks to Isabel Longoria for running a strong and engaging race.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

The female face of City Council

Houston City Council is majority female for the first time in over a decade.

Starting next year, a record nine women will serve on Houston City Council amid a shift toward a younger and more progressive council for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s second term.

The new council will include no more than two Hispanic and no Asian members, however, with Anglo council members holding at least eight seats and the other six represented by African-American members.

It remains unclear whether District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, the lone Latino on City Council, will be joined by Isabel Longoria, who finished 12 votes behind incumbent Councilmember Karla Cisneros in the District H runoff, according to unofficial returns.

[…]

The nine total women on council edges the previous record of eight who were elected in 2005.

The council’s African-American representation also will expand from four to six.

Fun fact: That Council class of 2005 included Addie Wiseman and Shelley Sekula Gibbs. I don’t really have a point to make here, I’m just noting that because I remember things like that.

In other Council news:

Regardless of who wins the District H runoff, Latino council members will hold no more than two seats out of 16, in a city where Latinos make up 44.5 percent of the population, according to 2018 census data.

Part of that disparity comes from Latinos making up a smaller share of the electorate: Houston’s registered voters are 23 percent Latino, according to data from Hector De Leon, a former communications director for the Harris County Clerk’s Office who studies Houston-area voting patterns.

“African Americans and Anglos are roughly 45 percent of the population combined, but they constitute 85 percent of the total vote. And elections are determined by people who turn out and vote,” [Jay] Aiyer said.

Registration among young, Latino voters has increased “dramatically” in recent years, in part because of President Donald Trump and mobilization efforts by political groups, said Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at University of Houston.

Houston’s Latino voting blocs also have fewer options, he said, because of the city’s use of at-large positions, which are elected on citywide basis.

“The problem is that the minority votes are compacted in one part of the city so it makes it very hard for them to win an election,” Cortina said. “They get drowned, for lack of a better word, by the votes of the majority.”

To strengthen Latino representation on council and in other offices, [CM Robert] Gallegos said he intends to pitch the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on the idea of starting a mentoring program to educate young Hispanics about pursuing careers in politics.

In the meantime, Gallegos said, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I represent the Hispanic community in the city of Houston, even though I’m a district council member.”

I take issue with what Professor Cortina says – I’m pretty sure a review of the Census tracts in Houston would prove his statement to be inaccurate. If nothing else, Sandra Rodriguez came close to winning District J, which is on the opposite end of the city from H and I. The situation isn’t great right now, but it’s not hopeless.

Be that as it may, let me put this out there for you: The three top Latinx vote-getters in At Large races were Yolanda Navarro Flores (At Large #1, 18.30% in Harris County), Emily Munoz deToto (At Large #2, 21.09%), and Jose Gonzalez (At Large #3, 19.24%). The three of them combined raised literally no money. There were five Latinx candidates in the two open seat At Large races (Cristel Bastida and Javier Gonzalez in #4, Ralph Garcia, Catherine Garcia Flowers, and Sonia Rivera in #5). None of them raised more than a trivial amount of money, though the three in At Large #5 combined for over 27% of the vote, enough to have led the field if they were one candidate.

My point here is that stronger Latinx candidates in the citywide races would also help. I don’t have much to say about Orlando Sanchez, but he came within six points of being elected Controller, and if there had been a third candidate in that race there likely would have been a runoff between him and incumbent Chris Brown, and who knows what might have happened in that race. The Latinx At Large candidates in 2019 didn’t amount to much, but at least they were running. In 2015, there was a grand total of two Latinx candidates in At Large races: Moe Rivera in #2, and Roy Morales in #4, who squeaked into the runoff where he got crushed by Amanda Edwards. I feel like I’ve been saying this since Joe Trevino lost in the At Large #5 runoff to Jolanda Jones in 2007, an election in which there were 25K total votes cast, but maybe focus a little on recruiting strong Latinx candidates to run in the At Large races, and then support them financially? Just a thought.

This is also a possibility.

This near-absence of Latinos undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government and leads to an inadequate representation of Latino preferences in city policymaking. Houston’s political, economic and societal leaders must take action immediately to insure that in the 2023 election we do not witness a repeat of the 2019 election.

There are two principal types of representation, descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation reflects the extent to which the composition of a legislature mirrors the population it represents. With Latinos accounting for 6 percent of the council and for 45percent of the population, it’s clear Houston earns a failing grade in descriptive representation. This grade will sink even lower with the dearth of Asian Americans on the council; 7 percent of Houston residents are Asian American.

Substantive representation reflects the extent to which members of a legislature promote the preferences of their constituents. While not an ironclad rule, the American Politics literature suggests that, all other things being roughly equal, an individual’s policy preferences are better represented by a legislator from their own ethnic or racial group. With one Latino council member, the substantive policy interests of Latino residents are being sub-optimally represented in crucial policy areas ranging from public safety and social services to road construction and job creation.

Four initiatives can help boost the number of Latinos in the council horseshoe in four years time.

First, eliminate the city’s five at-large council seats and replace them with five single-member district seats in addition to the existing 11 single-member district seats. The last time a Latino was elected to one of the five at-large positions was in 1999, with nine consecutive elections (45 separate contests) in a row where no Latino has been victorious. This year, all five at-large races were decided in a runoff, yet among the 10 runoff candidates there were zero Latinos.

Once the 2020 US Census data are available, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council could easily abolish the five at-large districts and create 16 new, less populous, single-member districts for the 2023 election. Since the shift from at-large to single-member districts enhances minority voting rights, it should be bullet-proof from legal challenge. If the number of single-member districts were increased to 16, it would be possible to draw five or six districts where Latino registered voters constitute an absolute or near absolute majority as well as one district where Asian Americans account for the largest share of voters.

That’s an op-ed from oft-quoted poli sci prof Mark Jones. I personally see no reason why Latinx candidates can’t get elected to at large positions. It’s not like there have been a bunch of frustrating near misses from well-regarded and sufficiently-funded candidates. We did elect Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz to citywide positions in the past. Jones’ other points include things like more voter registration, a focused effort on Latino turnout in city elections, and more recruitment and support of Latinx candidates. I’m on board with all of that, and I would argue that those things can and will lead to Latinx candidates getting elected citywide. If I’m wrong about that, I’ll gladly concede the point about getting rid of At Large districts. In the meantime, I do think there’s some value in having At Large Council members, as a backup for the districts when there’s an unexpected vacancy, as there was in District H in 2009 following Adrian Garcia’s election as Sheriff, and in District K in 2018 following the death of Larry Green. I’m not opposed to Jones’ proposal, but I don’t think it’s necessary to solve the problem.

District H status

The closest election we had on Saturday remains unsettled.

CM Karla Cisneros

Just a dozen votes separate Houston City Council District H contenders Karla Cisneros and Isabel Longoria, and it may come down to an undetermined number of provisional, overseas and military ballots to determine a winner in the race.

According to the Harris County Clerk’s office, incumbent Cisneros had edged out Longoria by just .12 percent of the vote in Saturday’s runoff election. Cisneros won 5,283 votes or 50.06 percent, and Longoria received 5,271 votes, or 49.94 percent of ballots counted.

Longoria could request a recount under Texas election law. When the difference in the number of votes received between the two candidates (12 in the District H race) is less than 10 percent of the number of total votes received by the race winner (528 votes, in Cisneros’ case), the losing candidate could petition for a recount, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Longoria has not yet committed to requesting a recount, nor has she conceded in the race. The deadline to file a recount request is 5 p.m. Dec. 22, two days after Harris County will canvass or officially tally the votes.

“I will wait for every vote to be counted before making any decisions about a recount or other process,” Longoria said in a press release Sunday morning.

[…]

Trautman’s office can receive overseas and military ballots up to six days after an election, said Teneshia Hudspeth, a Harris County Clerk’s Office spokesperson. They do not know how many provisional ballots were cast.

It has no way of identifying if any of those ballots cast a vote for District H until the election canvass, Hudspeth said.

You can see the election night returns here, and Longoria’s press release here. I expect two things to happen: One, for Longoria to ask for a recount. She has every right to do this, and there’s no good reason not to do it. This was a super close race, and everything should be double-checked according to the rules. And two, I expect the recount will make no difference. They almost never do. There just aren’t that many overseas and military ballots, and there were never that many provisional ballots that ultimately counted. By all means, go through the process, but keep your expectations about what will happen as a result modest.

Council results

With one race still up in the air as I draft this:

With early voting tallies and most of Saturday’s Election Day results posted, Houston’s three incumbent at-large council members facing runoffs had won, while District H incumbent Karla Cisneros held the slimmest of leads over challenger Isabel Longoria. Four other incumbents already have reclaimed their seats, having won outright on Nov. 5: Dave Martin (District E), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I) and Martha Castex-Tatum (District K).

At least half of the 16-member council will be new — five current members are term-limited and three vacated their seats: Dwight Boykins (District D) made a failed bid for mayor, Amanda Edwards (At-Large 4) is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and Steve Le (District F) decided not to seek re-election.

One council race will not be decided Saturday: The third-place finisher in District B has filed lawsuits contesting the election and challenging the second-place finisher’s eligibility, citing her 2007 felony theft conviction and a state law that appears to bar candidates with such convictions from running for office. No election date has been set.

The simplest way to summarize what happened is this tweet:

With 367 of 385 voting centers reporting, Karla Cisneros had a 25-vote lead over Isabel Longoria. It had been a 14-vote lead with 323 centers reporting. Longoria had chipped away at Cisneros’ lead all evening. I have to think this one is going to get recounted, so whatever the final numbers are, expect this to remain an unsettled question for a little longer.

The At Large results could have been better, but they were sufficiently close in #4 and #5 that they also could have been a lot worse. When Mayor Turner puts forward a new version of HERO, he should have ten of sixteen Council votes in his favor. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, congratulations to all the winners.

Runoff Day is today

Hang in there, it’s almost over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nearly year-long mayoral election that culminated in a subdued runoff between Tony Buzbee and incumbent Sylvester Turner comes to an end Saturday when voters decide who wins control over City Hall for the next four years.

Buzbee, a millionaire businessman and trial lawyer, has sought out voters of all political stripes by citing his ties to both parties. For months, he has painted Turner as a corrupt career politician who had run the city into the ground, regularly reminding voters he self-funded his own campaign to avoid the appearance that he is beholden to campaign donors.

Turner, a longtime Democratic state legislator who is finishing his first four-year term, has painted a rosy picture of conditions in Houston, arguing that he has overseen an uptick in the police force and laid the groundwork to diversify the city’s economy through tech and start-up businesses. He also has pitched himself as an astute steward of the city’s finances, pointing to his signature feat: a major overhaul of the city’s costly pension systems.

During the runoff, the two candidates have focused on presenting their plans for the next four years, a marked difference from the general election, when they spent millions of dollars attacking each other. Since Nov. 5, when Turner finished about 19 percentage points ahead of Buzbee, the two have not faced off in a debate, with Turner almost ignoring his foe entirely.

“I think the realization was that Mayor Turner got 47 percent of the vote, and so, if he just didn’t make an embarrassing gaffe or make a wrong move, the election was his to win,” said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

See here for the background. I’ve gotten multiple robocalls urging me to vote for Turner (and a few to vote for other candidates, like Raj Salhotra), culminating with one I got on Friday from rightwing radio host Sam Malone on behalf of Tony Buzbee. I finally saw a Buzbee ad on TV a couple days ago – it almost made me nostalgic, it had been so long since I had last seen one. In the meantime, Buzbee has been busy flip flopping on HERO again – what are the odds he could tell you right now what his most recent position on it is? All I know is that as of about 7 PM this evening, I can officially no longer give a shit about anything Tony Buzbee says or does.

Polling locations are here. As a reminder, you can vote at any location. My guess is that more than half of the final vote tally has already happened. I’ll have a report in the morning.

District B runoff lawsuit moved to another court

Still up in the air.

Cynthia Bailey

A Harris County judge on Monday referred the lawsuit stalling a runoff in Houston city council District B to another court, casting more uncertainty about when the contentious case will be resolved and when voters will choose a new council member.

[…]

Monday’s hearing in the case did not address the central claims of the lawsuit. [Plaintiff Renee] Jefferson-Smith has contested the Nov. 5 results and argues that [candidate Cynthia] Bailey’s felony conviction makes her ineligible for office.

Instead, the hearing focused on legal procedure. Attorneys for Bailey and Jackson argued Jefferson-Smith’s lawsuit did not constitute a proper election contest because she did not dispute the results. They asked the court to dismiss the case.

Judge Cory Don Sepolio declined, referring the case instead to the regional authority tasked with assigning a special judge. He cited a state law that says judges in the county where an election took place can’t hear a contest in that election.

Nicole Bates, attorney for Jefferson-Smith, said she expects the judicial assignment to be made in the next couple days. She hailed the move as a win.

“We are happy with this decision and look forward to pursuing the election contest, and hopefully we can give the voters a true choice on a candidate that can actually be seated,” she said.

[Candidate Tarsha] Jackson called the decision “disappointing.”

“The people of District B should be voting right now with the rest of Houston,” Jackson said. “We need to get on the ballot as soon as possible — in January — and I’m going to keep fighting to make sure people can exercise their right to vote.”

The lawsuit is the second case Jefferson-Smith has filed. In the first, a judge declined her request for an order declaring Bailey ineligible. Jefferson-Smith is currently asking the Texas Supreme Court to review that decision.

See here, here, and here for the background. I just want this to be over in a timely fashion, so that the people can finally get to vote. This is such a mess.

8 Day runoff 2019 campaign finance reports

We start with a Chron story.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raked in more than $1.7 million from late October through early December and spent roughly the same amount, leaving him with almost $600,000 for the final days of the runoff, according to a campaign finance report filed Friday.

The total marked a fundraising surge for Turner, who was aided by newly reset donor contribution limits for the runoff, though he still was outspent by Tony Buzbee, a millionaire trial lawyer and the mayor’s opponent in the Dec. 14 contest.

Buzbee, who is self-financing his campaign and refusing all campaign contributions, put $2.3 million of his own money into the campaign last month and spent almost $3.1 million between Oct. 27 and Wednesday, leaving him with about $524,000.

With a week to go in the election, Buzbee and Turner have now combined to spend about $19 million in what has become easily the most expensive Houston mayoral race yet. Buzbee has spent $11.8 million of the $12.3 million he has put into his campaign account, while Turner has spent $7.2 million since the middle of 2018.

As an earlier story notes, self-funding has only occasionally been a winning strategy in Houston. I don’t expect it to be any different this time, but I do note that Buzbee’s basic strategy has changed. I still haven’t seen a Buzbee TV ad since November, but we’ve gotten a couple of mailers (someone needs to clean up his database if he’s mailing to me), I’ve seen a bunch of web ads, and he’s been littering the streets with signs. Gotta spend that money on something.

Here’s a summary of the 8 day reports for the runoff:


Race   Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
===========================================================
Mayor  Turner     1,741,906  1,722,625        0     597,624
Mayor  Buzbee     2,300,000  3,076,360        0     524,420

A      Peck          38,075     39,252    5,000      15,373
A      Zoes           6,600      7,562    4,000       3,723

B      Jackson
B      Bailey           355        284      200          70

C      Kamin        180,528    137,396        0     173,370
C      Kennedy       35,160     18,343        0      25,995

D      Shabazz       31,490     28,575        0       5,009
D      Jordan        28,190     11,688        0      53,724

F      Thomas        
F      Huynh         

H      Cisneros      54,700     75,012        0      41,632
H      Longoria      36,945     32,906        0      20,946

J      Rodriguez
J      Pollard       38,016     47,147   40,000      22,864

AL1    Knox          69,710     49,857        0      16,073
AL1    Salhotra     128,672    121,736        0      64,150

AL2    Robinson     111,280    199,791        0     189,649
AL2    Davis         27,725     10,367        0      19,816

AL3    Kubosh        72,215     69,164  276,000     113,500
AL3    Carmouche     17,570     11,757        0       5,812

AL4    Plummer       41,915     44,501   21,900      12,443
AL4    Dolcefino     19,215     17,482        0       6,478

AL5    Alcorn       195,105    154,757        0      49,463
AL5    Dick           1,100     65,205   75,000       2,545

I think there must be some reports that have not been uploaded – the Chron story mentions Sandra Rodriguez’s numbers, but there was no report visible on Saturday. It and the others may be there on Monday. In the Council races, what we see here is a continuation of what we had seen before. Big fundraisers raised big money, others didn’t. Eric Dick did his spend-his-own-money-and-file-weird-reports thing. Most of the spending has not been particularly visible to me – I’ve gotten a mailer from Robinson and Turner, and that’s about it.

How much any of this moves the needle remains to be seen. As we know from the Keir Murray reports, the runoff electorate is very similar in nature to the November electorate. That’s obviously better for some candidates than for others. If you think of fundraising in runoffs as being like the betting markets to some extent, then we’re probably headed towards the expected results. We’ll see if there are any surprises in store.

Willie D will not be on the Democratic primary ballot

He wanted to run for Commissioners Court but his application was rejected because of his previous felony conviction.

Willie Dennis

Former Geto Boys rapper William “Willie D” Dennis wants to run for Harris County Commissioners Court, but local Democratic party officials rejected his application to get on the ballot, citing his criminal history and a state law that has become a lightning rod in north Houston politics over the last month.

Dennis filed an application Thursday with the Harris County Democratic Party, seeking to challenge incumbent Rodney Ellis for the court’s Precinct 1 seat. He said he wants to bring his unique perspective to government.

On Saturday, the party notified him that he was ineligible because of his 2010 felony conviction for wire fraud charges, stemming from an iPhone sales scam.

The party cited a state law that forbids candidates from running for public office if they have been convicted of felony from which they have not been pardoned or otherwise released from its “resulting disabilities.”

The statute doesn’t define that phrase and has invited varying interpretations that have not been definitively resolved by courts. It is currently the subject of a contentious lawsuit surrounding the stalled runoff in the Houston city council’s District B election.

“I would add that this is not my decision,” said party chair Lillie Schechter. “We follow the Texas Election Code.”

Officials told Dennis that they would reconsider the ruling if he could provide examples in which candidates with felony convictions were allowed to assume office, Schechter said.

Dennis said he was looking at options to appeal the decision. It marks the second time this year his political plans have been foiled by his conviction. His campaign for the District B seat was similarly derailed by eligibility concerns.

“I want my rights back — all of them,” Dennis told the Chronicle Saturday. “I did my time, now give me my rights.”

See here and here for the story of his attempt to run for District B. As far as the ongoing District B runoff situation goes, the latest news is that the hearing we were supposed to get on Friday was rescheduled for today. If there’s an immediate ruling that may provide clarity for both of those situations.

As to why the HCDP would not accept this ballot application when the city accepted Cynthia Bailey’s (and several others’), I’d say it’s simply a difference of interpretation. William Dennis himself said that he decided not to file in District B because he didn’t want to risk perjuring himself by swearing on the affidavit that he hadn’t been finally convicted of a felony. The initial ruling in the lawsuit filed by Renee Jefferson Smith that allowed Cynthia Bailey to stay on the runoff ballot gave him the confidence to try again, but the underlying law remains unclear. I don’t blame him for being upset and confused by this. This needs to be fixed by the Legislature, ideally in a way that allows people who have completed their sentences to fully participate in our – and, ideally, their – democracy again. Until then, we have a mess.

It could be March before District B gets to vote in their runoff

And honestly, by the same calculations, it could go later than that.

Cynthia Bailey

The Houston City Council District B runoff could be delayed until March if a lawsuit contesting last month’s election result is not resolved by Monday, the Harris County Attorney’s office said.

The third-place finisher in the race filed the contest, arguing that second-place finisher Cynthia Bailey’s felony conviction bars her from holding public office.

Meanwhile, incumbent District B Councilman Jerry Davis said he intends to hold the seat until a successor is elected, while Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the runoff should not have been delayed.

“There’s a lot of people out there that are angry,” Ellis said at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. “And to be honest with you, I’m angry as well.”

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said Dec. 9 is the deadline to place District B on the Jan. 28 ballot, which also will feature the runoff for the vacant District 148 seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The county will begin sending mail ballots for that election next week, Ray said.

“We don’t want to have to run another election in addition to the ones that we’re already doing,” Ray said.

A hearing on the election contest has been scheduled for Friday.

See here for the previous update. According to the Secretary of State, the deadline to send out the mail ballots for the March primary election is January 18th. That means that if we don’t have a resolution by the 9th, we have a bit less than six weeks to get resolution in time to have the election in March. Otherwise, the next opportunity is May. Isn’t this fun?

The District B race was a topic of discussion at Commissioners Court, where Ellis questioned whether the county should have yanked the runoff from the ballot. He suggested the county attorney could have sought to quickly dismiss Jefferson-Smith’s suit so the runoff could proceed as scheduled.

Ellis said the county’s decision sets a dangerous precedent where any disgruntled party could cause delays to an election.

“We’re going to be the laughingstock of the country if there’s some last-minute challenge, and then somehow we’re going to affect the presidential primary on Super Tuesday,” Ellis said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested the county attorney’s office develop a strategy to more quickly resolve election challenges in the future.

To be fair, the fact that the state law in question is ambiguous and has not been resolved by a court is part of the problem. Short of declaring Bailey ineligible when she filed, I’m not sure what the County Attorney can do or could have done. That said, I Am Not An Attorney, and they are (it’s right there in the name), so maybe they can think of something. Whatever they do think of, getting that law fixed needs to be a priority as well.

City and county leaders have said they support keeping Davis on council until his replacement is named.

“Although his term will expire on January 2, 2020, the City expects Council Member Jerry Davis to serve on a holdover basis (if necessary) until his successor is elected and qualified for office,” said Alan Bernstein, communications director for Mayor Sylvester Turner.

While some question whether that may run afoul of the city’s term limits, Davis and county officials said the Texas Constitution allows him to stay.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” Article XVI of the Constitution says.

I’m fine with this as well, but we all know this is another lawsuit waiting to happen, right? Lord help us if Davis is on the winning side of a 9-8 vote in Council in 2020. It sure would be nice if we get a verdict by Monday.

Day Four 2019 Runoff EV report: Steady as she goes

I’ll probably do these more or less every other day. The Day Four EV Runoff file is here, and the final file from November is here.


Date     Mail   Early   Total
=============================
Nov19   6,362  35,467  41,829
Dec19   6,387  37,606  43,993

As an extra added bonus, here’s Keir Murrary’s analysis of the voter roster through Day 3. Here, as we can see, mail ballots are now at parity and in person voting is slightly higher for Round Two, though Wednesday was the slowest day so far. Runoff voters are the hardest of the hardcore, so all of this is sensible to me. Have you voted yet?

Chron overview of the At Large #3 runoff

The basic story should be familiar by now.

Janaeya Carmouche

In the race for the third of Houston’s five citywide council seats, voters have a choice between candidates opposite in age, temperament, and, often, policy positions.

At-Large 3 incumbent Michael Kubosh is a bombastic 68-year-old bail bondsman. Seeking to deny him a third term is Janaeya Carmouche, 37, an even-keeled former nonprofit and government employee who most recently worked for Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

Kubosh relishes being a contrarian voice on the council, deploying thundering speeches, parliamentary delays or “no” votes when he sees fit.

“It’s not in my DNA to go along to get along,” Kubosh said. “You need me on council so I’ll speak up when I see wrong. If everybody just votes with the mayor, then why in the hell do we have a council?”

Carmouche is a self-proclaimed introvert with a “wonkish” bent who says community service works best out of the spotlight. She chose to challenge Kubosh rather than seek an open seat partly because she said he grandstands but produces little for Houstonians.

“He’s great at marketing, and I think we’ve given him a lot of credit for being politically savvy,” Carmouche said. “He is the Wizard of Oz: Pull back that curtain and it’s just a guy pulling knobs. We need to have sensible, thoughtful and critical-thinking folks around the table. This is a job of service.”

My interview with Janaeya Carmouche is here, and my analysis of the vote in AL3 is here. There’s not a whole lot to add here. Kubosh is what he is, Carmouche should get a boost from the Mayoral runoff, but she has a lot of ground to make up and Kubosh does better in the African-American districts than your typical Anglo Republican. We’ll see what happens.