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Lina Hidalgo

The state will be handling the Harvey relief funds

Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.

Texas is likely another nine months from getting $4.3 billion in federal post-Hurricane Harvey recovery money aimed at better protecting the state from future flooding and disasters. But when it finally arrives, Gov. Greg Abbott made clear Friday the state will be handling the money directly and not turning it over to cities and counties to manage.

While some local officials expressed frustration over the decision, Abbott said he’s turning to Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to lead the program aimed at large-scale, regional projects. Bush has already been tasked with dealing with housing recovery issues since Harvey hit Texas in August 2017.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was hoping for more direct control over the funding.

“While we’re disappointed in Governor Abbott’s decision to run this program out of Austin instead of providing us local control, we’ll continue to work as a team to make sure we apply every single federal dollar available towards building a stronger, safer Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Similarly Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will continue to work closely with Bush’s agency, but made clear who will be to blame for delays in getting work completed.

“If there will be any delay in the distribution and use of flood mitigation aid, it will come from the federal and state government,” Turner said.

Texas has been waiting for the money since February 2018, when Congress first approved the disaster mitigation program. But it took until August for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to publish rules on how the money can be used.

Now, Bush and the Texas General Land Office are required to develop a “state action plan” that must later get yet another approval from HUD. According to a joint statement put out by Abbott and Bush on Friday, that could take another “nine months or more to complete.” That would mean July 2020 — just short of three years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

Here’s Mayor Turner’s statement about this. If one wants to feel cynical about this, one might note that while control of the funds will be with the state, blame for any delays or deficiencies will be laid on local officials, who are much more likely to be Democrats. How many people are going to understand it when blame gets pointed at the Land Commissioner? That’s not an intuitive place for these funds to originate, at the very least. Maybe this will all go well – if George P. Bush continues to have aspirations to run for Governor, he’ll have incentive to not screw this up or play politics in too obvious a fashion – but the incentives are not in alignment. Keep that in mind if and when there is something to complain about.

Oh, and since this story was published, both Greg Abbott and George P. Bush have been yelling at Mayor Turner on Twitter, for not being sufficiently grateful to them for the federal funds, which by the way still have not been released. So yeah, there’s good reason for being cynical.

Cagle and Radack break quorum

They did it.

Two Harris County Commissioners Court members skipped Tuesday’s meeting to prevent the Democratic majority from voting on a property tax rate hike that would increase revenue by 8 percent.

Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle were absent when County Judge Lina Hidalgo gaveled in the session at 10:03 a.m. A staff member for Cagle placed a two-foot stack of constituent comments at his place on the dais, indicating their widespread opposition to the tax increase.

Without a vote, Harris County will revert to the effective tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year, which will collect more than $195 million less than the rate Democrats had proposed, according to county budget analysts.

[…]

Cagle and Radack remained at large when their colleagues began discussing the tax rate at 11 a.m. In a statement, Cagle said he and Radack skipped the meeting to block an “unwise, unfair and unjustified” tax increase.

“The residents of Precinct 4 elected me to represent them. They did not elect me to lord over them or to repress them,” Cagle said. “This is the taxpayers’ money, not the government’s.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a statement from Commissioner Ellis. I will just say this: The people of Harris County, who voted 52-46 for Lupe Valdez over Greg Abbott, and 56-42 for Mike Collier over Dan Patrick, did not vote for the imposition of a restrictive and damaging revenue cap. Collier, for that matter, carried Radack’s precinct and came damn close in Cagle’s, so one could plausibly argue that their own constituents didn’t vote for that revenue cap, either. I can appreciate that Radack and Cagle opposed this plan and used the tool that was available to them to stop it, but they picked a really short-sighted hill to die on. The property tax system in Texas is rigged against homeowners, and Radack and Cagle’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature refuse to do anything about it. By this action, they demonstrate they are part of the problem. Commissioners Court can’t do anything about what the Lege has imposed on them now, but the voters can do something about Steve Radack next year. The Court has undergone a lot of change, but clearly more is needed.

Will Radack and Cagle break quorum to stop a tax rate hike?

We’ll find out today.

Harris County Commissioners Court has scheduled a vote Tuesday to hike property taxes by 8 percent, though the two Republican members can thwart the plan by simply skipping the vote.

A quirk in the Texas Government Code requires a quorum of four court members, rather than the regular three, to vote on a tax increase. The rule affords Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle rare power, as they repeatedly have lost votes to their three Democratic colleagues this year.

The pair said they would not reveal their intentions ahead of the meeting.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Radack and Cagle could attend the rest of Tuesday’s court meeting and leave the room when County Judge Lina Hidalgo decides to consider the tax increase.

“They can be present for part of the meeting and then leave,” Soard said. “That’s their option.”

Soard said that unlike the governor, Hidalgo has no power to compel any member to be present for a vote.

[…]

The Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court proposed a property tax increase of 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value, which the county budget office estimates would add $37.65 to the tax bill on a $230,000 home in the first year. The county would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue.

Garcia said the prospect of Republicans skipping the vote was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“It is their responsibility to come to court and be a part of the process, even if they don’t agree with it,” he said in a statement.

The relationships between court members have been fraught at times since Democrats took control in January. Divided votes have become the norm, and commissioners sometimes snipe at each other from the dais.

See here for the background. The main thing I would add here is that the fraught-ness and the sniping and the divided votes are not because of some generic notion of “politics”, or incivility, or even partisanship, as former Judge Robert Eckels says. It’s about a sincere and significant difference in values and priorities. Which, to be fair to Eckels, is reflected in the differences between the two parties. The Republicans had their way for decades, and then the voters voted for change. That’s how this is supposed to work, minus the anti-majoritarian avoidance techniques. We’ll see what these two do.

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Quorum question

Who knew?

A quirk in Texas law could allow the two Republicans on Harris County Commissioners Court, despite being in the minority, to prevent the three Democrats from enacting a proposed property tax increase.

Typically, three court members constitute a quorum, the minimum number needed to conduct business. The Texas Government Code, however, requires four members be present to vote on levying a tax.

That exception affords rare power to Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who have been steamrolled on 3-2 votes on enacting bail reform, appointing a judge and a resolution on gun violence.

The pair simply would need to skip a tax hike vote to prevent the three Democrats from passing it, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said. The trio on Sept. 10 proposed raising the overall property tax rate 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. The existing rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“We don’t know how exactly it would play out,” Soard said. “But if there are not four members present, Commissioners Court can’t vote on a tax increase.”

A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 8, and the deadline to set the county tax rates is Oct. 11, leaving the Democrats with little margin for error. Commissioners Court has scheduled public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24.

Radack pointed out that he has not missed a meeting in more than five years, and said Oct. 8’s session is marked on his calendar.

Cagle, through a spokesman, said he has made a decision on the issue but does not want to share his strategy publicly. Cagle proposed a compromise at the Sept. 11 meeting, only increasing the flood control district rate, but his motion was defeated on a party-line vote.

[…]

The proposed property tax increase, which would be the first increase since 1996, would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue over the current rate. Hidalgo said the measure is necessary to ensure the county can continue to pay for services, including billion in flood control projects, after the revenue cap passed by the Legislature takes effect next year.

That cap limits year-over-year growth of city and county revenue to 3.5 percent, down from a previous ceiling of 8 percent. Revenue increases above that threshold would need voter approval.

The county budget office estimates the average Harris County homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $38, based on a home valued around $230,000.

You have to love an anti-majoritarian law. I had no idea this existed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s please dispense with this nonsense about Radack and Cagle being “steamrolled”, however. They’re on the losing end of majority votes. That’s how this is supposed to work.

The story notes that Rodney Ellis participated in a big quorum break in 2003, while he was in the State Senate and was trying to hold off the Tom DeLay re-redistricting effort. The Senate quorum-busting, which lasted for weeks while Ellis and his Democratic colleagues holed up in New Mexico, followed a similar effort by 51 Democrats in the House. This is fair to bring up. I will note that in these cases, the threshold for a quorum in each chamber was set by the rules they adopted at the beginning of the session, not by state law, and that one of the things that happened as a result of all this was that the quorum rules were changed to make this kind of exercise futile. Also, the reason that Ellis and others fled the state is because the DPS is authorized to round up wayward members and drag them back into the chamber for the vote they’re trying to scuttle. Whether the DPS has the power to place quorum-busting legislators under arrest was unsettled the last time I checked on it, but I feel confident saying that if Radack and Cagle try this, they will not be hauled back downtown in handcuffs by Sheriff’s deputies.

As to the matter of the tax rate increase itself, this is something that Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia think is necessary to enable the county to pay for the things it needs to do, including flood mitigation. They are concerned that thanks to the revenue cap provision of HB3, the county will be hamstrung going forward, forced to implement rate cuts because the county’s growth has been too fast for the law, so they’re taking action to mitigate against that now. You can certainly disagree with that, and you can express that at the next Commissioners Court meeting and at the ballot box. I’d just note that if the Legislature had left the county to its own devices, this wouldn’t be happening now.

Commissioners Court gets more aggressive on environmental enforcement

Good.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to hire 61 employees across three departments in a bid to significantly boost Harris County’s ability to respond to environmental emergencies after finding numerous shortcomings in its efforts to manage three chemical fires near the Houston Ship Channel this spring.

The $11.6 million investment will go toward purchasing new equipment and add employees to the fire marshal’s office, pollution control and public health departments. It is the most aggressive effort yet by the new Democrat-controlled court, which took office in January, to grow the emergency response infrastructure in the county, home to the heart of the nation’s petrochemical industry.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found that the staffing levels of the three departments have for decades failed to keep pace with the growth of commercial activity along the Houston Ship Channel. Previous Commissioners Courts had not acted with the same sense of urgency after chemical incidents; the county never replaced the Pollution Control employees laid off during the Great Recession. Instead, court members prided themselves on finishing fiscal years with a large fund balance.

“All these resources we’re bringing to the table, after a careful analysis … will help us be in a much better position in the future,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose Precinct 2 included the sites of each of the chemical fires in March and April.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo hailed the budget increases as the most significant investment in environmental protection the county has made in 30 years. Hidalgo said she was pleased the new monitors, for example, will allow the county to test air quality on a regular basis, in addition to during emergencies.

A report on the blaze at Intercontinental Terminals Co. released on July 29 concluded the county needed more equipment and manpower to monitor pollution and keep the public informed about safety risks. The 133-page “gap analysis” made a total of 49 recommendations.

Two days later, a fire at an Exxon plant in Baytown injured 37 workers.

[…]

Court members unanimously approved the budget increases for Pollution Control and the fire marshal’s office. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack was the lone opponent to increasing the size of the health department.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad most of the votes were unanimous – I mean, I don’t even know what the counter arguments are for this – but it’s still the leadership of the new Court that made this possible. Going forward let’s be more proactive so there will (one hopes) be less to have to react to.

What’s going on with the Astrodome?

It’s on the back burner for now.

Still here

A $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build parking at Houston’s most famous relic has been put on pause since the plan’s most prominent advocate, Republican Ed Emmett, lost his seat last fall to Democrat Lina Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, who took the reins as Harris County’s chief executive in January, said making progress on issues such as bail reform and flood control are more pressing than breathing new life into the Astrodome.

Work on the Astrodome has ground to a halt, and it’s not clear when — or if — the renovation plan spearheaded by Emmett will be picked back up again.

“There are no other updates or changes at this time, but the Astrodome is forever part of our history,” Hidalgo said in a written statement. “Right now, we are focused on transformational actions that will improve the daily lives of our residents.”

Hidalgo stressed that the county has boosted its flood control capacity, enhanced its environmental monitoring capability and fixed a broken bail-bond system.

“Until we can make sure that the Astrodome plan makes fiscal sense and makes sense for our community, no major steps will be taken with regard to the project,” she added.

[…]

Workers did complete some initial stages of Emmett’s plan, such as finishing the first phase of a program to strip asbestos from some parts of the stadium.

County officials finished drawings and specifications for the first phase of the restoration, but they shelved a meeting to present it to the state historical commission for approval.

The cost of that early work was just under $8 million. Most of that money — more than $6 million — went toward design and construction document fees. The asbestos program cost close to $2 million.

“In the future, we’ll come back and look at all of this,” said county engineer John Blount. “I understand people say, ‘Well, what about the Astrodome?’ No one’s forgotten about the Astrodome.”

The last update we had was before the election, so that’s about where we are now. It was clear from the way Judge Hidalgo campaigned that the Astrodome was not high on her list of priorities, so none of this is a surprise. I do think Commissioners Court will return to this in the next couple of years, but it’ll be on Judge Hidalgo’s timeline. If you’d prefer something else, I recommend attending a Commissioners Court meeting and airing your views there. The Press has more.

Is there anything Houston can do about gun violence?

Not much, unfortunately.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he wants state lawmakers to give cities and counties more flexibility to address gun violence in response to mass shootings this month that killed 31 people, including 22 in El Paso.

Turner made the remarks at City Hall while calling for a special session of the Texas Legislature on the issue of gun violence.

Current state law mostly forbids local governments from passing measures that restrict gun usage.

Among the items Turner said he would like to pursue are background checks on firearms sales at gun shows, including those that have been held at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“If I could do it today, I would do it today,” Turner told reporters. “But the state has preempted us.”

[…]

In March, Turner announced the city was establishing a task force to combat local gun violence. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun laws, telling Congress earlier this year that gun violence is “one of the greatest public health epidemics facing the nation.”

Turner also allocated $1 million for police overtime pay in April to help officers fight gun violence.

Turner’s comments Wednesday echo those made last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who floated the idea of ending the use of county property for gun shows. The county, however, has no power to enact ordinances.

Hidalgo said Wednesday she is working with Turner on a proposal to take “whatever action we can.”

“We are hamstrung by the legislature. They have passed laws specifically preventing us from making policy around gun safety,” Hidalgo said. “We’re really looking under every nook and cranny for what can be done.”

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the state’s lock on local action largely is absolute.

“The state preempts municipalities from having any type of gun control regulation at all,” Stevenson said.

Even Hidalgo’s idea about ending use of county buildings for gun shows likely would not pass muster, according to Stevenson, due to how strict the state preemptions are.

“They’re more likely to get away with it informally than if they adopt a policy,” he said. “Behind the scenes pressure or incentives might work, but the gun shows are big and lucrative for the conference centers.”

There may be some other things the city could try, but the story doesn’t suggest anything interesting. As with a number of other vexing issues, the real solution lies in another level of government. Really, both state and federal for this one, but there’s probably more direct action that could be taken at the state level, if only by undoing the restrictions that have been imposed. That means the first real chance to get something done will be at the federal level, if all goes well in 2020. We’re not getting anything done in Austin until Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, at the very least, have been sent packing.

Study shows a lot of gaps in Harris County’s ability to respond to chemical fires

This quantifies what was painfully apparent in recent months.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

More monitoring and manpower is needed for Harris County to better respond to chemical fires like the three that struck the region earlier this year, worrying residents and shutting the Houston Ship Channel, according to a study evaluating the county’s response to the fires.

The most critical response gap identified involved staffing in the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, where another 16 hazardous materials technicians — at a cost of $1.6 million annually — are needed to bring the team up to compliance with national standards. Other recommendations include real-time monitoring of air, soil and water conditions, along with the training and resources necessary to share that information among the various departments — and the public — during a potential catastrophe.

”This is an example of us recognizing the county is not where it needs to be,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday, noting the need for better information sharing with the public.

[…]

In all, the report by PENTA Consortium, a private consultant hired by the county, lists 49 recommendations for the commissioners’ court to consider, broken down by issues that need immediate attention and those that should be reviewed longer term.

Some of the recommendations involve little or no additional funding, such as pushing for local authorities to have more active participation within a unified command after an incident; appointing a senior advisor for emergency management for the county judge’s office; and tasking departments to take comprehensive looks at their internal decision-making authorities and processes.

Others require a heftier investment.

Elena Craft, with the Environmental Defense Fund, said she was encouraged by some of the recommendations.

“I think initially some of the gaps seemed like no-brainers,” she said, adding that “having a comprehensive assessment of where those gaps are and a time frame, essentially a road map, of how to fill these gaps was obviously needed.”

The 133-page report is referred to as “gap analysis” because it is aimed at allowing an outside consultant to find areas of improvement or failures in current policies. In addition to staffing shortages, lack of coordination among the local emergency responders also hampered the response to the fires, which sent plumes of black smoke into the region, the study found.

We’ve talked about Harris County’s non-hurricane disaster preparedness before, and I’m glad to see the county is returning to the subject. Hurricane preparedness is vital, of course, but I think we can all agree that chemical fires happen a lot more often. All of the things they are talking about in this story are necessary, and we’ll be much better off when we have a firmer handle on them.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Before we get to the numbers, please read this.

El Franco Lee

The widow of former Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee has emptied most of her late husband’s $3.8 million campaign account by donating to community groups and charities.

Ethel Kaye Lee, the campaign treasurer, said Thursday she chose the recipients based on the intentions of her husband’s donors.

“The campaign monies were given for two reasons, for support of existing Precinct 1 programs and keeping him elected, so that’s the formula,” she said.

The account donated $3.01 million to 12 groups, including $500,000 to the Precinct 1 Aquatics Program, $200,000 to the St. Paul Scholarship Foundation and $150,000 to the Julia C. Hester House in Houston’s Fifth Ward, according to the campaign’s July finance report. The report covers the period from Jan. 1 to June 30.

The largest expenditure was $1.5 million to the Precinct 1 Street Olympics, a program Lee founded in 1986. The summer event serves thousands of children annually and includes swim lessons, a basketball tournament and career fair. It also supports the North East Adolescent Program, created by Lee in 1989, which seeks to lower rates of teen pregnancy, birth defects and sexually transmitted diseases in poor Houston neighborhoods.

[…]

The Lee campaign also donated to $200,000 to the Baylor College of Medicine’s teen health clinic and $50,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Two Catholic groups, the Dominican Sisters of Houston and Dominican Friars, Province of St. Martin De Porres, received $50,000 each.

According to the finance report, the campaign had $791,140 remaining on hand as of June 30, which Ethel Kaye Lee has been allocated. Under state law, the campaign has until 2022 to close the account.

See here for the last update, from April. I had noticed all of the activity when I looked at Lee’s report. I’m glad to see this money going to good uses.

Now, on with the show…

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor

Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Harry Zamora, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Ben Rose, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, County Attorney

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

El Franco Lee
Diana Alexander, Precinct 3

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large

Andrea Duhon, HCDE Position 5, At Large
David Brown, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      318,967   162,328    1,400     192,572
Trautman      11,325     5,778        0      22,450
Osborne        1,000       155        0       1,201
Burgess        9,626     9,681        0       7,263

Ogg          135,860    22,773   68,489     330,425
Gonzalez     178,024    14,344        0     276,714
Ryan          41,925    15,417        0      85,318
Bennett       21,925    19,205        0      37,313

Oliver
Jones         23,669    11,234        0       9,967
Overstreet
Zamora             0     3,026        0           0
Danna        111,268    66,442    3,500      38,338
Rose          22,345     2,257        0      11,605
Menefee       34,869       326        0      34,542

Ellis        715,266   240,145        0   3,823,509
Garcia       552,590   289,169        0     810,149
Radack         5,000    96,250        0   1,634,106
Cagle        398,900   240,512        0     361,787

Lee                0 3,095,767        0     791,139
Alexander      4,210       445        0       1,982

Moore
Dick               0         0        0           0
Cantu          1,250     1,132        0         337
Flynn
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Duhon            155       262        0         389
Brown            700       406        0         313

County Judge Lina Hidalgo isn’t taking money from vendors, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing well in the fundraising department. At this rate, she’ll be well funded for her first re-election campaign. On the other end of the spectrum…what’s up with Steve Radack? He knows he’s up for election next year, right? I mean, he does have plenty of money, so one low-activity reporting period is no big deal. It still looks weird.

More aware of their ballot status next year are DA Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and both responded as you’d expect. I’ll get to their situations in a minute, but the person I’ve got my eye on at this time is County Attorney Vince Ryan. He’s never been a big fundraiser, but he brings in a few bucks. If there’s a cycle where he’s going to need them, it’s this one.

And that’s because Ryan now has two primary opponents, Ben Rose and Christian Menefee, and while he has a cash on hand lead, it’s hardly insurmountable. In this high-turnout environment that the 2020 primary will be, Ryan’s biggest advantage will be the name recognition he has after 12 years in office. With a half million people or so likely to vote, it will take a pile of money to reach enough of them to make an impression. In a more typical year, you could hit the club and CEC meetings and hope to interact with enough of the old reliables to have a shot. In 2020, you’re going to have to do much broader outreach. That takes money, and it’s not clear that kind of money exists in the County Attorney race. We’ll see.

And speaking of opponents, we have them in the DA and Sheriff races. If your reaction to seeing Lloyd Oliver’s name wasn’t basically this, I don’t know what to say to you. Audia Jones we know about; she doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction yet, but there’s still time. I can’t tell from the limited information I have seen about Curtis Todd Overstreet to discern whether he’s running as a D or an R. I’m sure that will be clear enough soon. I can say the same about Harry Zamora running for Sheriff, I can’t tell his party just yet. Joe Danna is a Republican who has run for Constable in Precinct 1 a couple of times. His amount raised is not as impressive as it looks – about half of the total is in-kind donations for a fundraiser, and nearly half of the actual cash he got was a single $25K donation from Janice McNair.

Beyond that, not much we didn’t already know. I’m sure there will be a lot more raised in Commissioners Court Precinct 3, and for sure there will be more candidates. At some point I need to take a closer look at the Constable and JP races, because those are another good source of Dem takeover opportunities. For now, this is where we are.

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

Houston’s top elected and law-enforcement officials sharply criticized federal authorities’ plans to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in major U.S. cities, contending that the raids targeting groups of recent arrivals would harm public safety and risk separating children from their parents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo took to nationally broadcast programs to weigh in against the raids, which are set to begin as early as Sunday in at least 10 cities, including Houston. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear likely to target immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation.

“It’s one thing if the focus of these raids is on people with criminal records, people who have committed violent crimes, people who are part of gangs,” Turner said earlier this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The raids should not aim to deport people “who have been here for quite some time,” Turner continued, if “their crime is only coming here to seek a better way of living or to provide a better opportunity for their families.”

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his office would not participate in the raids, arguing that local involvement would “drive undocumented families further into the shadows” and damage community safety.

“It silences witnesses & victims & (would) further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement containing information about the legal rights that people retain when interacting with ICE agents, such as their right to not answer the door if the agents do not present a warrant.

“These raids seek to subvert our sense of community by putting the very heart of Harris County, our diversity, in the cross-hairs of a shameful political maneuver,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat elected last year.

Turner issued a fresh statement Saturday saying the city would continue to offer services to all residents “regardless of who they are, where they are from, or their documentation status.” ICE had yet to contact the city about the raids, the mayor added.

“The president’s order for concentrated ICE raids against immigrant families in Houston and elsewhere stands against everything we represent as a welcoming city,” Turner said.

This is also good.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee met with faith leaders in Houston on Saturday to invite undocumented immigrants to seek refuge in churches, mosques and synagogues and call on religious organizations to open their doors ahead of Sunday’s anticipated deportation roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“It is to my dismay that I have to come home to find many of those who live in my jurisdiction, my constituency, are panicked, frightened and in fear of their lives,” said Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. “I say to the federal authorities: that you are well aware and on notice that you are not able to come into a church and demand anyone that is a representative of the faith to give anyone to anyone.”

Jackson Lee gathered with faith and local leaders Saturday afternoon at the Living Water International Apolistic Ministries in Houston. The ministry, along with half a dozen other churches, announced it would shelter undocumented immigrants on Sunday who fear they are in danger of being taken by ICE.

“We want to be a beacon of light for those who may be in fear. So when I got the call, I couldn’t do anything but accept,” said Apostle Robert Stearns, leader of Living Water. “There is nothing strange to us in doing this. This is our heart and our passion.”

It’s a good start. Now we need to be ready for whatever the response to this is.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

On prosecutor caseloads

I’m still thinking about this.

Kim Ogg

When a line of prosecutors stepped up to the microphone at Harris County Commissioners Court in February, they told tales of long hours, endless to-do lists and bloated caseloads well into the triple digits.

Their impassioned pleas and barrage of data were part of the push by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for an unprecedented $21 million expansion that would add more than 100 lawyers to its staff.

But despite a weeks-long campaign, District Attorney Kim Ogg’s budget request failed. Now, four months later, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle and The Appeal indicate that the attorney caseload figures used to justify the request appear to overstate the office’s workload.

The data presented to commissioners and the public did not reflect that about two-thirds of the felony trial bureau attorneys consistently handle a smaller number of complex cases. Instead, it frequently presented the caseloads of the remaining third of the attorneys — those who handle over 900 cases on average — as representative of the whole trial bureau. The office also counted every charge in an arrest as a separate case and included more than 200 cases put on hold after defendants had not yet been arrested or had fled after violating the conditions of their bonds.

Based on the numbers provided by the DA’s office, an average caseload for “felony two” and “felony three” prosecutors combined would be less than 600, if all positions were filled in each court — and would be even lower if chiefs were included. Exact staff assignments that month were not released with the data.

[…]

Four members of the Commissioners Court—including all three Democrats who voted against the budget request in February—did not comment on the caseload figures.

But Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican who offered staunch support for Ogg during the budget cycle, said that he did not feel the DA’s office misrepresented data and reiterated his concern about the county’s refusal to fund Ogg’s request for more prosecutors.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that she didn’t get it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a misjustice.”

During budget discussions in February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo — the Democrat who heads up Commissioners Court —questioned whether prosecutors could simply lower their caseloads by charging fewer people and leaning more heavily on diversion alternatives.

“This is not the only way,” she said, “and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”

Though Adam Gershowitz — a William & Mary Law School professor who co-authored a 2011 study on district attorney caseloads — raised concerns about the representations in the data, such as the inclusion of bond forfeitures, he stressed that too few prosecutors can have a negative effect on the legal system, leaving people waiting behind bars as their cases get reset instead of resolved.

“We could have debates about if (prosecutors) should charge less and maybe they should,” he said. “But they are overburdened and it’s bad on so many levels when the district attorney’s office is overburdened.”

There’s a lot more, so read on for the methodology and the questions about how cases were counted. One issue was with classifying all types of prosecutors as having similar workloads even though one group has many more cases than the others, and classifying things as active cases that aren’t really. The explanations for why things were counted as they were don’t really make sense. Even with that, there’s support – not unanimous by any stretch, but it’s there – for more prosecutors, and for managing caseloads. Maybe if we can all agree on what the case numbers actually are, we can better agree on what the number of prosecutors should be.

Moving ahead with voting centers

The first time was a success, so we’re going to keep using them.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for state approval to expand the use of countywide polling places to general elections.

County Clerk Diane Trautman said a trial run of the system during the low-turnout school board elections in May was successful. Trautman’s goal since taking office in January has been to implement countywide polling, where voters can cast ballots at any location rather than in assigned precincts, in high-turnout general elections which can draw more than 1 million voters.

Previously, Harris County featured countywide voting only at a small number of early voting sites, and never on Election Day.

“I am very pleased with the results of the May election,” Trautman said Tuesday. “As I hoped, in using a small election, we would find areas where to improve, and we did.”

[…]

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who in the past has raised concerns about elderly voters losing their longtime polling places to consolidation, asked Trautman to promise to keep all polling places open. Trautman replied she would not close any sites.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the addition of countywide polling centers should make voting more convenient, since residents can use sites close to work or school, and boost turnout.

“It’s bringing that increased access to the vote to so many more people,” Hidalgo said.

A Rice University survey of 256 voters in the May election by Elizabeth Vann and Bob Stein found that most residents visited polling sites within one mile of home.

“Did voters seem satisfied? Overwhelmingly,” Stein said. “About 90 percent claimed they were satisfied finding their location.”

Stein, a professor of political science, cautioned that higher-turnout elections will bring additional challenges, such as long lines and parking problems. He said he plans to study the 2019 Houston municipal elections in November, which will have higher turnout than the May school board balloting, but still low compared to a November midterm or presidential election.

I’m very glad to hear that the people who voted liked the experience. I’m a confirmed early voter, so nothing will change for me, but lots of people vote on Election Day, and this should make it better for them. I have very modest expectations about how it will affect turnout, but I do think it will help keep lines from getting too long. There are improvements I’d like to see made in how the returns are reported, which I hope can be in place for this November. Otherwise, I look forward to getting this implemented.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Was the McLeod replacement too hasty?

Eh, I dunno.

Judge William McLeod

Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court criticized their Democratic colleagues for quickly approving a new civil court judge at Tuesday’s meeting who had not been vetted by the full body.

The three Democrats voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace County Court at Law Judge Bill McLeod, who inadvertently resigned last week. Briones’ name was absent from the agenda, she had only spoken with the Democratic members and just 36 minutes passed between her nomination and approval.

“This is the least transparent appointment I have ever seen,” Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. “The unfairness of the process was overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle held up Briones résumé, which he had been handed minutes earlier, and said he may have supported her if he only had the chance to review it. Instead the vote fell along party lines, 3 to 2.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who regularly pledges her administration will be more transparent than those past, defended the process.

Hidalgo said Commissioners Court faces several pressing issues, including responses to two massive chemical fires in recent weeks and a looming settlement in the county’s landmark bail lawsuit. When an assistant county attorney warned court members Tuesday that leaving Judge McLeod on the bench as a holdover judge almost certainly would force him to recuse himself from some cases, Hidalgo said the court needed to choose a replacement.

She said McLeod, not Commissioners Court, had created the predicament.

“I decided for myself it wasn’t going to go beyond this court,” Hidalgo said. She added, “This is something we needed to get done and move on from.”

See here for my initial reactions, and here for some further background. I have some sympathy for the Court here. This was a weird situation, not of their own making. I think most people would agree that inadvertent or not, McLeod did trigger the “resign to run” condition. I suspect as much as anything they just wanted to put this mess behind them, so they went ahead and named a replacement. I get it, but I have to agree that Commissioner Cagle makes a good point. They could at least have had something like a Judicial Committee hearing, to give all the Commissioners some time to know who they were voting on. I would hope this situation will never arise again, but in the unfortunate event it does, let’s take that lesson from this experience.

UPDATE: Stace sums it all up nicely.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

Let’s check in on the HCDE

How are things with the new Board?

Within an hour and 37 minutes of his first meeting as a trustee on the Harris County Department of Education’s board of trustees, Josh Flynn had a new role: President.

The former Harris County Republican Party treasurer and local accountant, who ran on a platform of bringing more transparency and accountability to Texas’ last remaining county education department, won the votes of three other trustees at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Minutes later, Flynn joined those same three in firing the department’s lobbying firm, a move that raised concerns among other trustees and Superintendent James Colbert Jr. that a lack of advocates in Austin could leave them with little recourse if lawmakers target the agency during the 2019 legislative session. Flynn did not return messages for comment.

Together, the votes signal a new majority on the seven-member board, one that Trustee Don Sumners said will provide a chance to lift the hood on HCDE’s departments and to make the agency more accountable to taxpayers. All four have questioned or criticized the department or some of its actions in the past, and one has filed motions to study closing the agency.

“We’ll probably go through the whole department one division at a time and do some evaluation,” Sumners said. “We really haven’t been able to get to the nuts and bolts very easily, and I think now that we have more interested participation, we’ll be able to realize this department for efficiency. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

Others, however, worry that actions like some of those taken at the Jan. 16 meeting could do irreparable harm to the state’s last remaining county department of education.

“I’m concerned, I’m definitely concerned,” said Trustee Danny Norris, a Texas Southern University law professor who also joined the board on January. “I think the vote to cancel our contract with (our lobbyists) specifically worried me a good bit, because we usually have a few bills to shut us down each session. This session, I’m the most worried.”

[…]

Trustee Eric Dick, a longtime Republican, noted at the meeting that other school districts, political parties and government entities also hire lobbyists. About a week after the vote, he said any government agency that is able to generate more than 70 percent of its budget from sources other than local tax dollars should be a model of good governance that conservatives should want to protect and other government agencies should look to for inspiration. About 28 percent of HCDE’s roughly $117 million budget in 2017-2018 came from property taxes, with the rest coming from state and federal grants, fees paid by local school districts and its cooperative purchasing program.

“You have an organization that actually runs at a profit, that’s actually in the black, that turns one dollar into five dollars. What should happen is ISDs should replicate and try to do something similar. So should the city of Houston,” Dick said. “I think worst thing that you could do is take something that works and cut it up.”

sigh Okay, three things here. One is that Flynn won his race by a tiny margin, 0.6 percentage points, less than 2,000 votes out of over 300K cast. Even in a dominant year for Dems in Harris County, one low-profile downballot race can make a difference by going the other way. Two, assuming the HCDE survives another legislative session, it’s very likely that it will flip back to a Democratic majority after the 2020 election, when At Large members Michael Wolfe (yeah, that guy again) and Don Sumners will almost certainly get voted out. And three, I can’t believe I’m about to say something nice about Eric Dick, but he has the right idea here, and I appreciate his vote on this matter. Let’s hope this is just a minor kerfuffle and nothing bad happens in the Lege.

(It should be noted that among other things, former County Judge Ed Emmett was not a fan of the HCDE and supported eliminating it. I hope Judge Hidalgo is up to speed on this. The HCDE may not have its own lobbyist in Austin, but the county has them. They could advocate for HCDE in a pinch if needed. Something to keep in mind.)

UPDATE: From an email sent out by Andrea Duhon, who was the Democratic candidate against Josh Flynn and who is planning to run for one of those At Large positions next year:

Community advocates, parents, and teachers plan to attend and make their perspectives known at an unexpected Special HCDE meeting this Monday, February 11th at 4:00 PM at 6300 Irvington Dr. to push back against the politically motivated distribution of legal contracts and privatization attempts by Austin politicians.

Expected on the HCDE agenda is an attempt by some trustees to fire the current unbiased education attorney and replace her with the highly partisan law firm Strahan-Cain, of which far right State Representative and education privatization proponent Briscoe Cain is a partner.

The meeting was called late Friday afternoon with little notice and comes at a time when the Texas Legislature is not only in session but is actively pursuing overhaul of state education policy. Also relevant are efforts both past and present by State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-SD7) to shutdown the department and consolidate public education resources into private buckets. The agenda also calls to replace Public Facilities Corporation board vacancies in an attempt to overturn contracts which have been approved.

Just last month, the HCDE surprisingly selected a first-term trustee as President of its board and voted to eliminate its own representation in Austin by firing HillCo Partners, leaving services vulnerable to attacks.

The community demands the department safeguard the programs and shared services it brings to Harris County and the jobs of more than 1,000 HCDE employees.

Here’s the agenda for that special Board meeting. Note that all of the action items on it were submitted by the Flynn/Wolfe/Sumners troika. Nothing good can come of this.

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.