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Mark Keough

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Reopening roundup redux

More news about that thing that Greg Abbott is making us do.

Health experts give Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas mixed reviews, warn state should revive stay-at-home order if surge emerges:

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, said Monday’s announcement came too soon — and did not give businesses enough time to prepare precautionary measures before opening Friday.

“That’s a concern,” she said.

Health leaders in some Texas cities said it was too soon to relax social distancing precautions that have helped keep the coronavirus outbreak manageable in Texas. Abbott moved toward reopening about 10 days sooner than health leaders in Houston had hoped for, according to the Houston Chronicle. The governor said his order supersedes any local restrictions.

“This is too soon for us,” Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, said Tuesday during a city council meeting. “As we’re still preparing contact tracing, ramping up testing, working to protect vulnerable populations, now is not the time to flip on the light switch.”

At the same meeting, Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, shared a model she created showing that Austin could surge past its hospital capacity as soon as this summer if social distancing regulations are eased indefinitely.

In Dallas County, which marked its deadliest day on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Philip Huang said some area hospitals have seen increases in COVID-19 populations.

“These are the trends we’re worried about even before the governor’s order,” he said, standing in front of a screen that read “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” As businesses reopen, he said, it is all the more important that Dallas continue to socially distance, wear masks and “make smart choices.”

Health experts said Abbott must be careful in determining whether it’s safe to continue to expand business openings in coming weeks. The success of the economic reopening depends on increasing the state’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.

Moving forward to the second phase of reopening — when certain businesses could serve customers at 50% capacity — depends on the outcome of the first stage. Abbott said it is “only logical” that the restrictions he’s easing this week will cause an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases. That alone will not be “decisive,” he said.

The governor and his advisers will look closely at hospitalization rates and death rates to decide whether it is safe to move on to phase two. But Abbott’s plan, outlined in a 65-page booklet, does not offer specific figures or thresholds.

[Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, a professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UT Health] said “any sort of uptick in cases would be worrisome to me.”

A distinct lack of metrics was a concern to me as well, but what do I know?

Texas sending restaurant and retail employees back to work without child care:

Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state’s emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.

But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.

As Republican state leaders move to re-energize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state’s current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”

But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.

“Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” the statement said. “Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy.”

It’s almost as if the problems that had been identified for working people in good times were exacerbated in a time of crisis. No one could have seen that coming.

Montgomery County commissioners call Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas economy ‘vague’:

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough late Tuesday and acknowledged his order to reopen Texas businesses on Friday needed clarification after Keough called the plan vague and said it didn’t mandate businesses such as hair and nail salons, bars and gyms remain closed.

“I actually went back and looked at the order and I can understand why he’s saying that it needs clarification. And so we will provide that clarification,” Abbott said in a Fox 26 interview regarding Keough’s comments.

Keough said he appreciated the governor’s attention in the matter but said he is standing his ground that his interpretation of Abbott’s order only says those businesses “shall” be avoided, which, he said, does not mean the businesses can’t open. He added if and when Abbott clarifies the order in writing, he will abide by its guidelines.

During the commissioners court regular meeting Tuesday morning, Keough said the county has done all it can to follow guidelines from Abbott. However, he said the opening of some businesses over others “doesn’t make sense.” After reading Abbott’s order, Keough said it does not close or keep closed any businesses.

“He doesn’t close those,” Keough said of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, gyms and nail salons. “It says you should avoid these businesses. It is uncommonly vague what he has said and there is a measure of confusion. I am not trying to push against the governor, I am just trying to free the people who have been chosen to be the losers.

“The object here is not to go rogue on the state of Texas or the governor. The object is we have until Friday to get clarification on this. As far as we are concerned, he has not declared these (businesses) closed.”

Still waiting on that clarification. People seem to be especially agitated over the haircut issue:

As Abbott made the rounds of TV news interviews Tuesday, it was clear that his hair edict had struck a strong and disappointed chord with some Texans.

“Now governor, by far the most calls we have been getting are from barbers and hairdressers who are trying to understand why they are not in phase one of your plan,” the interviewer on KFDX in Wichita Falls asked Abbott on Tuesday afternoon. “People feel that personal grooming is essential and if proper precautions are taken, why isn’t the hair industry in phase one?”

“Well, first I agree with their sentiment 110%. And I know that fellow Texans do also,” Abbott replied. “But once again, the decisions that we made yesterday were decisions based upon recommendations by doctors, and so some doctors concluded that because of the close proximity between a barber and a customer and a hair salon and a customer, even though they’re wearing face masks, we’re still looking for best strategies.

“But it’s so important for your audience to know this,” Abbott said. “After my announcement yesterday, we began working on the issue immediately, and we are continuing to work on it and we will be looking forward to try to make an announcement really soon as we come up with safe strategies for barbers and hair salons to be able to reopen.”

I mean, my hair is approaching levels of shagginess not seen since my grad student days, but that hasn’t broken my spirit yet. My hair will still be there to be cut in a couple of weeks, you know?


Go click and read the thread, and also read this Eater story if you haven’t already.

Office space: How to keep Texas workers safe as they return:

The office refrigerator? Better take it away. The office coffee pot? Ditto. Even shared copiers and printers have become biological hazards, thanks to the spread of the coronavirus.

Workplace culture as we knew it in January is disappearing as companies prepare for the return of employees as early as Friday in Texas.

Many companies have focused on separating employee workstations so workers remain 6 feet apart to comply with government social-distancing recommendations. They’re also buying masks and gloves to prevent the virus from spreading. But what about not-so-obvious dilemmas, such as whether to station someone on each floor to help maintain distancing in office elevators. And what to do about the germ-covered door knobs on bathroom doors?

“It’s the simple things, like unfortunately and sadly, maybe eliminate the handshake,” Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer with Haynes and Boone, told employers this week during a telephone seminar. Instead, maybe workers could point and a nod at each other, a manner that before the conoravirus pandemic might have been awkward but now makes sense.

I don’t drink coffee and I almost never generate paper, but I do bring my lunch more often than not. Guess I’ll have to plan to start bringing a cooler or something. This world we’re going to re-enter is going to be so very different from the one we left.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

Meanwhile, in Montgomery County

There they go again.

The Republican primary defeat of embattled Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal — and close contests in two county commissioner races headed for runoffs — could signal major leadership changes and a shift further to the right in the fast-growing Houston suburb.

State Rep. Mark Keough, who defeated Doyal, was among several candidates favored by the county’s influential tea party movement — and like-minded statewide groups — who fared well Tuesday. Others in this cohort include Steve Toth, who overwhelmingly won the Republican nomination for the legislative seat that Keough is vacating, and Greg Parker, who got 43 percent of the vote in a three-person race and forced County Commissioner Charlie Riley, with 43.5 percent, into a primary runoff.

Toth and Parker have staked out positions aligned with the most far-right elements of their party. Parker’s campaign website says he wrote a book described as “a critical look at the myth and liberal hysteria surrounding climate change.” Toth, who was instrumental in the formation of the county’s tea party movement, has advocated eliminating property appraisal districts and freezing appraisals at the purchase price of a home.

[…]

Political observers agreed that toll roads emerged as a dominant issue in the county, where tea party groups carry a lot of clout, particularly in The Woodlands. Texas lawmakers have gone from championing to criticizing toll roads, a shift that some Houston-area leaders worry has gone too far and could limit coming projects.

“Without toll roads and that funding, I don’t know what we are going to do,” Doyal said late last year, citing the need for new roadways in rapidly growing parts of the Houston area.

Keough took a hard stance against toll roads.

“I think toll roads are another form of taxation,” Keough said last December. “I’m out on toll roads. Toll roads are about a bigger issue; it’s about big government.”

Doyal was embattled for a reason, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. I figure as long as the developers are able to keep building things life will go on more or less as normal up there. I mean, at some point they’re going to need to come up with a politically acceptable way to pay for the roads they want to build, but that’s their problem.

I confess, I don’t quite get the diatribe against toll roads. The whole idea with toll roads is that you only pay for them if you use them. Everyone pays gas taxes, whether they use the roads that get built with them or not. Which is fine by me, of course, but I’m one of those big-gubmint-loving-liberal types. If gas taxes, floating bonds, and toll roads are all off the table, what’s left? Perhaps Montgomery County will show us.

(Just a reminder, there is a choice if you think all of this is messed up.)