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Ornaldo Ybarra

Pasadena will appeal redistricting ruling

Not a surprise.

Pasadena City Council

An attorney representing the city of Pasadena said Tuesday the city will appeal a ruling that found Pasadena deliberately violated the voting rights of its Hispanic population, a move that could have immediate consequences for the city’s upcoming May elections.

The attorney, C. Robert Heath, said the city disagreed with Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruling earlier this month that a redistricting scheme adopted in 2014 violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by diluting the Hispanic vote.

“I think we’re right on the law and ultimately we’ll prevail,” Heath said.

[…]

Heath said the city will seek court approval to temporarily halt execution of Rosenthal’s order, meaning that upcoming elections could be conducted using the redistricting scheme Rosenthal found to be discriminatory. The 2015 elections were also conducted using that scheme.

“I don’t think they were trying to prevent Hispanic success,” Heath said.

City Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, who supported the goals of the lawsuit that led to Rosenthal’s ruling, called the appeal a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“The legal bill has already surpassed $2 million, but I guess since it’s not the mayor’s money, he doesn’t mind spending it,” Ybarra said, adding that “this council is told nothing” by the administration about the legal process.

See here and here for the background. Candidate filing begins today, so one way or the other we’re going to need a quick ruling on any motions for an injunction. I’ll be keeping an eye on it. The NYT, Rick Hasen, and the Texas Standard have more.

UPDATE: From the longer version of the story:

Timing in the case, now, is critical. Rosenthal must first weigh in on whether to stand firm in her decision to keep the single-member system in place for the May elections – or whether to grant a stay on her own ruling.

The city’s appeal of the full ruling, meanwhile, moves on to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Judge Rosenthal made a ruling on the stay right away. … It will be a yes or no, probably,” said Elaine Wiant, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.

She said if Rosenthal denies Pasadena a stay, it is unlikely the city’s lawyers would be able to derail the May election.

Chad Dunn, a lawyer who has represented voters and governmental entities in voting rights cases, agreed.

“It would be out of the ordinary for the court to stop her ruling and let the election go forward under a plan that’s been found to be discriminatory,” said Dunn, who represents council members Ybarra and Cody Ray Wheeler, who vocally opposed changes to the city election system. “It’s more likely than not that Judge Rosenthal’s judgment will carry the day on this election.”

The circuit court can affirm the district judge’s decision, reverse it or remand it back to Rosenthal for additional fact-finding, said Austin attorney Roger B. Borgelt, who specializes in election and campaign law.

We ought to know pretty quickly what the election situation will be for Pasadena.

Pasadena voting rights trial update

Day One:

Pasadena City Council

The disparity in infrastructure is at the heart of a voting rights case that opened in federal court Thursday in which a group of Latino residents is challenging the city’s newly revised system of government, saying it discriminates against minority voters and intentionally dilutes their power.

By creating two at-large council seats and eliminating two of the eight district seats, the suit says, the city violated the federal Voting Rights Act, making it harder for Latino-backed candidates to get elected and leading to unfair allocation of resources.

“Filling a pothole is not a Democratic or Republican thing to do; neither is putting in a drainage ditch or a sidewalk,” said Nina Perales, one of a team of attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing voters. “The everyday business of a city – including maintaining the infrastructure – is not a partisan issue, and when a city council that operates almost exclusively in unison begins to divide over issues of resource allocation, that is not partisan.

“Here in Pasadena those divisions have everything to do with race,” she said, in an opening statement Thursday of the trial that will be decided not by jurors but by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

Lawyers for the city, however, told the judge there were legitimate reasons to change the system of electing city council members.

Claude Robert Heath, a prominent defense lawyer experienced in redistricting law, said shifting two of the eight council seats to at-large positions did not diminish access or opportunity for Latinos, who make up about half the population. And he said the city would show that whites have not voted as a unified block in recent city races, but instead crossed over to back candidates Latino voters preferred.

[…]

MALDEF lawyers began their case before Rosenthal Thursday with data-heavy testimony from three expert witnesses: a demographer, a political scientist and a historian.

The demographer, David Ely, testified that Census data indicates Latinos in Pasadena have not achieved the same level of education as whites. They have a higher poverty rate and are likelier to live in overcrowded housing.

Next on the stand was Richard L. Engstrom, a visiting political science professor at Duke University, who is an expert in minority voting rights. Engstrom testified that the ballot measure changing the system of government passed because non-Latinos voted in a racially uniform block. He said 99.6 percent of Latinos voted “no” on the measure.

Under question by the city’s lawyers, Engstrom doubled down on his contention that the votes were not an aberration.

“Does racially polarized voting exist?” he asked, rhetorically. “In election after election after election after election, the choice of Latino voters is being eliminated as a result of non-Latino voters voting as a block.”

He later added, “Racially polarized voting exists and persists in Pasadena.”

Day Two:

It felt like a power grab in Pasadena, a Latino city councilman told the judge. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal oversight for local elections, the mayor and a committee he’d appointed met behind closed doors to draw up a plan to reduce the voting power of Hispanics.

The testimony came on the second day in the federal trial of a closely watched voting rights case challenging how Pasadena elects its city council. The mayor took the stand for about an hour at the end of the day and is expected to testify at length after the Thanksgiving break.

But for most of Friday, Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra testified about the disparities in representation. Ybarra was not included in the closed door meeting, which had been scheduled to be open to the public. Ybarra said longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell approved of the gathering with police protecting the door. He said the mayor pushed the changes because he realized he no longer needed advance approval from the federal Justice Department to make revisions to the city charter.

[…]

Ybarra also said he heard secondhand accounts that the mayor and others were warning voters of “an invasion” of Hispanics in the city government: “It was all over Pasadena that if we didn’t adopt this 6-2 council, there was going to be too many Hispanics on council.”

A defense attorney questioned whether the four-term councilman was certain of what the mayor meant by “invasion.” The mayor had backed Ybarra’s candidacy when he first ran for council in 2009.

“Only the mayor and his creator know what his intent was, but the message and behavior were racially motivated,” he said.

Given the Thanksgiving holiday, the trial will likely wrap up next week. As noted, the plaintiffs have a tall order to prove discriminatory intent. It’s interesting that this trial is going on at the same time as the litigation over whether the voter ID law had discriminatory intent. I’d normally look at both of those as consequential cases with the potential to bring about a lot of change, but that would necessitate an Attorney General who isn’t a horrible racist. Rulings for the plaintiff in either or both cases would still be a big deal, just probably not as big as it could have been.

The At Large trend

From Think Progress:

Pasadena City Council

Yakima, WA is one-third Latino, but a Latino candidate has not been elected to the city council for almost 40 years. Santa Barbara, CA is 38 percent Latino, but only one Latino has been elected to its council in the last 10 years. And Pasadena, TX is 43 percent Hispanic, but the ethnic group is not even close to being proportionately represented in the city government.

All three cities have been or are currently being sued for allegedly using discriminatory at-large voting systems, a voter dilution tactic that has been recently and frequently employed against Hispanic voters. In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts.

As the Latino population grows across the country, cities have employed at-large voting to dilute the Latino vote and maintain white control of local governing bodies. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Hispanic populations reach a majority in the entire city, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government. According to Fair Vote, at-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, typically resulting in racially homogeneous elected bodies. The tactic used to be popular in the South to discriminate against neighborhoods with large African American communities but is now targeting a new threat: Latinos.

Recently, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima’s at-large voting system — whose representation is elected by the city as a whole rather than by specific districts — ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Lawsuits against cities attempting to dilute the Hispanic vote are gaining traction as more and more end with court orders and settlements that favor the plaintiffs, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

“A lawsuit like [Yakima] will clearly have a very important impact,” McDonald told ThinkProgress. “This was the first Section 2 challenge to an at-large system that was brought in Washington state and already the Hispanic population in Pasco, Washington has approached the city council there and asked them to adopt a single member district plan to replace the at-large system.”

Kathleen Taylor, the executive director of Washington’s ACLU branch, said the city of Pasco is likely to change its system before it is sued and ends up in a similar position to Yakima.

After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yakima, the judge adopted the ACLU’s voting plan, which called for an elimination of the at-large system. The ACLU is also asking Yakima for more than $2.8 million in legal fees and expenses. “If you bring a lawsuit now, these jurisdictions understand that if they lose, they will be liable for a substantial amount of costs and fees,” McDonald said. “That will have an important impact on their decision to settle these cases.”

Last month, the city of Santa Barbara, CA partially settled a similar suit, alleging its voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act. The city is currently drawing six new districts with citizen input to ensure that the Hispanic population, which makes up nearly 40 percent of the city, is not discriminated against. The lead plaintiff told the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Daily Nexus that the city is saving more than $2 million by settling the litigation for around $600,000 and not allowing it to go to trial, where the plaintiffs would likely prevail.

Because California has a state voting rights law, it “facilitates this type of challenge,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As a result, he said we will see a lot of settlements and moves away from at-large systems in California.

Yeah, we don’t have that in Texas, and with the Congress we have now, we won’t have it again nationally any time soon. I don’t have a problem with At Large districts per se, but there’s no mistaking the intent here. One only need look at a city like Farmers Branch to see what the effect can be when a more inclusive Council plan is adopted. We can also look to Pasadena, where we have an opportunity this May to minimize the damage being done. Ultimately, changes will have to be made at a higher level to prevent this kind of shenanigans at the local level.

Don’t forget about Pasadena

There’s still a lawsuit in the works regarding their 2013 redistricting referendum that switched their Council from an eight-member all-district makeup to six districts and two At large seats, all at the behest of Mayor Johnny Isbell.

Pasadena City Council

Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.

“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.

In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.

The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.

[…]

Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.

Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.

Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.

The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.

See here, here, here, here, and here. I don’t see any information about when the lawsuit that was filed will be heard, but I’m sure it’s on a docket somewhere. The bit I quoted above is what interests me here, as it contains a testable proposition. The city of Pasadena, which is to say Mayor Isbell and his enablers, claim that by switching to a hybrid at large/single member district system, turnout will increase in Pasadena. I’d love to review what turnout has been in Pasadena over the past few cycles, but for the life of me I can’t find past election results from Pasadena anywhere – they are not in the Harris County Clerk election results, much to my surprise. If anyone can point me to them, I’d be grateful. In any event, there’s another avenue for investigation, and that’s turnout in the Houston district Council races versus turnout in the At Large races, since the Houston model is cited as what Pasadena aspires to. What I’m going to look at is the undervote rate in district versus At Large races, on the theory that if no one casts a vote in a particular race, it’s hard to claim that that race affected overall turnout in a positive way. Here’s the data for Houston, for the last six elections:

2013 Undervote 2011 Undervote 2009 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 2.76% Mayor 4.18% Mayor 2.05% Dist A 10.36% Dist A 8.85% Dist A 18.24% Dist B 11.12% Dist B 9.78% Dist B 14.94% Dist D 12.53% Dist C 5.61% Dist C 13.30% Dist F 21.40% Dist D 8.91% Dist D 15.05% Dist G 22.47% Dist F 12.96% Dist E 14.98% Dist I 10.44% Dist G 14.32% Dist F 8.64% Dist I 11.73% Dist G 22.51% AL 1 27.49% Dist J 10.74% AL 2 29.76% Dist K 11.44% AL 1 28.48% AL 3 26.37% AL 2 30.65% AL 4 24.87% AL 1 22.50% AL 4 28.36% AL 5 28.03% AL 2 17.97% AL 5 25.89% AL 3 20.81% Controller 22.32% AL 4 20.05% Controller 15.39% AL 5 12.03% 2007 Undervote 2005 Undervote 2003 Undervote ============================================================= Mayor 6.73% Mayor 5.51% Mayor 1.38% Dist B 10.55% Dist A 19.01% Dist A 13.49% Dist C 11.40% Dist B 8.65% Dist B 11.97% Dist D 10.66% Dist C 12.82% Dist C 12.86% Dist E 10.29% Dist F 10.13% Dist E 12.90% Dist I 9.80% Dist H 12.10% Dist F 13.97% Dist I 9.33% Dist G 14.20% AL 1 31.53% Dist H 10.29% AL 2 24.94% AL 1 20.88% Dist I 13.13% AL 3 18.61% AL 2 26.37% AL 5 19.86% AL 3 24.62% AL 1 20.46% AL 5 22.92% AL 2 22.84% AL 3 18.05% AL 4 19.24% AL 5 17.29% Controller 14.04%

So over six cycles, covering the full tenures of two different Mayors and including high-turnout and low-turnout elections, the undervote rate in every single contested At Large race was higher, often significantly higher, than the undervote in every single district race, with the sole exception of At Large 5 and Districts F and G in 2011. That was the year Jolanda Jones was defeated in a runoff by Jack Christie, and it was the highest profile race that year, certainly the highest profile At Large race in any of these six years.

This to me is very strong evidence that At Large races don’t do anything to drive turnout. This should make intuitive sense – At Large races are as expensive to run as Mayoral races, but no one has anywhere near the funds to do that, while District races can be reasonably run with shoe leather and some mail. Candidates in At Large races are not as well known as candidates in district races, who have a far greater incentive to attend smaller neighborhood and civic club meetings. I’d bet we’ll see a similar pattern in Pasadena, with the district races having greater participation than the At Large races. I just hope I’ll be able to find their election results so I can check that.

This will be the first election in Pasadena under this new arrangement, assuming it isn’t thrown out before the election, which I would not expect to happen. I wish I could say that Mayor Isbell was on the ballot and that this was a chance to throw him out, but alas, he has a four year term and was re-elected in 2013. This is a chance to unseat a couple of his minions, however, and if there’s a good local opportunity for anyone upset with the 2014 elections to focus on, it’s here. The Texas Organizing Project did a lot of good work in trying to defeat the 2013 redistricting referendum, and with a little more help they might have succeeded. Whatever happens with the lawsuit, it would be nice to turn the tables in this election. You want to make a difference, get involved with TOP and help support some good candidates in Pasadena this year.

Pasadena lurches towards redistricting

It’s getting ugly.

Pasadena City Council

A Pasadena councilwoman was forcibly ejected by armed officers and the mayor was accused of packing a gun during recent meetings on a controversial redistricting plan.

Councilwoman Pat Van Houte was removed from a meeting Tuesday on orders of Mayor Johnny Isbell after exceeding a three-minute speaking limit. And at a redistricting hearing in March, another councilman said he was “shocked” to see Isbell carrying what looked like a handgun.

Pasadena, pop. 150,000, is among the first in the nation to test last year’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that weakened the Voting Rights Act. The high court voided the preclearance requirement for election changes, which had been the law of the land for nearly half a century in many Southern states.

After the ruling, Mayor Johnny Isbell pushed forward a plan, narrowly approved by the city’s voters. It switches two of the city’s eight council seats from district to citywide elections.

[…]

Van Houte acknowledged that she exceeded her time limit Tuesday before Mayor Johnny Isbell pulled the plug and ordered her removed by two armed officers.

Van Houte said she was not given sufficient time to voice her objections to the proposed new map: “If someone is trying to represent the best interests of their city, they should not be thrown out for doing it. I’ve not seen this happen in the nearly five years that I’ve been on council.”

In the map approved on first reading Tuesday, she and another incumbent from the north end, Ornaldo Ybarra, objected to being located in the same district and having to run against one another. She was evicted before the vote was taken.

Ybarra and the other two from the north end denounced the map and walked out in solidarity with Van Houte prior to the vote. The map was approved with the mayor and the four council members from the south side supporting it.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. If this fight is ugly, it’s because the power grab that’s at its heart is ugly. Isbell says he granted Van Houte an extra minute before calling the cops on her, which is awfully big of him. But c’mon, dude. You hold all the cards and you know it. The least you could have done would have been to be magnanimous in victory and let the opposition say its piece. Not doing so marks you as insecure and a bully. Can’t say I’m surprised by that, but Isbell did have a chance to show himself to be otherwise, and he failed to take it.

Anyway. The maps that were under consideration are here – it’s proposed map #2 that will be voted on. The current map is here for comparison. A memo from Mayor Isbell about the maps and their population figures is here. The numbers apparently changed from what you see in the first table. I’m sure we’ll get a clearer picture of all that really happened when litigation is filed after the map is adopted.

All about Pasadena

Meet Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell, the man behind the redistricting scheme there that we’ve been talking about lately.

Johnny Isbell

For more than four decades, Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell has had his feet sunk deep into the city’s political landscape of smokestacks and honky tonks like Gilley’s, made famous by the 1980 John Travolta movie, “Urban Cowboy.”

Despite an attachment to Pasadena’s past, Isbell puts most of his energy into changing the image of the city, once nicknamed “Stinkadina” because of its industrial stench.

Now, with a paternal air, Isbell delights in showing off the town’s “new main street,” Fairmont Parkway, with its landscaped esplanades and sparkling upscale stores. “Most don’t even think this is Pasadena,” he said.

But the mayor’s detractors, who come from the increasingly Hispanic north end that abuts the Houston Ship Channel, say they feel neglected. Four of the eight councilmen, who champion the north end, call it a “tale of two cities.”

Now, the mayor finds himself at the center of a controversy regarding the proposed redrawing of council lines that his opponents see as an attempt to maintain his power grip over the changing city and prevent the north end from gaining an edge on the council in the next election.

But Isbell refers to his council opponents as “part-timers” trying to usurp his administrative power bestowed by the city charter in a strong-mayor government. In May, Isbell garnered 73 percent of the vote in his re-election bid with campaign expenditures of about $100,000. He was pitted against an Hispanic newcomer with a $400 budget.

Though Isbell presents a smiling, friendly soft-spoken demeanor, his detractors say he rules with an iron fist.

I don’t live in Pasadena and I don’t know Mayor Isbell. I’m sure he has his good points and his bad points. It’s hard for me to see his redistricting plan as anything but a power grab. The rationale is weak, the denial of preclearance is significant, and the history of redistricting in Texas is fraught with bad examples. Redistricting is about power, and nobody looks virtuous when they pursue more power for themselves.

The good news is that there still has to be a vote before the redistricting plan can be implemented. This story from earlier in the week is mostly a lamentation about the diminution of the Voting Rights Act, but it also contains this important tidbit:

[Council Member Ornaldo] The Galveston JP plan already is being challenged in court. Ybarra predicts the Pasadena council redo also will end up there if it is voted in. His hope is that voters will do what the Justice Department no longer can: Just say no.

“When Pasadena went to districts, it was because of a lawsuit in the 1990s,” Ybarra said. “Now you have a change in the Voting Rights Act and suddenly there is this idea to have at-large seats? That’s a pretty big clue as to what happened.”

I’d been wondering when a lawsuit might get filed. It makes sense that it wouldn’t happen until the plan gets approved by the voters, if it does. Better all around if it gets rejected, of course.

Pasadena proceeds with its needless redistricting

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Pasadena City Council

Except for one agenda item which drew a large crowd, many public speakers, an unusually long time of councilmember’s explanations and a 5-4 vote, Tuesday’s (August 20) Pasadena City Council meeting was “Regular.”

Their next meeting, scheduled for Thursday (August 22) at 8 a.m. is going to be “Special.”

The five to four approval vote (the four: Councilmembers Ornaldo Ybarra, Don Harrison, Pat Van Houte and Cody Wheeler) followed 30 minutes of public speakers almost exclusively commenting why they were against the charter redistricting proposal that, if council approves one more time, will go to voters in November.

Mayor Johnny Isbell is the only person who has taken ownership of the controversial plan to (if voters agree) convert the city from an eight single-member district representation to a six district, two at-large format.

[…]

Pasadena resident Patricia Gonzales called the redistricting plan, “…nothing more than a political power grab,” and focused on Isbell when she said, “All you’re trying to do is dilute the Hispanic and Latino community from sitting here (as councilmembers),” during public comment.

Other speakers on the topic echoed Gonzales’ points and also said the current structure is less expensive for potential candidates.

“Political power grab” sums it up pretty well. I wrote about this on Tuesday, and not surprisingly it went through on a 5-4 vote, with the Mayor casting the tiebreaker. Here’s a press release from Sen. Sylvia Garcia about it.

Pasadena Mayor Johnny Isbell submitted a mid-decade redistricting change to the Pasadena City Charter that alters the city council from an eight single-member district council to a hybrid system with two at large seats and six-single member district seats. The change will significantly increase the population size of each council seat and depending on the map could drastically harm the ability of Latinos to elect their candidates of choice. The Pasadena City Council approved the city charter amendment on a 5-4 vote despite overwhelming public opposition in a late evening city council hearing on August 20, 2013.

“This decision by the Mayor and the majority of the Council is exactly the type of change the Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent. I am extremely disappointed that the Council approved this charter amendment despite the opposition by the citizen’s commission and the minority community,” stated Senator Sylvia Garcia.

With the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the City of Pasadena will no longer need to obtain the preclearance of the Department of Justice, despite the fact that a similar election change was denied approval in December of 2012. The measure will likely be added to the November ballot for voter approval.

According to U.S. Department of Justice, since 1982 Texas has had the second highest number of Voting Rights Act Section 5 objections including at least 109 objections since 1982, 12 of which were for statewide voting changes. Texas leads the nation in several categories of voting discrimination, including recent Section 5 violations and Section 2 challenges.

The good news, such as it is, is that this still has to be approved by the voters, so those of you in Pasadena that disapprove of naked power plays can swat it down. It would be very nice if Mayor Isbell were to suffer some backlash from this, in the form of a stinging defeat at the polls. That will likely require a concerted effort to organize and turn out the voters who are negatively affected by this as well as those that just plain don’t like it. I hope such an effort is being put together as we speak.

And remember when I said in that last post that Pasadena was just the beginning of this kind of shenanigans? Well, now Galveston County is joining the fun.

Galveston County commissioners have slashed the number of justice of the peace and constable districts a year after the U.S. Justice Department blocked a similar plan as discriminatory.

The action makes Galveston County the first local government in the Houston region, and possibly in Texas, to make a change that would have been unlawful before a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened the Voting Rights Act.

The Commissioners Court’s Republican majority, in a special meeting Monday, voted 4-1 along party lines to reduce the number of districts for constables and justices of the peace from eight to four, saying the change would increase efficiency and save money. The U.S. Justice Department last year refused to approve a plan to reduce the number of districts to five, saying this would have discriminated against minorities.

[…]

The county established eight justice of the peace and constable districts two decades ago to settle a discrimination lawsuit. By reducing the number, the county opens itself up to a civil lawsuit authorized under another section of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights attorney Chad Dunn said Tuesday that he had been asked to review the implications of the commissioners’ action.

“It’s deeply disappointing that Galveston County chose to move forward with a redistricting map that the Department of Justice has already told them was discriminatory,” Dunn said. “In fact they went a step further and made it more discriminatory.” Dunn declined to name the residents seeking his consultation.

[…]

Commissioner Ryan Dennard said before the vote that reducing the number of districts would enhance efficiency and save the county $1 million a year. Two justices together handle only 2 percent of the total justice of the peace cases, Dennard said.

The lone minority and the only Democrat on the court, Commissioner Stephen Holmes, said the county has done no detailed study showing how much money would be saved.

Holmes said he was blindsided by the redistricting plan approved Monday, having learned about it when notice of a special meeting was posted Friday.

Other commissioners’ failure to consult with Holmes was one of the reasons cited by the Justice Department for refusing to approve a redistricting plan last year.

Have you noticed how these redistricting efforts – in Pasadena, in Galveston, and in the Legislature – are being done as “emergency” items, with very short timelines and close to zero public engagement? It’s not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Galveston County Commissioners Court acted with the same bad behavior as before when they got slapped by the Justice Department. Here, the potential good news is that if Galveston County gets sued and loses, they could wind up being subject to preclearance again under Section 3. Assuming that they don’t wind up there as a result of the other ongoing litigation. One can only hope, because it should be abundantly clear by now that the state and far too many of its localities cannot be trusted with this stuff. Hair Balls, Stace, Texas Redistricting, and BOR have more.

UPDATE: The Chron is now covering the developments in Pasadena. This tells you all you need to know about the nature of Mayor Isbell’s stunt:

Isbell declined comment Wednesday on his fast-tracked proposal for the November ballot that was made possible after the U.S. Supreme court recently voided the Voting Right Act’s pre-clearance requirement. He noted that his proposal no longer must pass federal review for potential discrimination.

The proposed charter change would replace two of the city’s eight single-member districts with two seats that are elected citywide. But a citizens committee that reviewed the proposed change rejected it, 11 to 1. A diverse group of committee members preferred the accountability of smaller districts to serve them, said Larry Peacock, who served on that panel.

Emphasis mine. This is happening because Mayor Isbell wants it to happen, because it furthers his political aims and because he thinks he can get away with it. That’s all there is to it.

From Shelby to Pasadena

You might have noticed this Chron editorial from last week.

Pasadena City Council

After former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s fall from grace, we thought that Texas politicians would know better than pursue mid-decade redistricting. Not so in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is trying to change Pasadena’s city council districts.

Isbell proposed last month to replace two of Pasadena’s single-member districts with two at-large seats. The Bond/Charter Review Committee recommended against moving forward with the changes, at least for the upcoming election. But the proposal alone is distressing enough. Historically, replacing districts with at-large seats has been used to discriminatory ends, and such moves are often blocked by the Department of Justice. Only a few months ago, that would have been the case here. Not anymore. For decades, the Voting Rights Act has been a useful speed bump in Texas. Due to our history of discrimination, any alteration to voting laws or processes had to be approved by the Department of Justice. When the Supreme Court struck down the part of the VRA that based preclearance requirements on past discrimination, it busted open a hole in that wall, and Texas politicians have wasted no time to climb through.

This newfound lack of federal oversight allows local politicians to implement maps that threaten to discriminate against minority voters. The current individual districts in Pasadena allow large, compact and politically cohesive minority populations to elect the representatives of their choice. Replacing these districts with at-large seats could dilute minority voting power, submerging the voting-bloc in a sea of majority voters.

I’ve been peripherally aware of this, but I can’t claim to have followed it closely. I got an email from Pasadena Council Member Ornaldo Ybarra, whom I interviewed in 2012 when he ran for the Legislature, alerting me to this. Pasadena did a normal redistricting process in 2011 that wound up being quite contentious amid allegations that Pasadena Mayor Isbell was driving it with an eye towards furthering his own political ends by drawing his opponents out of their districts. (Stace noted this last year; there’s more here.) I’m told that there’s a 4-4 partisan split on Council (Mayor Isbell is a Republican), with the Mayor being a tiebreaking vote on some issues. An attempt to reduce the number of district seats from 8 to 6, with two At Large seats, was quashed by the Justice Department, but barring a bail-in to Section 3 preclearance by the courts, that plan is now back in play.

In fact, it’s on the agenda for tonight’s Pasadena City Council meeting (agenda item F, on page 5, in the section beginning “(2) First Readings”). Neither a search of Google or the Chron’s archives found much on the history of this, but here’s a Your Houston news story about what is on tap for tonight.

The short road to a destination that finalizes what will be on the November ballot in Pasadena has had plenty of bends and even u-turns.

In July, a quickly assembled citizen committee considering bonds and charter revisions met publicly and privately. They recommended bonds only, not charter revisions for the November ballot.

At last Tuesday’s (August 13) council meeting, after three councilmembers spoke for a slimmer bond package and lost, and the original proposal passed, Mayor Johnny Isbell said he “…doesn’t understand how anyone can vote against the bonds.”

Then, Thursday (August 15), Isbell wrote a memo with another twist; forget the bonds for now. Instead, we’re going to consider charter amendments.

With two readings needed to get it approved and a Harris County election deadline fast approaching, Isbell has put the charter amendments on the Tuesday (August 20) agenda and also called a Special Council Meeting for Thursday morning (August 22) at 8 a.m. to get it done.

In his Thursday memo from to councilmembers and the citizen committee obtained by The Pasadena Citizen, Isbell states, “As a result of opposition to the bond proposal by three Members of Council, I have elected to withdraw the proposed ordinance,” and, “If the representatives don’t present a united plan, then voters are concerned and many may be unwilling to commit the tax dollars necessary to improve neighborhoods they know nothing about.

“How could we persuade a voter who lives in Village Grove to support spending millions of dollars in the Gardens or Deepwater areas if the representatives of those neighborhoods oppose such expenditures. I find the task of convincing voters, under such circumstances, to be daunting.”

Also in the memo, Isbell praised the work of the Bond/Charter Review Committee, as the rest of council has publicly done, then he added, “However, in view of the Committee’s hard work, I am proposing an election to amend the Charter.”

Isbell wrote that charter changes don’t require as high a standard of unanimity as bonds do.

“The Committee proposed four changes to the Charter and I am adding a proposed fifth change which deals with redistricting,” Isbell wrote.

So if you have any interest in this, you might want to head over to Pasadena City Hall this evening at 6:30 to watch the proceedings. As noted in that story, there are some other things going on as well – see this Easter Lemming Facebook post for more.

Like I said, I’ve not followed this closely, and the details are a bit fuzzy to me, so please forgive the lack of data. But look at it this way: If Mayor Parker – or any Houston mayor – suddenly announced the need to redraw Houston’s Council districts, and produced a map that she herself had drawn without input from Council, wouldn’t you be suspicious? And if that map just happened to draw a couple of her persistent critics out of their seats, wouldn’t that look even more hinky? That’s what appears to be going on in Pasadena. And if it happens there, you can expect it to happen elsewhere, too.

Interview with Ornaldo Ybarra

Ornaldo Ybarra

This week we return to the State House and wrap up the Harris County interviews for the primary cycle. HD144, which mostly covers the city of Pasadena, is one of the stronger pickup opportunities for Democrats this fall, having been redrawn for 2012 as a majority Latino district that voted Democratic downballot in 2008. In fact, it’s sufficiently Democratic that two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Ken Legler decided to step down instead of fighting it out for re-election. Three Democrats, all of whom filed in December, are vying to replace Legler, with today’s interview subject being Ornaldo Ybarra. Ybarra is a Pasadena City Council member, a police officer, and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Three for HD144, Lee for HCDE

Since Monday night, I have heard of three people who are interested in running for HD144, the State Rep district that was drawn to favor the election of a Democrat by the San Antonio court. For the record, the 2008 numbers in HD144 are as follows:

President: Obama 53.16%, McCain 45.92%

Senate: Noriega 59.25%, Cornyn 38.89%

Supreme Court, Place 7: Houston 59.01%, Wainwright 38.87%

Supreme Court, Place 8: Yanez 59.57%, Johnson 38.43%

CCA, Place 3: Strawn 58.06%, Price 39.79%

Two candidates have filed for this seat and a third announced that he was running, though his announcement came before the two filings were announced. The first to announce a filing was Kevin Risner, son of George Risner, the Democratic JP in Precinct 2. The second was Pasadena City Council Member Ornaldo Ybarra, whose statement is beneath the fold. Finally, there is Cody Wheeler, who made an announcement and put out this statement, but as of last night had not filed. I look forward to meeting and interviewing these gentlemen, and may the best person win, including any others who may yet be looking at this district.

In other Harris County news, Erica Lee, daughter of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, has filed to run for HCDE Trustee in Precinct 1. She is the first Democrat to file for this position, the single easiest pickup opportunity for Democrats in Harris County next year, and whoever wins the primary will be virtually guaranteed to win in November. That person will not face incumbent Roy Morales, however, as he has undoubtedly done the math and will head off to the sunset and future opportunities to run for something. He wasn’t on the ballot this year and he may not be on it next year – I have no idea what this world is coming to. I am aware of at least one other person who had expressed an interest in this seat, but so far Erica Lee, whom I met briefly at the petition signing event the week of Thanksgiving (though I did not make the connection to her mother), is it. Stace has more.

I should note that we have two candidates for the at large HCDE position currently held by the ridiculous Michael Wolfe – Diane Trautman and David Rosen have both filed. There is also a Precinct 3 position for HCDE that does not have a Democratic challenger. I have heard that incumbent Republican Louis Evans is not running again, so while this would not be a likely pickup opportunity it seems to me that it deserves a candidate, since who knows what kind of candidate will emerge on the R side. For that matter, it would be nice to have a serious challenger to County Commissioner Steve Radack. Yeah, I know, I’d like a pony, too. Hey, wishes are still free.

Meanwhile, over in Fort Bend County, attorney Vy Nguyen has announced her candidacy for HD26, the multi-cultural district that was drawn to be nearly 50/50 by the court. Her statement is here. It’s fair to say that the Democratic road towards a House majority will go right through that district.

Finally, a semi-comprehensive list of Democratic filings from around the state can be found here. I see that Sylvia Romo has made it official, so we will have that contested primary over there. If you’re aware of any filing news I’ve missed, please let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: According to Robert Miller, HCC Trustee Mary Ann Perez is also interested in HD144, while incumbent Rep. Ken Legler has not decided if he will file for re-election.

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