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Rodney Ellis

The state of the county 2019

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has a lot of accomplishments to tout.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County in the past year has made significant progress on flood control, criminal justice and improving public health, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her first State of the County address Friday.

The county executive also announced her administration would make significant investments in early childhood development in the coming year.

Hidalgo said the Houston area continues to enjoy a bustling economy and low unemployment, but said business and government leaders must not be complacent.

“To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century job market, a low unemployment rate doesn’t mean much,” Hidalgo said at the annual luncheon, held this year at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel downtown. “To a family who struggles, a great medical center can’t help them if they don’t have health insurance.”

[…]

She lauded a historic settlement to reform the county’s bail system for misdemeanor defendants, which a federal judge had declared unconstitutional. Hidalgo thanked Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has long been an advocate on criminal justice issues.

She noted that in response to a series of chemical fires in east Harris County, Commissioners Court significantly increased the size of the pollution control and fire marshal’s offices, as well as purchased new air monitors.

“We’ve established the most robust environmental policy that Harris County has seen in at least 30 years,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo thanked the county’s flood control district and engineering department for speeding up work on the $2.5 billion flood infrastructure program and fast-tracking drainage projects in 105 subdivisions.

She also said her office has made county government more transparent by holding a series of town halls, developing a 311 call system and making a greater effort to include the public at more open, albeit lengthy, Commissioners Court meetings. Hidalgo said to date, four times as many residents have participated than last year.

You can see a copy of Judge Hidalgo’s prepared remarks here. I like the way she addressed the “concerns” some people had about her age, noting that the legendary Judge Roy Hofheinz was three years younger than she was when he was first elected. I think she has a lot to be proud of, and there’s clearly a lot more she has in mind to do. I’m looking forward to it. The Texas Signal has more.

Filing period preview: Harris County

Previously: Congress, Statewide, and SBOE/Senate/House.

For County races, I cannot use the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet, as it doesn’t include local races. I am instead using the Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Reports for Various County Offices link on the County Clerk webpage, as it includes Appointments of Treasurer. I set the filter for a time frame beginning July 15, and including all offices. Not perfect, and may miss candidates who filed Appointments of Treasurer, but it’s close enough. Earlier candidates will have been included in my roundup of July finance reports for county candidates.

So with all that said, here we go. I’m not looking for incumbents’ campaign webpages, we already know about them. I’m trying to identify the party for each of the candidates I found, but some are not easy to determine, so I left them as “unknown”. Feel free to correct me if you know more.

District Attorney

Note: I used some information in this Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center post in the following.

Kim Ogg (D)
Audia Jones (D). Has been running for several months.
Carvana Cloud (D). Former division chief within the DAO (see link above).

Mary Nan Huffman (R) Former ADA in the Montgomery County DA’s office, now working for HPOU.

Lori DeAngelo (Unknown) Another former assistant DA (see link above again). I can’t find much else about her.
Todd Overstreet – (Unknown). I have no new information about him since the July post.

Finally, rumor has it that our old buddy Lloyd Oliver is running for DA as a Republican. I don’t see any filings for him so I can’t readily confirm that, but 1) I’m sure he has an appointment of treasurer always on file, and 2) Lloyd Oliver is a barnacle on the body politic, so it pays to always expect something annoying from him.

Sheriff

Ed Gonzalez (D)
Harry Zamora (D). I have no new information on him since the July post.
Jerome Moore (D). Ran in the Dem primary in 2016. No new info on him, either.

Paul Day (R). He is a “Pro-Life, Christian Conservative”, and he ran in the Republican primary for Sheriff in 2008, against then-incumbent Tommy Thomas, getting 17% of the vote.
Joe Danna (R). As noted in July, a multi-time candidate for Constable in Precinct 1.

Lawrence Rush (Unknown). Current employee of the HCSO.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan (D)
Christian Menefee (D)
Ben Rose (D)

Nothing new here, both of these challengers have been running for months. I don’t see any evidence of a Republican candidate for County Attorney as yet.

Tax Assessor

Ann Harris Bennett (D)

Chris Daniel (R)

Daniel is the former District Clerk, elected in the 2010 wave and then un-elected in the 2018 assertion of Democratic dominance. His Appointment of Treasurer was filed on Wednesday but not yet viewable. His Friends of Chris Daniel PAC reported $438 on hand and $25K in outstanding loans as of July.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

Rodney Ellis (D)
Maria T. Jackson (D). We know about this one. I could not find any web presence for her – her personal Facebook page still lists her occupation as a Judge – but I did find this Houston Style article about her campaign launch. I will be very interested to see what her January finance report looks like.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack (R)
Brenda Stardig (R)

Diana Alexander (D)
Michael Moore (D)
Kristi Thibaut (D)
Erik Hassan (D)
Luis Guajardo (D)

The first three Dems, we know about. Alexander was the first candidate in. Moore is the former Chief of Staff to Mayor Bill White. Thibaut served one term in the Lege in HD133. Erik Hassan was a candidate in the 2016 Dem primary for Precinct 3, losing to Jenifer Pool. Luis Guajardo is a very recent filer whose personal Facebook page lists him as an urban planner. As for Brenda Stardig, soon to be former Council Member in District A, she filed her Appointment of Treasurer on November 8. Chron reporter Jasper Scherer says that Radack is running for re-election, so there’s another contested primary for you. Radack has a pile of cash on hand, and he may have to spend some of it in the next couple of months. As with Maria Jackson, I will be very interested to see what Brenda Stardig’s January finance report looks like.

I’m going to stop here, in part because this is long enough and in part because I’m not prepared to do the same exercise on Constables and Justices of the Peace. Just remember that Beto carried all eight Constable/JP precincts in 2018, so ideally every Republican incumbent should have a challenger, this year and in 2022 as well. I may take a stab at this next week, but for now this wraps up my look ahead at the filing period. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as actual filings pile up.

Jackson to challenge Ellis in Precinct 1

Here we go.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Former Harris County criminal court judge Maria T. Jackson will challenge incumbent Rodney Ellis for Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner, her campaign announced Monday.

Jackson, the county’s longest serving felony judge until her resignation last month, plans to hold a campaign kickoff on Tuesday. She said she was unavailable for comment Monday.

Jackson, a Democrat, served as presiding judge of the 339th State District Court in Harris County between 2008 and 2019. Previously, she was a Houston municipal court judge. She unsuccessfully ran for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018.

Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and graduated from the Texas A&M School of Law. She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, was first elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

She faces a well-funded opponent in Ellis in the March Democratic primary. Ellis, a former state senator, first was elected Precinct 1 commissioner in 2016.

On his most recent campaign finance report filing in July, Ellis listed a war chest of $3.8 million, more than any other elected official in Harris County. Jackson listed $13,812 cash on hand for her judge campaign account, which she can transfer to her campaign for commissioner.

University of Houston political science Professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the fundraising deficit is one of several significant challenges Jackson would have to overcome to have a chance of victory. Rottinghaus said Ellis is widely known to the public and popular among Democratic voters. He also said judges often struggle to transition to legislative or executive elected positions.

“Judges tend not to be visible, politically,” Rottinghaus said. “They aren’t used to talking about core political issues and using that to build coalitions.”

See here for the background, and here for my 2016 judicial Q&A with Jackson. Ellis formally announced his re-election campaign on the same day, not that there was any doubt about his intentions. I tend to agree with Prof. Rottinghaus on this, especially when the other candidate is as well known as Commissioner Ellis is. I support Ellis, I voted for him as a precinct chair in 2016, and I’m happy with what he’s done. Guess I need to add this race to my list for primary interviews.

Ogg continues to have problems with the bail settlement

I don’t like this.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg is rallying police officers across Harris County to show up in federal court en masse to oppose to a landmark bail reform agreement at a final hearing set for this month.

She emailed about 100 police chiefs to invite them to attend an Oct. 28 court proceeding before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to lend support on an issue she says “endangers the public.”

In addition to recruiting top brass to the hearing, Ogg also requested that her lieutenants be present to support her concerns about portions of the settlement that allowed most defendants arrested on minor offenses to await trial at home without posting up-front cash bail, according to her spokesman, Dane Schiller.

Ogg expressed misgivings about the proposed consent decree approved last summer by Commissioners Court after months of intensive meetings between county leaders, judges and the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 2016 class action.

Ogg, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, is among a number of parties, including many from the bail bond industry, who submitted concerns about the settlement in court during the summer.

“The district attorney has always supported bail reform, so that nobody is held just because they are poor, but she also says public safety should always be considered,” Schiller said.

[…]

The county public defender, who has been friends with Ogg since law school, said he suspects Ogg’s approach will be perceived as overkill by Rosenthal, the region’s highest ranking lifetime appointee to the federal bench.

“A courtroom full of police officers is not going to intimidate her,” said Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin. “She might be insulted that they would do that to her.”

“It’s over the top, and this kind of bravado backfires every time,” Bunin added. He said the majority of the concerns Ogg raised were resolved by a judicial rule passed in January.

See here and here for the background. I agree with Alex Bunin here, this is not going to help and will serve as fuel for Ogg’s primary opponents. The fears being expressed are overblown, and frankly it’s fine by me if the county has to experience a little inconvenience to accommodate a non-violent offender who need assistance getting back to court. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay for an Uber for that guy than pay to feed, clothe, and house him for some number of weeks or months. Maybe – stay with me here – we could arrest fewer of these non-violent mostly drug offenders in the first place, which would go a long way towards reducing inconvenience for everyone. In the meantime, the bail agreement is in place and it is going to be the law. Let’s all do what we can to make it work.

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.

Rodney Ellis may have an opponent in 2020

Keep your eye on this:

Here’s a Chron story about Judge Jackson’s resignation, which does not mention the challenge-to-Rodney-Ellis possibility, since at this point that’s mostly informed gossip. It does mean, as the story notes, that Greg Abbott will get to appoint a replacement, which if past patterns hold will be a Republican that had been booted out by voters in either 2016 or 2018. Which in turn means there will be at least one judicial slot available in 2020 for a Democrat who doesn’t want to have to primary someone. I’m sure that will draw some interest.

As far as the rumored challenge to Commissioner Rodney Ellis goes, no one gets or deserves a free pass, and a real challenge is better for democracy than the usual no-name crank filing against an otherwise unbothered incumbent for the office. If we’re going to have an election, let’s have one between real, qualified, purposeful candidates. I supported Ellis in that weird precinct chair election in 2016, I’ll happily support him in 2020, and I fully expect he’ll cruise to an easy win in March, if indeed Jackson runs against him.

Jackson will have several obstacles to winning a primary against Ellis (if, again, that is what she intends to do). Ellis is popular, has a strong base, has been a prime mover of policies widely supported by Democrats while on Commissioners Court, especially while he’s been in the Dem majority post-2018, and has a lot of money in his campaign treasury. Jackson, by contrast, has $13,812 on hand, and will now have to raise money in large quantities in a short time frame. Her one contribution from this cycle came from the Texans for Fairness PAC, which supported a lot of local Dems in 2018, and whose co-founder is Amir Mireskandari, of that weird poker club situation that I haven’t said anything about in part because I have no idea what to make of it. It’s not hard to see how that could be a loud sideshow in a Jackson-Ellis primary battle, which again, as of this time isn’t a thing. But it could be, and so we ought to be aware of what might come with it. Stay tuned.

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.

More ways to improve access to voting

In Harris County:

Inmates of the Harris County Jail may soon be able to vote. Harris County leaders have approved a study on setting up a polling location at the jail as early as this November.

The County Clerk’s and Sheriff’s Offices will explore if they can set up a polling location at the jail in time for this Election Day. Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the measure.

“It’s their constitutional right, and so we need to make sure that we’re following that particular law,” Garcia said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded the proposal, which passed along party lines in a three-to-two vote. “Remember, the ones sitting in the jail haven’t been convicted yet, unless they’ve been convicted of something else,” Ellis said. “And for what it’s worth, there may be people in line to visit them who can vote.”

If you don’t like this idea, then I have good news for you: The bail lawsuit settlement means that there will be far fewer inmates in the jail who might get to take advantage of this. Just remember, you don’t lose your right to vote until you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a felony, and if that happens you’re going to a state prison, not the county jail. If you’re in the jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence, you’re still a legal voter.

From Bexar County:

[County Commissioner Justin] Rodriguez, a former Democratic member of the Texas House, is asking the Bexar Commissioner’s Court to form an advisory committee to identify improvements to the county’s voting procedures, step up voter education and drive higher turnout. He hopes the group — made up of residents and members of nonprofits and other stakeholders — can make progress on that work ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting much help from state leaders on how to best administer elections or get people out to vote,” said Rodriguez, who worked with voter-turnout group MOVE Texas to formulate his plan. “I think the best solution for us is to act locally.”

[…]

Rodriguez said he’s confident he has the votes on County Commissioner’s court to support his measure and start assembling the committee in coming weeks.

As that story notes, Bexar County is also implementing voting centers this year. I don’t know what Commissioner Rodriguez and his committee will come up with, but I hope we keep an eye on them here in Harris. I’m sure we’ll be able to learn something from their experience.

UPDATE: Received the following email from County Clerk Diane Trautman:

“Due to the Labor Day holiday and other prior commitments, the Harris County Clerk and Sheriff’s offices are still in the exploratory stage of determining the best way to meet the voting needs of Harris County residents that are in jail. Determining a new voting location requires several steps and usually takes many months to confirm. This process includes wifi connectivity, ADA compliance, available parking, legality of location, and availability of location. Due to voting locations already being set for the upcoming November election, the ballot by mail program will be the best voting option for those who are incarcerated in the November election.”

For more information please email [email protected]

Hopefully this can happen in time for 2020.

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.

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.

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

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.

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.

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Commissioners Court appoints a new judge

From the inbox:

Genesis Draper

Based on the motion from Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Commissioners Court on Tuesday appointed Genesis E. Draper – an assistant public defender in the Harris County Public Defender’s Office – to fill the judicial vacancy at Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 12.

The seat was left vacant following the unexpected passing of Judge Cassandra Hollemon, who was elected to the bench in November as part of a historical judicial sweep that elected 17 Black women to the county judiciary, all of whom demonstrated a deep commitment to criminal justice reform. During her short time on the bench, Judge Hollemon was a part of the historical decision by the County Criminal Court judges to implement local rule changes for misdemeanor bail protocols, effectively ushering in long-awaited bail reform.

“We can never replace Judge Hollemon, but we can honor her legacy and the will of the voters by appointing Genesis E. Draper to the bench,” said Commissioner Ellis. “Ms. Draper has an exemplary legal career and record of public service that reflects a clear commitment to ensuring everyone receives fair treatment and equal justice in Harris County regardless of who they are or how much money they have.”

After Commissioners Court, Draper said: “This appointment is a tremendous honor. I’m committed to building on Judge Hollemon’s legacy and will continue her work, alongside other members of the Harris County judiciary, to advance the reforms that are needed to transform our justice system into one that delivers equal justice and fair treatment to all people.”

Draper is a graduate of Spelman College and received her law degree from the University of Texas Law School, where she was a member of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society, Criminal Law Society, Board of Advocates and the mock trial team.

She began her legal career as a public defender in Tennessee and later served as a federal public defender in the Southern District Court of Texas before joining the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in 2017.

“Ms. Draper has a thorough understanding of criminal court proceedings and the Constitution. She also knows firsthand how the racial and economic disparities found throughout the system undermine justice,” Commissioner Ellis said. “I am confident that her appointment to the bench will serve the people of Harris County and help transform our criminal justice system into one that is more fair and just for all people.”

See here for the background. Judge Draper will need to run in 2020 to serve the remainder of Judge Hollemon’s term, then she will be on the off-year cycle with the other misdemeanor court judges. As the Chron notes. Judge Draper is the sixth former member of the Public Defenders Office to get elevated to the bench; the others are Justice Sara Beth Landau, 1st Court of Appeals; Justice Francis Bourliot, 14th Court of Appeals; Judge Danilo Lacayo, 182nd Criminal District Court; Judge Leah Shapiro, 315th Juvenile District Court; and Judge Franklin Bynum, County Criminal Court at Law No. 8, all of whom were elected in November. My congratulations and best wishes to Judge Genesis Draper.

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.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Lina Hidalgo gets the national press treatment

You need to get past the first couple of paragraphs, but overall a decent piece.

Lina Hidalgo

Even in defeat, Beto O’Rourke did a big favor to fellow Democrats all over Texas. A couple hundred thousand young people who might otherwise have skipped the election turned out to vote for the charismatic young liberal, and when they did, they also voted for his party down the ballot. The Republicans still won the statewide races, but the margins were the narrowest they’ve been in decades, and in local races, there were a number of upsets by Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise — or accident, as far as local conservatives are concerned — was in the race for the top administrator of Texas’s largest county, the one that surrounds Houston. The winner, Lina Hidalgo, was the most millennial candidate ever, a 27-year-old perma-student who relied on her parents’ financial support to launch her campaign. Her only jobs so far have been the short-term gigs she’s worked amid her schooling.

It’s safe to say she wasn’t chosen for her qualifications. Eighty-seven percent of her votes came from straight-ticket ballots. Now she’ll be overseeing a county of 5 million people — the third-largest in the U.S., larger than 26 states — along with a $5 billion budget and a payroll of nearly 17,000 people. (Only a few local hospitals and grocery stores employ more people, including Walmart, which has 34,000 Houston-area workers.) On top of that, Harris County has a vulnerable population of more than half a million undocumented immigrants, and surrounds a city that’s made entirely of concrete, as though it’s designed to encourage the maximum possible damage from floods — of which there have been two apocalyptic ones in the last decade.

Sometimes during the campaign, it didn’t look like she was even trying all that hard to win. A common refrain in news coverage was that she’d never attended a meeting of Harris County’s commissioners court, the governmental body she’d be overseeing, which is sort of like a city council. In one debate she couldn’t name the city auditor.

But the truth is that Hidalgo is more formidable than her short résumé suggests. To anyone paying closer attention, it was clear that she and the incumbent had fundamentally different ideas about what the administrative position should be. She thought, and still thinks, that there’s a way of transforming it from a mostly managerial role — someone who fills potholes, balances the budget, and cleans up after floods — to one that mobilizes the county’s resources to improve public health, expand public transportation, reform the jails, and reduce global warming.

“Any issue you choose, it’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do anything — that’s not the county’s deal,’ she said in a phone interview last week. “But fundamentally, it’s about priorities. Budgets are about priorities and they’re about values.” When she gets into the details, she’s persuasive — maybe because the transition has given her a chance to study the system up close. On criminal justice, she points out, the county has spent somewhere north of $6 million in the past year fighting a judge’s order to reform its bail system. On health, she cited an independent 2015 report that suggested the county could improve its services by coordinating better among its hospitals, clinics, schools, and public-health department. And on transit, she argued, the county can manage development in a way that discourages sprawl, and can divert some of its money for trains.

Just out of curiosity, can you name the county auditor? (County, not city – that’s an error in the article.) I’ve got the answer at the end of this post.

I feel like people haven’t really wrapped their minds around the ways in which things are likely to change, not just due to Hidalgo’s election but due to the new Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. The Court has always operated in a very clubby you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine way, with Republicans having either a 3-2 or 4-1 majority most of the time. The late El Franco Lee, who was one of those Democrats for a thirty year period, did a lot of things for Precinct 1 in his time but was nobody’s idea of an agitator for change at the county level. It’s not just Lina, it’s Lina plus Rodney plus Adrian that will have a chance to shake things up and question things we have been doing for years, if not forever. Some of that is going to generate a ton of friction. As someone once said, elections have consequences.

By the way, later in the article Hidalgo responds to the complaint about her not having attended a Court meeting. She notes she watched them online, then makes the very good but often overlooked point that Court meetings are held during the work day for most people, and in general are not very welcoming to public input. That’s one of those things that I figure will be changed, and it will be welcome. Business is not going to be as ususal.

By the way, the county auditor is someone named Michael Post. Go ahead and do a Google News search for “harris county auditor” or “michael post harris county”, or a Chron archive search for either, I’ll wait. Maybe the reason Lina Hidalgo didn’t know the name Michael Post off the top of her head is because the man and his office have basically been invisible? Just a thought.

Hidalgo gets started

If you weren’t paying attention to County Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo before, you are now.

Lina Hidalgo

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, the lone Democrat currently on the court, said Hidalgo is a quick study who will settle into the role quickly.

“She’s smart and was very bold to make the decision to run, and to make a commitment to public service,” Ellis said.

Hidalgo said her immediate focus is recruiting a top-flight staff and pledged to announce a transition plan in coming weeks. Depending on how many Emmett holdovers Hidalgo retains, she could have as many as 30 positions to fill.

[Robert] Eckels, who served as county judge from 1995 to 2007, urged Hidalgo to focus on building relationships with the four county commissioners. Unlike the mayor of Houston, who has significantly more power — and far more leverage over — city council, the county judge can accomplish little without the support of commissioners.

“The county judge position is by nature a weak position,” Eckels said. “One vote is one vote. Three votes can change the world.”

Eckels said the mild-mannered Emmett was successful because he was able to manage the sometimes outsized personalities of commissioners.

Hidalgo said she would welcome Emmett’s advice during the transition. She said a top priority is to make county government more transparent, and suggested holding regular town halls. She also is eager to settle the federal lawsuit brought by poor criminal defendants brought two years ago, in which they argue Harris County’s cash bail system is unconstitutional.

She emphasized the importance of flood control, and said she has yet to determine whether to make changes to the projects list for the $2.5 billion flood protection bond voters approved in August.

[…]

With the election of Adrian Garcia in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, Democrats will have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court, starting in January.

The Republican commissioners, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, said they looked forward to working with Hidalgo. Radack, who has served under three county executives since he first was elected in 1988, said he expects court members to continue to work well together with Democrats in charge.

Cagle said he would not be bothered if Hidalgo used her new pulpit to speak out on statewide and national issues like immigration and criminal justice, so long as the county continues to serve its largely nonpartisan functions, like maintaining infrastructure and providing health services.

“When you fix a pothole, there’s no R or D that goes on it,” Cagle said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday morning he was surprised Hidalgo won. He praised Emmett, with whom he worked closely during storm events including Hurricane Harvey and the Tax Day Flood, as a treasured partner.

“The reality is that for all of us, we’re not indispensable,” Turner said. “I can be here, tomorrow I can be someplace else and the city will go forward, the city will go on.”

Indeed. The power on Commissioners Court lies mostly with the Commissioners themselves – they have the bigger budgets, after all. The Court has always operated in a collegial environment and with consensus among the commissioners. We’ll see how that changes now that Dems have the majority. For now, the priority for Hidalgo is going to be getting to know her future colleagues and everyone else who will need to get to know her.

Early voting for the flood bond referendum

It’s a little weird, but there’s two full weeks of it and for the most part you can vote at the usual places.

Harris County will have 25 balloting locations during the first weekend of early voting for the $2.5 billion flood control bond election, and almost twice that during the rest of early voting, the Harris County Clerk’s office said Tuesday.

Roughly 700 voting locations will be open on the Aug. 25 election day, a date chosen to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Chief Deputy County Clerk George Hammerlein told Commissioners Court.

Early voting will begin Aug. 8. The number of early voting locations will be 45, except during the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, when there will be 25 polling places.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis had raised concerns about the clerk’s initial balloting plans, which they said called for just one early voting location downtown during the first weekend.

“We’re expanding so the goal is one per state representative district that first weekend,” Hammerlein said.

You can see the map and schedule here. Not clear to me if Hammerlein is saying that there will be more EV locations during that first weekend, but as noted there are two full weeks, including a second weekend. So you should have plenty of opportunity to turn out.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

JP Hilary Green resigns

Wise decision.

The Harris County justice of the peace accused of paying prostitutes for sex, abusing drugs while on the bench and sexting a bailiff officially resigned this week – although her attorney says it has nothing to do with the claims against her.

Hilary Green had already been temporarily suspended by the Texas Supreme Court and was headed for trial next month to determine her judicial future. But on Tuesday – even as lawyers worked to prepare for the upcoming Austin court date – the long-time Precinct 7 jurist sent a letter to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, announcing her decision to leave the bench.

“Effective immediately, please allow this letter to serve as my formal resignation from my position as Justice of the Peace, Precinct 7, Place 1,” Green wrote. “Due to the unexpected death of my father and my mother’s newly diagnosed illness, it is important for me to focus all my attention on my family.”

Green’s attorney, Chip Babcock, emphasized that his client’s departure was motivated solely by personal considerations.

“It is totally unrelated to the charges which she continues to deny and contest,” he told the Chronicle Thursday. The pending proceedings to unseat her – and lack of income, given her suspension without pay – took a toll on her, according to Babcock.

[…]

In light of Green’s resignation, county commissioners are expected to appoint a replacement who will serve until November 2018. Voters in the November election will then decide on her successor. Her term would have expired in 2020.

The political parties will in the coming months determine which candidates will be on the ballot.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis will likely select the interim appointment.

“Commissioner Rodney Ellis will consult with community leaders and legal experts to select a qualified candidate,” an Ellis spokesman said. “He plans to have a candidate to submit to Commissioners Court for approval on April 10.”

See here and here for the background. I’m mostly interested in what happens next, as I don’t think we’ve seen a situation exactly like this recently. Robert Eckels, Paul Bettencourt, Charles Bacarisse, Jerry Eversole, and most recently Adrian Garcia all resigned from county offices, but they did so in odd-numbered years, meaning there was plenty of time for people to file and run in the primaries for those offices. Jack Abercia already had a slate of primary opponents when he announced his intent to not run for re-election, prior to his tour of the criminal justice system. El Franco Lee died in January of 2016, a year in which he was on the ballot and was the only person who had filed for his position. Due to the timing of that, he remained on the primary ballot, then we went through that process to replace him as the nominee via the precinct chair process.

Hilary Green was not scheduled to be on the ballot this year; she was elected to a four-year term in 2016. The primaries are over, so that’s not an option. I suppose we could have a special election as we would for a legislator who left office mid-term, but the phrasing of that “political parties will…determine which candidates will be on the ballot” sentence suggests we’re in for another precinct chair selection process. I wanted to be sure about that, so off to the Texas Statutes website I go. First, in the case of the interim appointment, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution says:

Sec. 28. VACANCY IN JUDICIAL OFFICE. (a) A vacancy in the office of Chief Justice, Justice, or Judge of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, or the District Courts shall be filled by the Governor until the next succeeding General Election for state officers, and at that election the voters shall fill the vacancy for the unexpired term.

(b) A vacancy in the office of County Judge or Justice of the Peace shall be filled by the Commissioners Court until the next succeeding General Election.

Clear enough. But how is that next succeeding General Election to be conducted? I turn to Election Code, Title 12 “Elections to fill vacancy in office”, Chapter 202 “Vacancy in office of state or county government”:

Sec. 202.001. APPLICABILITY OF CHAPTER. This chapter applies to elective offices of the state and county governments except the offices of state senator and state representative.

Sec. 202.002. VACANCY FILLED AT GENERAL ELECTION. (a) If a vacancy occurs on or before the 74th day before the general election for state and county officers held in the next-to-last even-numbered year of a term of office, the remainder of the unexpired term shall be filled at the next general election for state and county officers, as provided by this chapter.

(b) If a vacancy occurs after the 74th day before a general election day, an election for the unexpired term may not be held at that general election. The appointment to fill the vacancy continues until the next succeeding general election and until a successor has been elected and has qualified for the office.

[…]

Sec. 202.004. NOMINATION BY PRIMARY ELECTION. (a) A political party’s nominee for an unexpired term must be nominated by primary election if:

(1) the political party is making nominations by primary election for the general election in which the vacancy is to be filled; and

(2) the vacancy occurs on or before the fifth day before the date of the regular deadline for candidates to file applications for a place on the general primary ballot.

[…]

Sec. 202.006. NOMINATION BY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE. (a) A political party’s state, district, county, or precinct executive committee, as appropriate for the particular office, may nominate a candidate for the unexpired term if:

(1) in the case of a party holding a primary election, the vacancy occurs after the fifth day before the date of the regular deadline for candidates to file applications for a place on the ballot for the general primary election; or

(2) in the case of a party nominating by convention, the vacancy occurs after the fourth day before the date the convention having the power to make a nomination for the office convenes.

(b) The nominating procedure for an unexpired term under this section is the same as that provided by Subchapter B, Chapter 145, for filling a vacancy in a party’s nomination, to the extent that it can be made applicable.

Chapter 145 was the governing law for the process used to fill El Franco Lee’s spot on the ballot, and then subsequently those of Rodney Ellis and Borris Miles. Here, Section 202.004 cannot apply, as the primary has already taken place, so Section 202.006 is the relevant code. And so we get to experience another precinct chair convention to pick a nominee – unlike 2016, when no Republican had filed for Commissioners Court Precinct 1, the GOP will get to name a candidate as well. Well, someone will get to experience that. I am thankfully in JP Precinct 1, not JP Precinct 7, so I’m spared it this time. I’ll follow it, and time permitting I’ll be there when it happens to observe, but I get to be a bystander this time, and that’s fine by me. Godspeed to those of you who get to make the call.

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

Fifth Circuit largely upholds bail practices ruling

Good.

The 26-page opinion by Judge Edith Brown Clement affirms the majority of Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s landmark ruling, including her finding that the county’s bail policies violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

However, Clement and fellow judges Edward C. Prado and Catarina Haynes disagreed with Rosenthal’s analysis on three matters and sent the case back for her to reconsider those elements.

They concluded Rosenthal was overly broad in her analysis of the due process violation and in extending no-cash bail to all indigent defendants. They found her demand that qualified defendants be released within 24 hours was “too onerous,” opting instead for a 48-hour window.

They also ordered Rosenthal to fine tune how officials assess a defendant’s ability to pay bond.

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a supporter of the lawsuit who traveled to New Orleans to hear the oral arguments in the case, called it “a significant victory for justice.”

“With this decision, the conservative 5th Circuit is telling Harris County that it’s unconstitutional to have two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Ellis said. “Yet Harris County has already spent more than $5 million defending a morally and legally indefensible bail system that violates the Constitution and punishes people simply because they are poor.”

[…]

Attorney Neal Manne, whose firm, Susman Godfrey, joined in filing the lawsuit, praised the decision.

“I am absolutely thrilled by the ruling, which is a huge and historic victory for our clients,” he said.

The appeals judges found that the county had acted mechanically in reviewing bond decisions, failing to take the time to consider economic factors. The ruling summarized Rosenthal’s equal protection findings by imagining the outcomes for two hypothetical misdemeanor defendants, identical in every way — facing the same charge, from the same criminal backgrounds, living in the same circumstances — except that one was wealthy and the other indigent.

While the wealthy arrestee was less likely to plead guilty and get a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to pay the social costs of incarceration, it found, the poor arrestee, “must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart,” they wrote.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. This was basically how I read it based on the coverage of the arguments. I agree with attorney Manne and Commissioner Ellis that this is a great ruling, and that it’s way past time to settle this effing thing.

The Trib adds on:

But the ruling wasn’t a total win for the plaintiffs. The appellate court still said Rosenthal’s ruling was “overbroad” and asked her to narrow some of the orders against the county.

Perhaps of most significance, the appellate court pushed back on Rosenthal’s order for the sheriff to release at no cost all misdemeanor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bond within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their bail reviewed or set at a higher cost. The appellate judges appeared suspicious about Rosenthal’s time limit in their hearing and said Wednesday that it was too strict.

In sending the case back to Rosenthal for a modified ruling, the higher court suggested an injunction that demands that poor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bail be entitled to a hearing within 48 hours of arrest where they can argue for a lower or no-cost bond.

If a judicial officer declines to lower the bond at this hearing, he or she would have to put the reason for their decision in writing, and the arrestee would then get a formal bail review hearing before a judge. If, after those 48 hours, there are no records showing an individualized bail review process took place, the sheriff could release the defendant at no cost.

‘The 48-hour requirement is intended to address the endemic problem of misdemeanor arrestees being detained until case disposition and pleading guilty to secure faster release from pretrial detention,” Clement wrote.

I’m fine with that, and I expect the plaintiffs will be as well. Mark Bennett sums it up.

It’s time for the fourteen criminal court at law judges to declare victory and go home. ((Just between you and me, this opinion is a rout for the judges. The changes are small, and the current injunction remains in place until Judge Rosenthal modifies it.))

Indeed. I really hope this time they listen.

Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.