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Election 2022 miscellania: Marijuana, Austin Mayor, CRT

Three items of interest for you. First up, several local initiatives to decriminalize marijuana were successful on Tuesday.

By the end of Election Day, five Texas cities have voted to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.

After Austin voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana in May, Ground Game Texas — the progressive group behind that effort — successfully worked with local organizations and pushed for similar measures to appear on the ballots of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights for the midterms cycle.

Voters in these cities have now shown strong support for the proposals at the polls.

The campaign saw the highest level of support in San Marcos — home to Texas State University — with nearly 82% of the votes. Denton, which has several university campuses, saw more than 70% of the votes backing the proposition.

In Killeen, known for its proximity to military base Fort Hood, close to 70% of voters approved the proposition. Elgin, just outside of Austin, saw almost 75% of votes in support of the reform. And on the low end, more than 60% of voters in Harker Heights in Bell County casted ballots in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

“These meaningful reforms will keep people out of jail and save scarce public resources for more important public safety needs,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas and a former Democrat congressional candidate. “We’re extremely happy with our results.”

Like Austin’s ordinance, the successful propositions establish city ordinances that end low-level enforcement, including citations and arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana and related drug paraphernalia, in most cases. They also largely ban using city funds and staff to test substances for THC, the cannabis plant’s chemical that gets users high.

[…]

Ultimately, Ground Game Texas hoped to use the campaign to boost turnout, especially among young voters.

“We wanted to use workers, wages and weed to engage new voters,” Siegel said.

Looking ahead, Ground Game Texas will continue working with on-the-ground groups to place progressive measures on local ballots. They aim to put the measure along with several other propositions, including abortion decriminalization, in front of San Antonio voters in May 2023. And similar efforts are likely to pop up in other big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston in the 2024 elections, Siegel added.

“We’re hoping that we can prove not only that these issues are popular, but they also boosted turnout in the communities that are on the ballot,” he said. “And in the days following this election, we’re going to be having lots of conversations with folks about the next cycle.”

See here for some background. As noted there, I’m not sure what the practical effect of this will be, and I worry about legislative backlash just because that’s the world we live in now. I’ll be very interested to see if there is any evidence that this drove turnout, because Lord knows we could have used more of it if it did. And while I’m glad to see that there’s interest in bringing this to Houston, please remember that we already have several charter amendments on the ballot next year, which means either this would have to happen then or you’ll need to wait until at least 2025, since there’s a mandatory two-year wait after a successful charter amendment election. Hope y’all are already engaging with folks here about this, Ground Game Texas, so there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone.

Item two: There will be a runoff for Mayor of Austin between two familiar faces.

Austin’s next mayor was not decided Tuesday, as a tight race between Celia Israel and Kirk Watson will continue into a runoff in December.

To win the race outright, a candidate would have had to earn more than half of all votes as of Tuesday. Israel took 40% and Watson 35% of the vote, according to final but unofficial results. They were separated by more than 15,000 votes.

Jennifer Virden, the only other candidate who conducted a significant campaign, earned 18%.

Three other candidates received limited support. Phil Brual received 2%, and Gary Spellman and Anthony Bradshaw each received 1%.

In total, 304,000 votes were recorded.

Heading into the day, political insiders who analyzed the election said they expected the race to go to a runoff, as voters seemed split between Watson, the former Austin mayor and state senator, and Israel, a sitting state representative. Although Watson outraised Israel $1.3 million to $409,000, it was Israel who enjoyed momentum heading into Tuesday with recent endorsements from the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like both of them and wish the eventual winner all the best.

And finally, a small bit of good news on the school board hysteria front:

A very welcome reversal from last year, in a different political climate. Well done, Round Rock and Leander.

More on hoax school shooter reports

I don’t know when this ends, but I continue to be worried that they will cause a major problem eventually.

This year has seen a significant number of hoax calls across the country. In the three weeks between mid-September and early October, according to an NPR analysis, local news reports documented 113 false calls across the country. Experts say this increase isn’t surprising given that most school shootings inspire copycats to call in false reports of shootings to law enforcement.

The source of these fake threats remains largely unknown. Law enforcement said some originated from local agitators, while others appeared to come from as far away as Ethiopia, NPR reported.

Regardless of the source, Texas law enforcement agencies say all threats are treated as credible until an investigation proves otherwise. But before threats are deemed hoaxes, law enforcement and parents must grapple with the very real fear that another mass shooting could be underway.

The families with children at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, also clashed with police outside the building on the day of the tragedy. Law enforcement took over an hour to confront the shooter, despite the fact that some officers knew children were calling 911 from the classrooms. Police outside the building prevented parents from entering the school, even putting some parents in handcuffs.

Prior to the shooting in Uvalde, the chaotic scene outside of Jefferson High School last month wasn’t the norm, said Deputy Chief David Hightower with the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now we see an increase in parents wanting to sort of take matters into their own hands in order to retrieve their children,” Hightower said.

He said the protocols for responding to active-shooter threats have not changed since the Uvalde shooting, but the heightened anxiety of parents and officers reflects the trauma still resonating across Texas. As a result of elevated fears, Hightower said there have been more officers assigned to communicating with parents.

One of the most recent examples of false active shooter threats in Texas was on Monday, when there was a false active-shooter call at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. Police evacuated the roughly 500 students from the campus in response. After the lockdown was lifted, school officials said they would make counseling available for its students.

“Events like this shake everyone to the core,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “It is definitely a situation that is at the top of mind of parents right now.”

Martinez-Prather added students are sharing in the anxiety, which she sees as an opportunity to teach schools about how to remain vigilant. Communicating with teachers and students about how to identify potential threats or concerning behavior is one area Martinez-Prather said schools can target to improve school safety. She also pointed to a guide for parents that details key components of school safety as another communication tool.

See here for some background. I couldn’t get all the ay through that story about the 911 calls from Robb Elementary, it was too upsetting. As I said before, when one of these happened at Heights High School, I think the first job is for law enforcement to make extra sure they not only know what their response procedures are but also that they know how they will operate with other agencies that arrive – at HHS, there was HPD, the Sheriff, various Constables, and I’m sure HISD’s police force in response – and who is in charge. And they very much need to communicate that to the parents, who have a justifiable fear following the tragedy at Robb that they can’t simply rely on law enforcement. That’s a problem in itself, and one of many other things that our state leadership has failed to address after this massacre. It’s on the locals in their absence, and I hope they realize that.

If we can’t get high speed rail in Texas…

… At least we can maybe get some more Amtrak service.

San Antonio residents finally may get new rail service connecting them to Dallas, Houston and Austin, according to a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) filing.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams requested federal funding for the expansion of several railroad corridors, including “new and enhanced, conventional intercity options” along traffic-clogged Interstate 35, which runs north-south through the state.

The proposed projects outlined in the letter include an increase in service on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line connecting San Antonio and Dallas and additional hauls on the Sunset Limited between the Alamo City and Houston. Currently, the Texas Eagle only runs four days a week, while the Sunset Limited operates on a tri-weekly basis, according to the rail operator’s website.

The proposal also includes expanding the Texas Eagle Line south, connecting San Antonio with the Rio Grande Valley and adding a new station on the Sunset Limited Line in Flatonia — located between San Antonio and Houston — to expand rural service.

Williams’ request is in response to the FRA’s establishment of the Corridor Identification Program. That is funded via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the U.S. Senate in November 2021. Not one Texas Republican in the U.S. House or Senate voted in favor of the measure.

The FRA is excepted to decide which projects to fund based on criteria including projected ridership, revenues and capital investment, among others.

See here for some background. The Texas Rail Advocates post on which this story is based also mentions the revival of the Dallas-to-Houston-via-College Station line that was ended in the 1990s, which is to say maybe bringing back a slower and presumably less frequent version of Texas Central. (Pause while I heave a deep and dramatic sigh.) The letter doesn’t mention ridership, and I’d assume that the Dallas-Houston line if and when it got built would be a couple of times a week deal, which is to say it would all be pretty limited. But at least it would be a thing, if indeed it does happen.

The SPURS bills

I admit that I tipped my cap to this one.

What if it took an act of Congress to keep the Spurs in San Antonio?

With the team playing two games in Austin this season and Austin billionaire Michael Dell buying a 10 percent share of the team last year, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales worries it might, even as the Spurs’ owners have sought to reassure fans and local officials that they have no plans to move.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and there’s absolutely smoke,” the San Antonio Republican said.

“Look what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics,” Gonzales said of the now-Oklahoma City Thunder; or the San Diego Chargers or St. Louis Rams, both of which now call Los Angeles home.

“No one would ever imagine the Spurs would leave San Antonio, but what if they do?” Gonzales said. “Sometimes when we say it takes an act of Congress, sometimes we have to take that seriously.”

So Gonzales is filing legislation to stop any possible move up Interstate 35 for the Spurs, and to prevent other small market teams from ditching communities that have invested time, tears — and a whole lot of cash — in them.

His bill, The Strengthening Public Undertakings for Retaining Sports Act — or SPURS Act for short — would set up strict requirements for teams to relocate. A franchise would have to lose money for five years in a row, plus prove that its stadium is inadequate or that local governments are flouting its agreements with the team.

The legislation would require teams to give a year’s notice if they want to relocate, and it would allow local governments to veto the move. It would also force teams that do move to reimburse whatever financial assistance or incentives were provided to them, such as special tax incentives or arena financing. Local governments could sue teams for damages, as well.

[…]

The legislation comes after Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt in May wrote an open letter to fans seeking to ease months of suspicion that the team might be eyeing a move. The Spurs are under a non-relocation agreement with Bexar County that runs through 2032, but county commissioners have agreed to a one-year pilot program allowing the team to play “home” games in Austin and Mexico City.

The team has said it’s all part of an effort to broaden the fan base as attendance has plummeted amid a franchise record three-year playoff drought.

“We will keep making memories, together, inside of Bexar County,” Holt wrote.

Gonzales said he believes Holt, but worries about future owners. Dell buying a share of the team could be the first step toward building an ownership more open to a move, he said.

Some background reading on this if it’s all new to you. I don’t know if this bill makes any sense legally or economically, but if you want to find a non-partisan issue to support that might draw you some crossover voters, it would be hard to top a pro-Spurs-in-San-Antonio bill for a guy who represents a lot of their fanbase. Whatever happens to this – I will bet you $1 right now that it doesn’t get a committee hearing in this Congress – it’s a brilliant piece of politics.

More on the DeLorean reboot company and its interesting legal history

Another prestige podcast in the making, I suspect.

Six months after DeLorean Motors Reimagined, the startup seeking to produce a new incarnation of the 1980s sports car, said it would put is headquarters in Texas, a lawsuit filed against the company has thrown a potential wrench in its gears.

In the lawsuit filed this month, Karma Automotive, based in Irvine, Calif., and owned by a Chinese conglomerate, alleges that DeLorean Motors Reimagined was created based on intellectual property that its founders stole while working for Karma.

While the plaintiff’s claims could be difficult to prove, the timing of DeLorean Motors’ founding in relation to its lead executives’ tenure at Karma could appear suspicious enough to compel attempts to negotiate a settlement, a legal expert said.

And that’s not the only red flag surrounding this DeLorean entity, which is intertwined with a similarly named Humble-based company — DeLorean Motor Co. — founded about 30 years ago with its own history of being sued over intellectual property claims. The Humble company’s claim to the DeLorean name is key to the two companies’ joint venture.

DeLorean Motors Reimagined, which located its headquarters to San Antonio, has a cloudy background to go with a somewhat muddled identify. It hasn’t disclosed information about its investors or working capital even as San Antonio and Bexar County officials granted the company more than $1 million in incentives and tax breaks,. And while DeLorean Motors Reimagined is incorporated separately from DeLorean Motor Co., the former generally identifies itself as the latter, such as on its website and in a Super Bowl ad that accompanied its launch.

So far, the only plans DeLorean Motors Reimagined has announced involve producing 88 models of its pricey Alpha5 coupe two years from now. Still, CEO Joost de Vries said the startup will soon become a publicly traded company.

It’s also not clear whether the combined DeLorean entity ever bought the intellectual property rights of John Z. DeLorean’s original 1970s-era company, although a 2014 settlement agreement has apparently shielded it from lawsuits.

See here and here for the background. At this point, I’d be leery about the prospect of any cars actually mike it off their production lines. But if they do, they will come with quite the backstory. Read the rest and see for yourself.

Another hoax shooting situation

And this one shows another challenge for school districts and law enforcement to reckon with.

After a lockdown at Jefferson High School sent worried parents to the school, the San Antonio Independent School District says it will enhance communications with families in such situations.

On Tuesday, a report of a shooting at Jefferson High School caused the campus to lock down, sparking a chaotic scene outside the school as panicked parents waited for updates. As school district police officers and other law enforcement searched the campus and found the report to be unfounded, verbal disputes erupted between parents and officers. Some parents had to be physically restrained from entering the school. A few parents grappled with police.

The incident showed how parents of school-age children remain concerned about school safety — and law enforcement response — in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde mass school shooting that left 21 dead. School officials said it’s possible the report of a shooting was a hoax.

Superintendent Jaime Aquino sent a letter Wednesday to all district families praising local law enforcement for responding quickly to the shooting report and explaining the district’s lockdown procedures.

“Yesterday, our officers worked seamlessly with the officers from the San Antonio Police Department as part of our unified command protocol,” he wrote in the letter, adding that 29 district officers and 58 San Police Department officers quickly arrived at the scene.

But as the crowd of parents at the scene grew larger, resource officers informed parents they weren’t allowed to enter and that students could not be released because of the lockdown. Parents grew angry and frustrated as they waited for updates on the situation.

An hour and a half after the first notification to parents, the district informed them that no evidence of a shooting had been found, but by that time some physical altercations had broken out on the steps of the high school.

In his letter, Aquino stated that when a school is locked down, students and staff cannot be released “until officers determine that the threat has been resolved, give clearance, and lift the lockdown.”

To improve communication in such incidents, Aquino said the district will send staff to the campus to keep families on the scene informed of what is happening.

See here and here for some background. As before, I don’t blame any of the parents for their reactions. To me, the lesson here is that schools and police need to recalibrate their responses to take into account the level of anxiety parents are (justifiably!) feeling these days. They need to come up with a strategy that allows for quicker and more direct communication to parents, both those who are at the school that has had a (thankfully fake) report of a shooting, and to those who haven’t yet shown up at the school. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do so. I hope HISD is paying attention to this.

Ken Paxton keeps trying to kill the SAISD vaccine mandate

On brand, always on brand.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed another petition seeking to reverse a Bexar County judge’s decision that rejected the state’s bid for a temporary injunction to block the San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate.

Even though SAISD’S vaccine mandate remains on pause despite the court’s ruling in its favor, Paxton said he will “continue fighting for medical freedom.”

“Nobody should be bullied, coerced, and certainly not fired because of their COVID-19 vaccination status,” said Paxon in his announcement, adding the decision is not only an affront to individual liberty, but “illegal under Texas law.”

“The governor’s executive order specifically protects workers from the type of mass firings that San Antonio ISD is seeking, and I will continue to fight in court to defend GA-39 and Texans’ medical freedom,” he said.

The petition was filed Sept. 7 with the Texas Supreme Court.

An SAISD spokeswoman said in a statement that the vaccine mandate remains suspended and that no employee was ever disciplined for refusing to get the vaccine.

See here and here for the previous updates. There’s a recitation of the long history of this legal saga in the story if you want that. I remind you that this mandate was never enforced and remains on pause, not that these things matter to Ken Paxton. The appellate court ruling that Greg Abbott doesn’t have the power he claimed to have when he forbade these mandates seems pretty clear to me, but you never know what SCOTx will do. Now we wait to see if they’ll take this up.

The one big question DPS still hasn’t answered about Uvalde

The Trib gets at something that I’ve mentioned a couple of times.

Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.

But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.

Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.

The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.

The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”

Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.

“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”

[…]

[Despite testimony from DPS director Steve McCraw], DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.

More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.

“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”

In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.

“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”

Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.

Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.

[…]

The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.

San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.

McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.

It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.

Who’s in charge in these situations is a question I’ve raised a few times in writing about this, when the legislative report was released and when the HISD board addressed the question. This is an area where I believe the Lege can and should take action, by requiring school districts (and hell, colleges and universities and community colleges) to have some kind of agreement with either local or state law enforcement agencies and ensuring some minimum standards are met. It’s also a big question for DPS to answer: Why didn’t you take over at Uvalde? Steve McCraw has addressed that already, but I don’t think we should believe him. Certainly, not as long as DPS is being sued over its refusal to release its information to the public about their actions, anything McCraw says should be taken as self-serving first and foremost. And those same questions also go to Greg Abbott, who is McCraw’s boss and patron. Both of them have gotten away with doing nothing for a long time. We need to make sure that time runs out.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

DeLorean reboot company hit with intellectual property lawsuit

Here’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming.

Mere months after the city and county coughed up nearly $1.1 million in incentives to attract the revamped DeLorean Motor Co., the venture has been hit with a lawsuit alleging its founders engaged in intellectual property theft.

A suit filed in federal court in Houston accuses four former employees of California-based electric car maker Karma Automotive of stealing design and engineering information to launch their venture resurrecting the ’80s-era DeLorean sports car as an electric vehicle.

In its petition, Karma Automotive maintains that four of its employees were assigned to an initiative dubbed “Project 88,” which aimed to electrify the original DeLorean DMC-12 popularized by the Back to the Future film franchise.

The suit names current DeLorean CEO Joost de Vries, Chief Operating Officer Alan Yuan, Chief Marketing Officer Troy Beetz and Vice President Brand and Creative Neilo Harris as those employees and asks the court to stop their use of Karma’s technology. The pleading also seeks monetary damages.

While DeLorean officials didn’t respond to the Current’s request for comment, de Vries did offer the following comment to the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the suit: “This car has a very specific, unique DeLorean lineage that has no relation to Karma Automotive from a design, engineering, supply chain or manufacturing perspective. We remain committed to the future of our company.”

The suit accuses de Vries and the three other former Karma employees of hiding information on their plans for the DeLorean from executives while they were still on staff.

“They actively concealed information from Karma to keep Karma from pursing the project or from finding out what [the] individual defendants were doing,” the legal filing reads. “Then, one by one, they left Karma.”

According to the suit, the defendants conspired to quit Karma Automotive after executives began questioning the viability of the project due to the lack of details provided by the former employees working on the vehicle.

“Within Karma, concerns were raised among Karma’s executives that [the] individual defendants’ proposals for Project 88 were not sufficiently detailed and raised open questions,” the petition reads. “[The] individual defendants repeatedly promised to provide additional details and information, but failed to do so.”

See here for the background. That Express News story is paywalled, so this is the best I can do. I blogged about the origin of the San Antonio-based DeLorean reboot because who doesn’t love a good homage to a classic 80s movie. I don’t know how closely I’ll follow this part of it, but I’m sure there will be an update or two at some point in the future. Texas Public Radio has more.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

If “bad apples” are the problem, then shouldn’t getting rid of them be a high priority?

This San Antonio Report story is about the nine-year saga of the Redus family to get justice for their son Cameron, who was killed by University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) police officer Christopher Carter in 2013 outside Redus’ apartment. Carter has said in reports and depositions that he observed Redus getting into his car late at night while appearing to be drunk and followed him home to his apartment complex. (Redus happened to be a UIW student, which Carter didn’t know as he first observed him.) At the apartment complex, Carter shot and killed Redus, claiming that Redus had attacked him. All the evidence that has been found about the shooting contradicts that claim. By any reckoning, the shooting of Cameron Redus was completely unjustified.

The wrongful death litigation has been ongoing for several years, with UIW declining to settle despite a lot of pressure being put on them to do so. The lawsuit just survived a motion to dismiss by the 4th Court of Appeals, which led to this overview of the case by the San Antonio Report. I want to highlight the bits in there about Carter’s record as a police officer.

If the case finally goes to trial, Carter’s troubled past as a peace officer and UIW’s failure to conduct a background check before hiring Carter in 2011, or provide him with significant training afterwards, will come under the spotlight, according to pretrial depositions.

So will a number of incidents involving Carter during his time at UIW, including a middle-of-the-night intrusion into a female student’s dorm room under the guise of investigating a campus fender-bender, an episode that occurred two months before the Redus shooting. A formal complaint by the student’s family resulted in Carter’s supervisors acknowledging the officer’s unacceptable behavior and warning the student to avoid on-campus encounters with Carter.

Other allegations reported by fellow UIW officers: Carter twice unholstered his service weapon on campus in inappropriate shows of bravado and took part in an illegal, on-campus shooting of pigeons after police vehicles were soiled by the birds. Carter was formally reprimanded by his supervisor for verbally abusing and intimidating people on the Incarnate Word High School campus while directing traffic.

None of his transgressions or past issues in other law enforcement jobs led to serious disciplinary actions or a decision to terminate him from the campus force, even though other officers and UIW employees have told me Carter was widely regarded as a pariah unsuited to carry a gun or wear a badge.

[…]

Pretrial depositions raise serious questions about UIW’s hiring practices for its police force. Sources at UTSA and Trinity University told me Carter applied for positions there at the time, but his evident inability to hold a job led them to ignore his application.

Carter said he worked as a convenience store clerk and pawn shop manager trainee after earning a criminal justice degree from UTSA in 1997. He attended San Antonio College’s Law Enforcement Training Academy from 2003 through 2004 where he earned his peace officer’s license.

From September 2004 when he was hired as an unpaid reserve deputy for the City of Marion until May 2011 when he was hired as a full-time campus police officer for UIW, Carter held nine different law enforcement or security jobs, most only for a matter of months, according to his deposition testimony.

Carter said he lasted six months in the unpaid position with the City of Marion; eight months as an unpaid reserve officer with the City of Cibolo; six months as an unpaid support deputy with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department; three months as a paid deputy with the Atascosa County Sheriff’s Department; six months as a paid court bailiff with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department; six months as a licensed private investigator for Hub International insurance company; five months as a part time reserve officer for the City of San Antonio’s Marshal Unit, working nights as a municipal court bailiff; seven months as a night patrol officer for the City of Mathis, where he was fired for reasons Carter said he cannot recall; and six months as a code enforcement officer and peace officer for the City of George West.

Carter was hired by UIW as a campus police officer in May 2011 and was placed on paid administrative leave after fatally shooting Redus in December 2013. One year later, university officials allowed him to resign in good standing.

Since then, after applying without success for dozens of positions with various area law enforcement agencies, including applications to the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, Carter was finally hired in December 2015 for a part-time job in the City of Orange Grove in Jim Wells County, which he held for six months until May 2016. Carter was then rehired by the City of Mathis, but was fired after 11 months in March 2017.

Carter’s last job in law enforcement was with the City of Poteet, where he began as a reserve officer before moving into a full-time position. That employment ended after three-and-a-half years in November 2020 when he said he “retired” to return to San Antonio to care for family members.

A UIW panel that conducted a single pre-employment interview with Carter in April 2011 did not press him about his inability to hold a job for long, and did not ask why he was terminated by the City of Mathis, Carter said in his deposition. Carter said UIW did not require him to take any verbal or written tests, and he was never shown the university police department’s 113-page policy and procedures manual.

Carter said he did not meet UIW Police Chief Jacob Colunga prior to his hiring, and initial on-the-job training was limited to shadowing another UIW officer for two weeks. Colunga was demoted in 2014, months after the shooting.

Author Robert Rivard, who has been a longtime critic of UIW for its behavior in this incident, turned that into an editorial decrying the common practice of cops being able to go from one job to the next even as their performance demonstrates their inability to do that job. Even a cursory glance at Carter’s career would make one wonder why any law enforcement agency would hire him, and if they did hire him why they wouldn’t train him relentlessly to make sure he was up to snuff. The consequences for not doing those things are predictable and tragic. And all of this is before we take race into account – Cameron Redus, unlike many other high-profile victims of police violence, was white. These consequences so often and so regularly fall on people of color, and for the most part are invisible to many of us. But they’re very much there.

The “bad apples” explanation for police violence is woefully inadequate, but it is the case that a small number of police officers at any agency are disproportionately responsible for unjust and violent actions. It’s hard enough getting those officers off the force, but when that does happen – often through non-official means, which allows said officers to resign in good standing – they can almost always find employment elsewhere, with few to no questions asked. Tom Coleman, the undercover cop responsible for the arrest and conviction of dozens of innocent Black residents of Tulia, Texas, is another prime example of this. It’s long past time for us to ask the question why this is so, and what we should be doing about it.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

SAISD vaccine mandate upheld again

Also still on hold, but the state loses again at the appellate level.

A state appellate court upheld San Antonio Independent School District’s authority Wednesday to mandate its workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, almost a year after the district instituted the requirement for all staff to help stem the spread of the virus.

The 4th Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to overturn a Bexar County judge’s decision not to grant the state a temporary injunction to block the staff vaccine mandate. Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court issued that ruling in October, allowing SAISD to continue enforcing the mandate.

The court also ordered that the costs of the appeal be assessed against the state.

Paxton filed a lawsuit against SAISD in September, after first suing the district over the mandate in August because the vaccine had not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The August lawsuit was dropped after the FDA approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The lawsuit has wound its way through the state court system over the past year. Paxton’s office appealed Alvarez’s ruling to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the appellate court temporarily block the mandate while it considered Paxton’s appeal. The attorney general then requested the state Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did in mid-October.

The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling forced SAISD to stop enforcing the mandate while the 4th Court of Appeals considered the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that Alvarez denied.

[…]

Paxton’s lawsuit argued that SAISD’s vaccine mandate violated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting governmental entities from implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which the governor claimed he had the authority to do under the Texas Disaster Act. Attorneys for SAISD challenged that reasoning, contending the Act does not give the governor the power to suspend all state laws.

Wednesday’s ruling by the 4th Court of Appeals determined that the Texas Disaster Act does not give Abbott the authority to suspend parts of the Education Code that allow school districts to issue vaccine mandates.

“The Texas Disaster Act expressly limits the Governor’s commander-in-chief authority to state agencies, state boards, and state commissions having emergency responsibilities,” the ruling states. “The District is not a state agency, a state board, or a state commission. Rather, the Texas Disaster Act defines the District as a ‘local government entity.’”

See here for the previous update. This sounds like a solid ruling, one that SCOTx ought to uphold, though who knows what they’ll actually do. It would also be written on sand to some extent, in that if the Republicans retain full control of government next year they’ll just amend the Texas Disaster Act to make it cover school districts and/or explicitly exclude anything having to do with vaccinations. In the meantime, even though the policy remains on hold during the litigation, it’s surely the case that the mandate got some holdouts vaccinated during the period while it was in effect. That will always be a win, no matter what happens from here.

There’s a lot of anti-LGBTQ litigation out there

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is where we are.

In the wake of the toppling of Roe v. Wade and with Justice Clarence Thomas urging the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit rulings on gay sex and marriage, Texas is the stage for several lawsuits dealing with LGBT rights.

Right now, a half dozen cases on everything from insurance coverage for HIV prevention to employment discrimination and same-sex marriage are wending their way through state and federal courts here. Their outcomes could radically alter rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Texas and across the country.

The lawsuits all have one thing in common: former Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell.

Best known as the man behind the state law that allows Texans to file civil lawsuits against people who help pregnant people get abortions, Mitchell opened up a law firm in Austin four years ago with the goal of systematically dismantling decades of court rulings he believes depart from the U.S. Constitution.

The Dallas Morning News is tracking six of his cases that originated in Texas and deal with LGBT rights. Here’s a summary of each case.

Gay Marriage

Dianne Hensley vs. State Commission on Judicial Conduct (Third Court of Appeals)
Brian Keith Umphress vs. David Hall, et al. (Northern District of Texas)

Summary: Both of these cases were brought by Texas officials with the authority to perform weddings but who do not want to offer marriages to same-sex couples because they say it violates their religious beliefs.

Insurance Mandates

John Kelley, et al., vs. Xavier Becerra (Northern District of Texas)

Summary: Plaintiffs in this federal lawsuit argue that insurers or self-insured employers should not have to cover certain kinds of preventive medical care because that would force them “to underwrite coverage that violates their religious beliefs.” The suit also targets the Affordable Care Act’s mechanisms for deciding which care private insurers must cover, arguing it gives the federal agencies and other unelected bodies undue control over decisions that should remain with Congress.

Employment Discrimination

Braidwood Management v. EEOC (Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals)

Summary: The case in federal court, filed on behalf of Hotze’s Braidwood Management and the Keller-based Bear Creek Bible Church, argues that religious employers should be able to hire and fire workers based on their sexuality and gender identity.

LGBT Library Books

Leila Green Little, et al. vs. Llano County (Western District of Texas)

Summary: The federal lawsuit, filed by citizens of Llano County, argues their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when local leaders pulled certain titles from the library’s child and teen sections that they deemed “pornographic.”

‘Save Chick-fil-A’

Patrick Von Dohlen, et al. vs. city of San Antonio (438th District Court in Bexar County)

Summary: This state lawsuit, filed by a handful of would-be Chick-fil-A customers, argues San Antonio violated a state’s so-called Save Chick-fil-A law by booting the fast food chain Chick-fil-A from the local airport based on its charitable donations to Christian groups that oppose LGBT rights. The law, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in 2019, prohibits governmental entities from taking “adverse actions” against a business or person for their contributions to or memberships in religious organizations, and allows citizens to sue over apparent violations.

Some of these I’ve written about before, but you get the idea on them all. The plan of course is to get one or more of these cases to SCOTUS to have a shot at overturning Windsor and/or Obergefell. I assume that the recent bill passed by the House to offer federal protections to same sex marriage would have some effect, but it’s hard to say how much and I’d rather not find out. The underlying philosophy is that some people, namely Jonathan Mitchell and his fellow travelers, have more rights and legal protections than anyone else. I’m sure you can see why they’re aiming to take this path to achieve those ends. Anyway, I don’t know how this ends but I do know we can’t be sitting idly waiting for it. It would be lovely if we had a Senate that was up to doing something not only about the overall erosion of civil rights but also the radical nature of the federal judiciary these days. Maybe next year, if we’re lucky and can make it till then.

That’s an awful lot of tunnels

I’d say the over/under for the number of these that actually gets built is 1, and I’d bet the under.

On Monday, May 30, Bloomberg reported that it had obtained documents that showed Elon Musk’s Boring Company had pitched eight plans for projects in Texas. The documents, which stretch back over a year, included plans for connecting I-35 and MoPaC; a tunnel between Tesla’s Giga Texas factory, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and downtown; and multiple tunnels in Pflugerville, where the Boring Company is now headquartered.

But a newly obtained document outlines an August 2021 Boring Company pitch for an even more ambitious project: plans to connect Austin and San Antonio via a system of underground tunnels. As of now, it is unclear how far the proposal reached, or which segments of the plan are being actively pursued.

Chap Ambrose, a man who lives next door to the Boring Company test site in Bastrop County, received the document as part of a public information request via the City of Kyle and posted it to Reddit. In the two emails between Boring Company business development lead Brian Gettinger and a Kyle official whose name has been redacted, they discuss involving the suburb south of Austin in its larger plan.

The plan, as outlined by Gettinger, is three-fold:

  • The Boring Company would “deploy individual systems in San Antonio and Austin.”
  • A connection between the cities, “likely collaborating with TxDOT” would follow I-35
  • Different city utilities would create segments to connect to the San Antonio to Austin system as follows:
    • Kyle to Austin
    • New Braunfels to San Antonio
    • San Marcos to Kyle
    • New Braunfels to San Marcos

In April, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg expressed his displeasure over a proposed plan to construct a Tesla-exclusive tunnel connecting San Antonio International Airport and downtown.

“We have a lot of transportation issues that we want to solve here in Texas and in San Antonio, frankly. That doesn’t solve any of them,” Nirenberg said on Inside Texas Politics.

[…]

Ambrose has spoken in front of city officials in his hometown and in Kyle about the opacity with which he believes the Boring Company operates in Central Texas.

“Business as usual for TBC,” he tells MySA via text message. “Trying to pull strings in the background. I think they’d catch more fish with transparency.”

In a reply less than two hours later, the Kyle official asks for cost specs so that they can find a location and consider funding.

“We would love a connection into downtown Austin AND ABIA,” the official writes.

On May 3, Kyle City Council approved a professional services contract to build a railroad pedestrian underpass to connect to its Vybe trail network.

Good luck with that. You may recall this all started with a proposal to build a tunnel from the San Antonio Airport to downtown SA, which later on morphed into a possible San Antonio to Austin tunnel project. There’s a lot of skepticism about how this could possibly work, and so far all of the price tags I’ve seen for this seem suspiciously low. We’re in the Elon Musk Zone here, it doesn’t have to make sense. The full list of projects includes one in our backyard, a drainage tunnel for groundwater under SH 288, as well as the first mention of hyperloops I’ve seen in a couple of years. Good times. Tune in at some unspecified point in the future to see if any of this has moved from the conceptual phase to something else. The Current has more.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Is that San Antonio airport tunnel really going to happen?

Reality check:

In March, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority unanimously approved a feasibility study for a proposal from billionaire Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to build subterranean “public transit” from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown.

At the meeting, RMA Board Member Michael Lynd Jr. and Bexar County Director of Public Works Renee Green affirmed that the Boring Co.’s proposal — a nine-mile underground tunnel that would transport passengers in Teslas from the airport to the Pearl and downtown — was the most feasible option among the bids it considered.

Questions have swirled about what problem Musk’s $247 million-plus overture would solve, whether it qualifies as public transit and whether transportation dollars would be better spent on better-proven, if less-flashy, solutions to San Antonio’s traffic woes.

As the Boring Co.’s $247 million bid undergoes a feasibility evaluation, it’s worth considering whether Musk’s latest pie-in-the-sky venture has any prospect of working. According to local experts across a variety of disciplines, the project is doomed from the start.

See here, here, and here for the background. You should read the rest, but I’ll summarize it as concerns about water and other environmental issues (more on that here), property rights, and the fact that the San Antonio transit agency VIA is already in the process of implementing an express bus service from the airport to downtown; this would happen before the Musk tunnel and would directly compete with it. I’m also deeply skeptical of the price tag, which just seems awfully low to me. But hey, we’ll see what that feasibility study says. Maybe we’re all wrong.

In Houston, the trucks drive you

Yet another driverless truck story.

Autonomous freight trucking company Embark will make Houston the hub for its new Texas operations and launch an autonomous trucking route along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

The San Francisco-based company this month said it will begin hiring “aggressively” in Houston at the start of 2022 as the company begins to expand across the southern U.S., said Stephen Houghton, chief operations and fleet officer at Embark.

“Texas is the center of America’s trucking industry, and it’s the perfect home for Embark’s expanded operations. We’re excited by the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that Houston has to offer,” he said.

[…]

In previous interviews, officials with both Waymo Via Trucking and Aurora said Texas was an obvious choice to test their technology thanks to the favorable regulations, relatively mild weather, major population centers and vast stretches of monotonous highways.

Officials with Embark said Houston will prove to be at the nexus of the industry’s development and growth because it sits at the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways that human drivers can’t complete in a day because of regulations limiting the number of hours they can drive. While it usually takes a human driver about 22 hours to complete, autonomous trucks could do it in about 12 hours, Embark officials said.

The region is also home to research institutions that have been studying autonomous vehicles for years, with Embark officials citing Texas A&M University’s work in the field. A cornerstone of its Texas operations will be an extensive partnership with Texas A&M University, Houghton said. Embark will use the university’s Engineering Experiment Station test track to pilot its technologies, and company engineers will work with the university’s mechanical engineering faculty and Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, or CANVASS, to prepare for a driverless trucking test program in 2023.

See here for some broad background on the subject of driverless trucks in Texas. I fixated on that bit about Houston being at “the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways” for awhile, and eventually concluded that they meant the stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to (more or less) Biloxi, MS, as Google tells me it’s just over 600 miles, and Houston is close to the center of it. I can tell you that I have driven that far on I-10 by myself in the past, but I was much younger and a whole lot dumber back then.

I don’t believe I had heard of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems before – there’s nothing in my archives about them. Sounds cool, I’ll keep an eye on it. And also on that 2023 date, since it seems like other autonomous vehicle promises that have been made in the past have been a bit overly optimistic. We’ll see about this one.

(Note: This is one that has sat in my drafts for awhile, and I decided to publish rather than let it go to waste. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this exclusive look behind the curtain of my editorial process.)

Lawsuit filed over Llano County libraries

This is going to be something to watch.

Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the county judge, commissioners, library board members and library systems director for restricting and banning books from its three-branch public library system.

The lawsuit states that the county judge, commissioners and library director removed several books off shelves, suspended access to digital library books, replaced the Llano County library board with community members in favor of book bans, halted new library book orders and allowed the library board to close its meetings to the public in a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

The plaintiffs — Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring and Diane Moster — insist their constitutional rights were violated when public officials censored books based on content and failed to provide proper notice or an avenue for community comment.

When the plaintiffs attempted to check out several removed books, they said, they were denied access.

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination. They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn,” the lawsuit states. “When government actors target public library books because they disagree with and intend to suppress the ideas contained within them, it jeopardizes the freedoms of everyone.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ellen Leonida said she plans to file a preliminary injunction this week to get books back on shelves and access to the digital library distributor, OverDrive, reinstated while the lawsuit is pending. Leonida also wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning that small groups like the one in this case cannot control the availability of books without legal resistance.

“They can’t censor books, unequivocally, based on viewpoints that they disagree with,” Leonida said.

[…]

In November, Bonnie Wallace, who eventually became the vice chair of the new Llano County library board, emailed Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham with a list of 60 books on Krause’s list that were available in Llano libraries, according to emails referenced in the lawsuit and obtained by The Texas Tribune. Later that day, Cunningham directed library system director Amber Milum to remove “all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity.”

In addition to library books’ removal, Cunningham told librarians to stop ordering new publications in November, according to the lawsuit.

Listed as the lawsuit’s defendants were Cunningham; Llano County Commissioners Jerry Don Moss, Peter Jones, Mike Sandoval and Linda Raschke; Milum, the library director; and library board members Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Wallace.

I had to reread this and then check Google to make sure I got this right: We are talking about the PUBLIC LIBRARIES in Llano County, not the school libraries. Do you want Commissioners Court deciding what books you can read? I didn’t think so. Here’s some local coverage with more details.

The lawsuit, “Little et al v. Llano County et al,” is a direct result of recent actions taken by Llano County officials within the library system, including the recent removal of books from library shelves, switching the library system’s online reading services from OverDrive to Bibliotheca, the dissolution and creation of the county’s Library Advisory Board, and the March 9 termination of the head librarian of the Kingsland Branch Library.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of plaintiffs Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring, and Diane Moster, all of whom are Llano County residents and users of the library system.

[…]

The complaint claims county officials violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights laid out in the First Amendment, which protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press.

Some examples outlined in the legal document are the removal of 12 books, including “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings; the suspension of new book acquisitions; and the decision to discontinue use of the online reading service OverDrive, which now operates as Libby.

The complaint also states that the rights laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizens the right to due process, are being violated.

That part of the complaint argues that the aforementioned actions were done secretively and without due process as laid out in the county’s adopted policies and guidelines published by the Texas Library Association and other industry experts. It also references the county Library Advisory Board’s recent decision to close meetings to the public.

“Bringing legal claims under both the First and Fourteenth amendments allows Plaintiffs to ask the judge not only to order defendants to put banned books back on the shelves and reinstate OverDrive access, but also to mandate certain procedural protections be put in place to ensure that defendants can’t engage in this kind of censorship again in the future,” said Amy Senia, an associate with BraunHagey & Borden.

Evidence provided in the legal document includes direct quotes from emails and other correspondence sent between county officials, advisory board members, and library staff.

The story provides a PACER link to court documents. You lawyers out there, please weigh in on this one. There was a recent Washington Post story about how the fervor for banning books in schools had metastasized into doing the same at public libraries, with Llano County as the focus; there’s a reprint of it here. My favorite detail is that the “new library board stacked with conservative appointees” includes several people who don’t even have library cards. Because of course they don’t. I think you can guess how I’ll be rooting in this one. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Speaking of school libraries, there’s some action on that front as well.

The ACLU of Texas last week sent a letter accusing San Antonio’s North East Independent School District of violating the First Amendment by permanently banning 110 books from its school libraries last month.

The April 20 letter, first reported locally by the Express-News, also accused the district of violating its own polices with the book removal. The ACLU demands that the district return the tomes to its shelves, apologize for its “grave missteps” and commit to educating its students on the United States’ “history of racism.”

“All books recommended for removal must be placed back on North East ISD shelves as swiftly as possible,” the ACLU writes. “If the district seeks to review any books for removal in the future, it must follow its written policy for doing so.”

I’ll keep an eye on that as well.

Our still-smoggy skies

We’re being called on the carpet for them.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday sought to list the Houston and Dallas metro areas as “severe” violators of 2008 federal ozone pollution standards, kicking off a process that will likely impose stricter pollution controls in both regions to reduce local smog.

Ground-level ozone pollution, known as smog, harms human health by constricting lung muscles, making it harder to breathe and exacerbating lung diseases such as asthma. More than 79 million Americans live in areas that do not meet national air quality health standards for smog, according to the EPA.

“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a Wednesday statement on the proposed rule. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”

Ozone pollution results from car and truck emissions, industrial emissions from facilities such as refineries and electric generation plants, as well as from natural sources (trees, for example, emit organic compounds that react with other emissions to form ozone).

The 2008 rule requires metro regions to stay below 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air; the EPA looks at the fourth worst ozone pollution days between 2018 and 2020 to determine the limit was violated. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, a 10-county region, exceeded the threshold at 76 parts per billion, while the eight-county Houston region exceeded it at 79 parts per billion.

Three other metro regions — Denver, Chicago and New York — also failed to meet the standard and would be listed as “severe” violators under the EPA’s proposal.

“It is a big deal,” said Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston who has studied the Clean Air Act. “Once you change those designations, it requires the state to do more in that locality to reduce pollution.”

In addition, the EPA is seeking to designate the San Antonio region as a “moderate” violator of the more recent 2015 ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, with a measurement of 72 parts per billion.

The new designations in the Dallas and Houston regions would trigger more aggressive pollution control requirements on businesses by requiring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to revise its plans to control smog in those regions. The changes could include stricter air pollution permits and requiring businesses to install better pollution control technology, as well as requiring a greater reduction in pollution before an area can approve new additional pollution sources.

A TCEQ spokesperson declined to comment on the EPA’s proposal on Wednesday.

Flatt said he wouldn’t be surprised if Texas sues the EPA to protest the new designations, although winning would be difficult since the EPA’s authority to enforce the ozone requirements is well settled, he said.

“But the attorney general of the state of Texas is running for reelection,” Flatt said. “He plays to a base by opposing EPA or the Biden administration.”

I think there’s a 100% chance that the state files suit over this, and given the debasement of the federal judiciary in recent years I’d be surprised if Kan Paxton can’t find a judge that will give him what he wants. After that, who knows what might happen. In the meantime, maybe we can hope for a bit of voluntary compliance, and maybe we can put some local pressure on the larger offenders. Don’t take anything for granted about this. The San Antonio Report has more.

SCOTx declines to save Chick-fil-A

But they didn’t kill off the possibility of it being saved, either.

Conservative activists suing the City of San Antonio alleging it violated the Texas “Save Chick-fil-a” law have not presented evidence of a violation, the Texas State Supreme Court ruled Friday morning, as it sent the case back down to a trial court.

The case stems back to a 2019 city council decision to deny the chain’s request to open a restaurant at the San Antonio International Airport because of what a council member described as the company’s support for Christian groups with anti-LGBTQ agendas.

Later that year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law — Chick-fil-A cup in-hand — the bill that allows any individual to sue governments that have taken “adverse actions” against corporations due to their support for religious organizations.

A group of people from the San Antonio area, including a conservative activist and former council candidate Patrick von Dohlen, sued the city under the new law. They are represented by lawyer Jonathan Mitchell, a former state solicitor general who helped write the legislation and are backed by amicus briefs from 62 Republican state lawmakers and Abbott.

The justices said the plaintiffs did not “not allege sufficient facts” to sue a governmental body for official action. The court said actions taken before the law was in effect couldn’t be considered as violations of it, and past actions couldn’t be used to assume that the city would in the future violate the law.

“But, more importantly, we do not think the city’s March 2019 conduct standing alone permits a reasonable inference that there exists a “credible threat” of a post-September 1, 2019 adverse action against Chick-fil-A by the city,” the court’s ruling says. “Indeed, the contrary is true. Rather than assume the city would violate (the law), we presume the city would comply with (the law), until the contrary is shown.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the court’s decision, which is fairly technical but still pretty straightforward. The bottom line is that because the San Antonio Council decision to not go with Chick-fil-A was made six months before the dumb “Save Chick-fil-a” law was passed, the justices who joined the majority opinion ruled that the plaintiffs could not claim there was a violation of the law. They also did not accept the argument that the city would have violated the law had it been on the books at the time, which the two concurring justices asserted. They did overturn the appeals court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs should be allowed to make a live pleading with the law now in effect, but I suspect that will be a hollow victory. I say that based in part on the Court’s observation that the city likely would have complied with the law if it had existed at the time, and partly because of this footnote at the end of the decision:

Finally, we note this case may present another jurisdictional issue that has not yet been addressed and should be considered on remand: whether Chick-fil-A’s public statement that it is no longer interested in pursuing a space in the San Antonio airport renders the case moot.

I mean, maybe Chick-fil-A doesn’t want you to try to save it.

Also, too, was the issue of standing, which I noted for its proximity to the state lawsuits against SB8. As is its wont, the Court sidestepped the matter:

Because we hold that petitioners have not demonstrated a waiver of governmental immunity and should have the opportunity to replead, we decline petitioners’ invitation to address standing at this stage. Standing should be determined based on a plaintiff’s live pleading, and it would be premature for us to weigh in on the City’s standing arguments before petitioners have repleaded.

In other words, we’ll deal with it if they sue again. Never decide today what you can put off till tomorrow. Bloomberg and the San Antonio Report has more.

San Antonio airport tunnel approved for feasibility study

This crazy idea keeps finding a way to move forward.

A plan by Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between San Antonio’s airport and downtown was selected Wednesday by the local regional mobility authority for a feasibility study.

Board members serving the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), an agency tasked with improving transportation in Bexar County chose Boring over a bid from a local consortium, SAK/Bexar Automated Transport, to enter into a development agreement to study the feasibility of the project.

County staff used a scoring system with eight criteria to evaluate the two bids. The estimated project cost and potential revenue were at the top of the scoring matrix.

As proposed by Boring, the rideshare system would use Tesla’s electric-powered cars traveling in a tunnel 30 feet below ground to ferry passengers the 9 miles between the airport and downtown. The total estimated cost is between $247 million and $289 million.

Boring’s bid includes an option for the company to fully finance phase one of the system, a tunnel between the airport and the Pearl to start, at a cost of $27 million to $45 million.

Boring estimated revenues to the RMA of $25 million a year.

“What we don’t know is whether it’s financially viable at this point because, at the end of the day, the reason we’re doing this is to generate a revenue stream for the RMA, so that we can build even more infrastructure projects,” Michael Lynd, the RMA board’s presiding officer who recently was reappointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

[…]

To pay for the tunnel project, the RMA would issue revenue bonds that would be backed solely by the project’s revenue, Lynd said. That could come from ride fares and advertising throughout the system.

Entering into the development agreement is the first step toward determining where and how the tunnel system would be built and whether it would pay for itself.

No timeline has been set for the process to determine the project’s feasibility. The RMA will hire an investment advisor to study the project and determine more precise revenue streams, which will be needed in order to sell bonds that would finance the project.

“This is not your only bite at the apple as we go forward with this,” said Renee Green, director of public works and county engineer. “We’ll be coming back obviously to the board over a number of different things.”

The board’s unanimous approval of Boring’s bid gives the RMA the green light to pursue answers to questions about the system Boring proposed and its viability. It’s not an OK to build the system.

“I don’t even think we’re biting at the apple, we’re pointing at the apple,” said board member John Agather.

“This is approval to take the next step to enter into conversations and discussions about where we go from here — whether this is financially viable, et cetera,” Lynd said. “There’s still a lot of vetting to happen and locating of the lines.”

See here and here for the background. I’ve expressed my incredulity before, so I’ll spare you the repeat. At this point, I’d very much like to see what that feasibility study says. Maybe this really can work! I mean, I feel like a fool even expressing that as a hypothetical, but what do I know? Bring it on, prove me wrong, turn me into a cheerleader. Worse things have happened to me.

One more thing:

Lynd called the project a “proof of concept” that could determine whether the tunnel system is expanded to connect San Antonio to other cities.

“I’m sure there is ambition to connect Austin and San Antonio,” he said. “Everybody in San Antonio I think would love to see that happen. But something like that would be in the future.”

At this point, it’s hard to argue that the Elon Musk Memorial Tunnel is less viable than Lone Star Rail. It’s totally crazy-making, but here we are. May as well embrace it. The Current has more.

“You put an electric engine…in a DeLorean??”

Everything old is new again.

Hold onto your flux capacitors: The DeLorean Motor Company is back and making San Antonio its home.

Economic development officials announced Monday that the once-defunct 1980s-era car manufacturer, whose gull-wing car was best known as a time-travel machine in the Back to the Future movies, will establish its reconstituted headquarters at Port San Antonio as it seeks other locations for manufacturing operations.

The brand is staging a comeback in the realm of electric vehicle (EV) production, a plan the car company teased in a 15-second spot during the Super Bowl LVI game Sunday.

[…]

Electric vehicle manufacturing is a new venture for DeLorean, known best for its stainless steel sports car that debuted in 1981.

First established by auto industry executive John DeLorean in 1975, the car company produced about 9,000 cars at a plant in Northern Ireland between 1981 and 1982 before the company went bankrupt and its founder was arrested for drug trafficking. The cars have lived on in pop culture lore thanks partly to their distinctive design and starring role in three Back to the Future films beginning in 1985.

British-born mechanic Stephen Wynne purchased the rights to the DeLorean name and remaining parts inventory in 1995. Since then, the company has provided service to the 6,000 DeLorean cars still in existence from its home in Humble, north of Houston.

Its entry into electric vehicle manufacturing will be the company’s first go at building cars since the original plant closed in 1982. DeLorean joins a list of at least 17 automakers planning to electrify their models in coming years.

Why not do it with some style, right? I have no idea if this will be a success or if it’s even worth trying, but I don’t care. The thought that there might someday be electric DeLoreans out on the street someday makes me smile.

We can’t end this post without the proper homage:

I hope that’s enough to distract you from the realization that “Back To The Future 2” was set in that mystical far-off year of…2015. Missed it by that much on the Cubs winning the World Series, too.

San Antonio airport tunnel update

This continues to boggle my mind.

A plan by Elon Musk’s Boring Company for a project that would connect the San Antonio airport to downtown via twin underground tunnels is among two proposals a local transportation agency is considering.

In a [recent] meeting, the board of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (Alamo RMA) confirmed the staff’s recommendation of proposals from the Boring Company and from Bexar Automated Transport to advance to the interview stage.

Both companies will be invited at a later date to present a full proposal and answer questions before the board makes its final selection.

After feasibility studies are conducted, the project could move forward on a fast timeline.

In all, five companies submitted proposals in response to a request for qualifications and proposals issued by the Alamo RMA, an independent governmental entity created by the Bexar County Commissioners Court.

Last month, the authority’s staff ranked the proposals based on each company’s profile and financial capacity, experience and qualifications, the project description and financial feasibility.

Renee Green, director of public works and county engineer, outlined each of the proposals for the board.

The proposal by Austin-based Boring to build a tunnel 30 feet below ground scored highest among them, with 91.6 points. The system would use Tesla cars to ferry passengers the nine miles between the airport and downtown.

The company, which has built a similar tunnel loop in Las Vegas, estimated the “Alamo Loop” project would cost up to $300 million.

A proposal by Bexar Automated Transport, a company made up of several transportation entities, scored second with 80 points. Its plan calls for an autonomous bus using a combination of elevated and underground tracks — estimated to cost $330 million.

[…]

To take it to the next step, the authority released its request for proposals in October 2021 and evaluated those proposals late last year. The transportation model targets the existing rideshare market and should pay for itself.

It would not be taxpayer-funded, though bonds could be issued to finance the debt, Green said. “We don’t want to have to subsidize this — it needs to generate revenue for us to move forward.”

Green told the board that once a company is selected, “the real work starts.”

The seven-member board would next consider the legal and financial feasibility of the project, verify the cost estimates with an engineer’s report and evaluate the project’s impact on the environment. Board members said they would be asking both companies to present a plan to gather public input about the project as well.

When asked about the project timeline, Green told the San Antonio Report, “Obviously, fast.”

But the most important aspect of the system is that it has to be expandable, she said. “We don’t want this to be a one-off. We want it to be built on with ‘fingers’ extending out.”

See here for the background. This whole thing still feels like someone is putting me on, but if so they’re really committed to the bit. I remain deeply skeptical that this is financially viable, and I’m still not sure why it’s even needed, but at least if they’re going to go this route I’m glad to see that it’s viewed as something more than a one-route novelty. If this can get built as Austin to San Antonio rail remains in limbo, I don’t know what that says about us. Nonetheless, I will be very interested to see what happens. The Current has more.

The cities and the freeze

Well, at least some government entities are trying to learn from the February disaster, even if they’re having a rough go of it.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

[…]

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Now do the story about what Greg Abbott has learned from the experience and what he’s doing about it. Oh, wait…

Bexar mask mandate back on

Abbott and Paxton take another L.

A temporary order that allows the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to require masks in their buildings will stay in place until a lawsuit challenging an executive order goes to trial in December, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

In another blow to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Wednesday in Austin that the ban on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules, according to The Texas Tribune.

After San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott over his July executive order that prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates, a Bexar County district judge issued a temporary injunction in August. That temporary injunction gave the city and county the ability to require masks inside city- and county-owned facilities as well as in public schools that teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 4th Court of Appeals had already upheld the temporary injunction after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the trial court’s decision and argued that his appeal automatically blocked the city and county’s mask mandate. That decision made in August was temporary until the appellate court could take up the matter and issue a more final decision, which occurred Wednesday, said Larry Roberson, civil division chief of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office.

“This is the opinion on the temporary injunction,” he said. “The earlier issues were just procedural.”

The city and county argued that the governor’s executive order exceeded his scope of authority by blocking local governments from creating public health prevention measures. They also argued that by not having the ability to enforce their own public health measures, coronavirus transmission would be more widespread without masks and cause irreparable harm.

Their arguments were enough to validate the need for a temporary injunction, three judges on the 4th Court of Appeals found.

“We conclude that the City and County have pled sufficient facts to establish that their injuries are ‘likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” Chief Justice Rebeca C. Martinez wrote in the appellate court’s opinion issued Wednesday.

See here for the previous update and here for the court’s opinion. I will note that this is still a temporary restraining order and that the merits of the case will be heard at trial on December 13. That said, I will also note these sentences from the opinion, which addresses the question of whether Abbott had the power to forbid local governments from issuing mask mandates with the emergency powers granted to him under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975:

We hold Section 418.016(a) does not provide the Governor with the authority he claims to suspend statutes that concern local control over public health matters or to prohibit local restrictions on face coverings.

[…]

Applying the plain language of the Act, we conclude the City and County demonstrated a probable right to relief that the Governor’s power to suspend laws, orders, and rules under section 418.016(a) does not include the power to prohibit face-covering mandates that local governments may adopt to respond to public-health conditions or the power to suspend public-health statutes authorizing local governments to act for the benefit of public health.

[…]

Because the Governor possesses no inherent authority to suspend statutes under the Texas Constitution and he exceeded the scope of statutory authority granted to him by the Legislature, his actions in issuing Executive Order GA-38 were done without authority.

In between is a bunch of technical legal stuff that will make your eyes glaze over, but the bottom line is that this directly addresses the claim that the Governor’s emergency powers allow for him to suspend local orders that are intended to mitigate the disaster in question, an authority that would seem to contradict the whole purpose of a “Disaster Act”. We’ve discussed that several times here, and while that question will surely come up again in the trial court hearing and later on appeal, it’s good to see this basic idea affirmed here by the appellate court. May such common sense continue to prevail as this moves on to the trial stage. The Current has more.

SCOTx hears Chick-Fil-A case

Missed this last week.

The Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments Thursday in the now two-year-old case involving the exclusion of Chick-fil-A city contract in the San Antonio International Airport.

[…]

San Antonio has always maintained that the law should not apply to the contract because it was not the law then and is not retroactive.

“The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio correctly held that the plaintiffs cannot convert Chapter 2400 of the Texas Government Code into a retroactive statute,” said Laura Mayes, spokesperson for the city.

Plaintiffs lawyer Jonathan Mitchell argued to Texas Supreme Court justices that while they agree the contract vote took place prior to the law, several of the city’s actions took place afterwards.

“Anything the city did to put a different vendor in that spot that would have gone to Chick-fil-A is an action to exclude Chick-fil-A from a property — all of that falls under adverse action,” he explained.

Mitchell argued anything as mundane as an email could be considered as an adverse action and qualify as an “allegation” of the new law, which would waive the city’s “governmental immunity.”

The issue for the city’s lawyer, James Daniel McNeel “Neel” Lane, was that plaintiffs never alleged a specific violation; they only now argue that it would be impossible for the city to not have taken an adverse action.

“There has to be an allegation, factual allegation of a violation of the act. There is not here,” he said.

See here for some background; there’s video from the arguments in the story. I know I’m biased here, but the plaintiffs’ argument just sounds stupid to me. But as noted, this case has a connection to the litigation over SB8, as the plaintiffs in this case don’t have an actual loss or injury to claim, just that if there had been a Chick-Fil-A at the airport they would have patronized it. If SCOTx rules on the question of standing, you can see how it might apply to SB8. I figure we’ll know about this one sometime next year.

Elon Musk’s underground adventure

Say what now?

When it surfaced two months ago, the notion of Teslas whizzing through underground tunnels between San Antonio International Airport and downtown seemed fanciful.

Now, there’s a sign the idea may have gained some traction.

The Boring Co., a tunneling firm backed by billionaire Elon Musk, has been talking to local leaders about building an underground transportation loop in San Antonio. Musk is the CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, as well as the founder and head of SpaceX.

Under The Boring Co. proposal, a fleet of company-driven Teslas would use the below-ground circuit to shuttle visitors between the airport and downtown San Antonio, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

On Oct. 1, in what sources described as the first concrete step to explore the idea seriously, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority formally invited contractors to submit plans for “a transportation project that can efficiently and economically transport people between the general vicinity of the San Antonio International Airport and the downtown area of San Antonio.”

Alamo RMA Chairman Michael Lynd Jr., a residential estate developer, said the authority issued the request for airport-to-downtown plans in “response to a proposal submitted to us by a company.” He declined to identify the firm. Sources told the Express-News it was The Boring Co.

Lynd said the authority now has opened the process to competing firms with ideas for a better, “economically viable” way to move travelers from the airport to the center city.

“First, give us an idea,” he said. “Next, give us the facts and the tangible data behind it.”

The deadline for proposals is Dec. 1.

Read the rest, because it doesn’t get any less bonkers. I have no idea how this could possibly be economically viable, but I’m not a spacefaring billionaire supergenius, so don’t pay me any mind. I will say that it’s a 15 minute drive from the San Antonio airport to downtown SA, so it’s not like the Uber/Lyft fares they’d be competing with are particularly expensive. But it would be cool, you have to admit that.

Chick-Fil-A and the “heartbeat” lawsuits

I’d forgotten all about this.

A case that’s before the Texas Supreme Court this fall could have strong implications for the future of the state’s newly adopted abortion ban, the most prohibitive in the nation.

The suit relates to a 2019 law that, like the abortion law, was authored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

Known as the “Save Chick-fil-A” law, it allows anyone to sue when they believe a governmental entity has taken “adverse actions” against a person or company based on its support for a religious organization, as Republican lawmakers believed the city of San Antonio did when excluding the fast-food restaurant from its airport.

Civilian enforcement is also the key to the new state law that effectively bans abortion, Senate Bill 8 — a provision that has so far allowed it to survive a legal challenge based on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case establishing women’s right to abortions. At issue in both cases: Can a state law grant private citizens standing to sue?

“The standing issue in the case is essentially the same,” said Jason Steed, a Dallas-based appellate lawyer and court watcher who is not involved in the case. “That’s what’s interesting about it is that the court could decide that standing issue and whatever they decide about that issue would have direct implications for SB 8.”

[…]

The city council’s decision to ban the restaurant had animated conservatives who saw it as discrimination against the company because its owner had given money to Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

Gov. Greg Abbott, surrounded by Republican lawmakers, each with a Chick-fil-A styrofoam cup in hand, signed Hughes’ bill in July 2019, and celebrated it as a victory for religious freedom.

The suit before the Texas Supreme Court was brought on Sept. 5, 2019, by five Chick-fil-A supporters who said they were harmed because they would have been customers of the restaurant had it opened in the city-owned airport.

Still, they note in the suit that the law does not require them to prove damages and purports to give standing to anyone who alleges a violation. They are seeking a court order to stop the city from excluding the fast-foot chain from this project and potential ones with the city in the future.

It’s unclear whether the company wants into the airport. In September 2020, San Antonio was forced to offer Chick-Fil-A its spot back as part of an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Civil Rights under the Trump administration. The settlement helped the airport avoid penalties that could have jeopardized millions of dollars in funding from the agency.

But Chick-Fil-A declined, and the city has since given the spot to Whataburger, which is slated to open by next spring.

In August of 2020, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio sided with the city and reversed a lower court’s decision, ruling that the city had sovereign immunity, a legal principle that protects governments and their agencies from lawsuits.

See here, here, and here for some background. Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in July of 2019, before the five busybodies filed theirs. The easy way out for SCOTx is to uphold the Fourth Court’s ruling, which would allow them to not address the question of standing, which as noted is at the center of SB8. The city of San Antonio argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing, and as of today there’s no adjudication on that matter. Sooner or later, one way or another, we’ll get some kind of answer to that.

SCOTx puts San Antonio ISD’s vaccine mandate on pause

Ken Paxton finally gets what he wants.

The Texas Supreme Court temporarily halted San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate on Thursday, a day before the deadline for all employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The ruling comes two weeks after a Bexar County judge denied the state’s request for a temporary injunction to stop the staff vaccine mandate. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office appealed that decision to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the court temporarily block the mandate while it considers Paxton’s appeal.

The 4th Court of Appeals denied the attorney general’s request to temporarily block the vaccine mandate. Paxton then requested the Texas Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did Thursday while stating the court’s decision is not a reflection “on the merits of the state’s claims.” The appeals court still has to rule on the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that was denied by the Bexar County judge on Oct. 1.

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While the Supreme Court’s ruling means SAISD must pause its vaccine mandate, the district said in a statement that it will continue to work with health care providers to offer vaccines to any employees, students, and families who want them.

“This is especially important as we anticipate the availability of the Pfizer vaccine for 5-11-year-old children in the next month. We remain committed to believing it’s the right thing to do,” the district said in the statement. “We are extremely proud of our efforts in providing abundant access to this life-saving protocol to all of our employees and the broader SAISD community. Based on the science, we continue to feel strongly that these vaccines help us keep our staff and students as healthy as possible and in the classroom, where learning happens best, and in giving our families stability.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Next up would be a hearing in district court on the merits of the state’s request for an injunction, followed by another round of appeals. The hope remains that in this time, whether the mandate is allowed to be enforced or not, some number of SAISD employees get vaccinated who wouldn’t have done so otherwise. If that happens, it was all worth it. The Trib has more.

More on the San Antonio ISD vaccination mandate litigation

I’m a little confused at this point, but I’ll cope.

Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court denied the state of Texas’ request for a temporary injunction Friday, allowing the San Antonio Independent School District to continue requiring its employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Former SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has since left the district to take a job in Chicago, issued the vaccine mandate on Aug. 16, requiring all staff members to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. SAISD board President Christina Martinez said Thursday that about 90% of SAISD staff has been vaccinated.

Alvarez’s decision came after a hearing on the state’s request for temporary relief against the vaccine mandate was delayed. Another state district judge denied the school district’s challenge on Sept. 23 that the state and Gov. Greg Abbott did not have jurisdiction to sue. SAISD then appealed that ruling, pushing back the original hearing for the state’s lawsuit; the appeal was dropped earlier this week.

After Alvarez’s ruling, the state’s legal team said they planned to appeal. A trial for the lawsuit is set for Jan. 19, 2022.

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Attorney Steve Chiscano, who represented SAISD, dismissed the state’s lawsuit as a political ploy.

“We are sitting in an injunction hearing that the AG is hoping to win so he can spin off another press release on how proud he is that he beat up on this district,” Chiscano said. “It is so obvious and so clear that this is happening that I believe at the end of the day, you’ll see that what the governor is doing is not supported by any law.”

See here and here for the background. I’ve decided that we had a motion by SAISD to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied, and then the state asked for a temporary restraining order against SAISD, which was also denied. The source of my initial confusion was the change in judges between the two, but I think that may just be how Bexar County rolls. In any event, true to form and as the story notes, Paxton – who was not present for the hearing – did indeed tweet about it and how he’s fighting for the freedom of people who want to get sick and die and take others with them. Ultimately, this judge did not buy the state’s argument that the Abbott executive order was enough on its own to prevent SAISD from responding to the pandemic in this fashion. A higher court may intervene before the hearing for an injunction, but in the meantime I sure hope that SAISD is making progress in getting shots into arms. That is what really matters. The Current has more.