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Sylvester Turner

The lack of testing is becoming a more serious problem

It was already serious. Now it’s extra serious.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities said Monday that their testing sites were being strained, forcing them to turn away people in the middle of the day or limit who is eligible to take a test.

In Travis County, interim County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county’s public testing is being rationed to only people with symptoms. Previously, local leaders had encouraged anyone to get tested, including asymptomatic people and people that had come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

“The rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking to allow metropolitan areas to issue their own stay-at-home orders.

The largest laboratory analyzing tests is also strained, Biscoe said, to the point that the county has decided to prioritize cases from severely ill patients in hospitals. Residents in Travis County who don’t show symptoms still have other options, like private facilities, to get tested.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city’s two public testing sites, where testing is still available to people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, reached their maximum capacities before noon.

“The capacity on those sites will be increased from 500 [daily tests] to 650 each,” Turner said. “It is clear that there is a demand out there, and we need to ramp up as best as we can to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, the two community-based testing sites in the city of Dallas are reaching their capacity “by noon or early afternoon daily,” according to city spokesperson Roxana Rubio. In these sites, testing is restricted to symptomatic patients, high-risk people, first responders, essential workers and asymptomatic patients who have engaged in large group settings.

The obvious problem here is that if you think you need a test but can’t get one, you have the choice of self-quarantine and hope for the best, or keep on keeping on, and hope you’re not the 2020 equivalent of Typhoid Mary. If everyone could reliably get a test and get their results in a reasonable amount of time, people would be much freer to move around, and maybe even socialize with other people who can confidently state that they are safe. Indeed, if we could do this at scale, we could do much more targeted quarantining, and thus let larger portions of society open up safely. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Other countries have managed to do it. Just not this one. SIt with that for awhile.

Meantime, in Houston, the spread of this disease is having a bad effect on crime.

With more than 10 percent of its workforce out due to COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.

Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages Houston Police Department’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.

Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.

“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.

[…]

Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.

“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case by case basis.”

The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.

“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” said Stout. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”

The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.

“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.

Sure sounds like one. Maybe we’ll do a better job with the next pandemic.

Hey, how about trying that local control thing again?

Seems like it might be worth a shot to led Mayors and County Judges lead on coronavirus response again, since they’ve done so much better a job of leading than Greg Abbott has.

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns over hospital capacity.

Stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, were implemented to varying degrees by local governments across the state in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings to the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, writing that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings when outside a household and “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

[…]

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” they are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Here’s the Chron story; Mayor Turner has joined the call for this as well. I seriously doubt Abbott will do any of this, because it will serve as an even more stark reminder of his abject failure to lead. But if the worst is still ahead of us, then it’s a choice between taking action now and making it end sooner, or denying reality and letting more people get sick and die. Abbott’s going to have to live with the consequences of his poor decision-making regardless, he may as well choose to do the right thing this time.

Of course, there may be other complications this time around.

The Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance said it plans to sue the state of Texas over Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order once again shutting bars across the state.

“Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance (TBNA) is taking the necessary steps to protect the rights of our members and their employees across the state, who have been unjustly singled out by Governor Abbott,” TBNA president Michael E. Klein said in a statement.

[…]

TBNA said its members want to be allowed to reopen and have the same capacity allowances as restaurants, grocery stores and big-box retailers. It will sue in both state and federal court seeking to override Abbott’s order.

The majority of Texas bars had been adhering to strict guidelines restricting occupancy and ensuring safe serving practices for both customers and employees, TBNA’s Klein said. His take: if restaurants with bar rooms can operate at limited capacity, why can’t actual bars?

“To suggest the public welfare is protected by singling out one specific type of alcoholic beverage license over another is without logic and does not further the aim of protecting the public from COVID,” he added.

Well, one way to cure that disparity would be to order that all of them be closed for all except to go service. We’d also need to extend that waiver that allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to go, which I’d be fine with. While I understand where the TBNA is coming from, this is Not Helping at a bad time. But then, given how Abbott folded on enforcing his own executive order in the Shelley Luther saga, I get why they thought taking an aggressive stance might work. Eater Austin has more.

UPDATE: Looks like the TBNA has been beaten to the punch:

Hoping to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s Friday decision ordering Texas bars to close due to a rise in coronavirus cases, more than 30 bar owners filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Abbott’s emergency order.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, was filed in Travis County District Court by Jared Woodfill, a Houston attorney who has led previous legal efforts opposing Abbott’s other shutdown orders during the pandemic.

“Why does he continue unilaterally acting like a king?” Woodfill, former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, said of Abbott in an interview. “He’s sentencing bar owners to bankruptcy.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the bar owners argue that their rights have been “trampled” by Abbott, while “thousands of businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Abbott on Friday said it “is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars.”

Tee Allen Parker said she is confused. As a bar owner in East Texas, she’s allowed to walk into church or a Walmart but not permitted to host patrons at Machine Shed Bar & Grill.

“I don’t think it’s right that he’s violating our constitutional rights,” Allen Parker, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Monday in an interview. “The reason I’m speaking up is I don’t like that he can’t be consistent. You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.”

A copy of this lawsuit is here. I’ll say again, as with all of the other COVID-related lawsuits that Jared Woodfill has had his slimy little hands in, we deserve to have serious questions asked by better people than this. As for Tee Allen Parker, I swear I am sympathetic, but no one actually has a constitutional right to operate a bar. I would suggest that the solution here that prioritizes public health while not punishing businesses like hers that would otherwise bear the cost of that priority is to get another stimulus package passed in Washington. Such a bill has already passed the House, though of course more could be done for the Tee Allen Parkers of the world if we wanted to amend it. Maybe call your Senators and urge them to ask Mitch McConnell to do something that would help? Just a thought.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

Who needs testing?

Not a great idea.

The Trump administration is planning to end federal support for some coronavirus testing sites across the nation at the end of the month — including seven in Texas, where confirmed cases of COVID are spiking.

An array of Texas officials from the city to the state House and Congress are urging the White House to rethink the move, warning of “catastrophic cascading consequences” of pulling federal support for testing sites, four of which are in Houston and Harris County and administer thousands of tests per day. City officials say the sites won’t close, but keeping them open without federal help will drain much-needed resources as the city works to expand testing and build a contact tracing network.

A Trump administration official said the sites are part of a “now antiquated program” the federal government is moving away from as it works to expand testing options. But Houston officials consider two of those sites — the largest in the city, administering up to 500 tests each per day — the backbone of its testing efforts.

Texas has seen a 146-percent increase in lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations since Memorial Day and Houston could soon be the country’s worst-hit city, health officials have warned.

“Now is the time to be ramping up our testing capabilities, not slowing it down,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who led a letter to the heads of FEMA and Health and Human Services on Tuesday. Houston Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher also signed the letter.

Also pushing back on the plan is a group of 20 members of the Texas House and Senate representing Harris County and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.

[…]

The Trump administration has long planned to end federal support for the sites and transition them to state and local control. It has pushed back the plan at least once, in April, when it extended support for the sites until the end of June at the urging of local lawmakers including Houston Democrats and the state’s Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Cruz.

Officials are asking the administration to to push the deadline back to the end of August, saying ending federal support for the sites now could hinder attempts local attempts to build up contact tracing networks and other efforts to control the outbreak.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesday that the city will keep the testing sites open, but it will strain the city’s resources to do so. The city’s health department is working on a transition plan as officials push for the federal government to reconsider.

The federal government should be paying for this. It’s not even a question. This is not something that should be competing for city financial resources. Turn on the federal spigot, and keep it on until we don’t need testing at scale anymore. I can’t believe we are having this discussion.

Credit to Talking Points Memo for breaking the original story, which has been picked up by national media, and which apparently led to an epic meltdown by the spokesperson for HHS on a conference call with reporters. The Trib has more.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

Can we make it past July?

That’s when it looks like we’ll hit the peak of the pandemic here. And it could be ugly.

A surge in COVID-19 cases since Memorial Day could set the Houston area on track for a peak of 2,000 daily hospitalizations by mid-July, according to a model from a Baylor College of Medicine epidemiologist.

The region’s intensive care units would be overwhelmed by that number of patients, a nearly 50 percent increase from current levels, though thousands of general hospital beds remain available, said Dr. Chris Amos.

City of Houston Health Authority David Persse said several area hospitals already are at or over capacity, and warned that shifting patients to facilities in other cities, a common practice in natural disasters, may no longer be possible.

“The difference this time is the hurricane, if you will, is infecting the entire state,” Persse said.

With government restrictions on business and travel removed, the epidemiologist and hospital executives from the Texas Medical Center said the only hope for the Houston area to avoid that outcome is for residents to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

Too many residents, they said, appear to have mistaken the end of Harris County’s stay-at-home order as a cue to resume normal life, while the virus poses a greater threat today than it did on May 1.

“The alarming situation could be that we have rampant COVID spreading throughout our society,” Houston Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom said. “If we don’t take control, it takes control for us.”

See here for some background. Hey, remember that May projection from the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that was based on social distancing data? It suggested we would get up to over 2,000 hospitalizations per day, right around where we seem to be headed now. Their graph had us hitting that mark in early June, while Baylor is suggesting July. Never would have been much better than late, but here we are anyway.

Elected officials and their public health experts are grappling with the idea that Harris County may have squandered much of this spring’s success in slowing the growth of the virus during the six-week stay-home period.

The shutdown dealt severe damage to the economy, including half a million lost jobs. Since Gov. Greg Abbott began reopening the state in May, however, the Houston area has set new records for cases and hospitalizations.

“All of the good work that we did, shutting down, closing conferences and conventions … we’re wiping away the success that we collectively achieved, and the sacrifices that people made in March, April and in May,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The mayor lamented that local officials have had little authority to issue restrictions since Abbott has implemented his phased reopening plan, and urged residents, at a minimum, to follow County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, which went into effect Monday. The order mandates that Harris County businesses require their customers to wear face coverings.

Abbott defended his strategy during a news conference in Austin, saying it achieved its primary goal of preventing hospitals from being overrun. He said the rate of new cases across the state was unacceptable, however.

See here for more on that mask order, which we could have had weeks ago had it not been for Abbott’s ridiculous, cowardly refusal to talk straight. This is all on you, Abbott. I hope the knowledge of your craven behavior haunts you for the rest of your days. I hope even more it’s what finally forces you out of office in 2022. May we all end up being overly panicked about this, because if not this is really going to suck. The Chron editorial board has more.

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he is reviewing an internal audit of the Houston Police Department’s embattled narcotics division and will send the results of the probe to state lawmakers who have called for its public release.

Turner revealed the news days after state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, authored a letter signed by seven other House members that called on Police Chief Art Acevedo to publicly release the audit’s findings.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of the home’s two residents and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant used in the operation. That officer, Gerald Goines, has been charged with murder and faces federal civil rights charges.

Twice in the last two weeks, Turner has declined to say whether the audit should be released, and he had not admitted to reviewing it himself until Friday. He said he is giving lawmakers access to the audit as long as they promise not to reveal it to the public.

“As I go through the audit — and I’m going through it now — you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been acting undercover and expose them to risk,” Turner said after a roundtable on police reform at City Hall. “But I do understand the importance of making it available to our legislative colleagues, so that they can see it for themselves.”

[…]

Wu on Friday said it was not enough to release the audit only to lawmakers.

“This is an investigation of a public agency, of public servants’ wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent in the public interest and right to know what public servants are doing. I cannot imagine we would tolerate this from any other city or state agency where we suspected rogue employees or individuals. The public not only has a right to know, it needs to know.”

Rosenthal echoed Wu in calling for the report to go directly to the public, not House members.

“Taxpayers paid for that report, they pay for that department, it belongs to the people,” Rosenthal said. “I’m disappointed they would ask us to not send it to the people. Our ask was that it be made public.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he “appreciates” Turner’s decision to allow lawmakers to review the audit.

“I think it’s important in this time that transparency is there. In a strong mayor form of government, that is a call the mayor can make,” he said. “I still think it should be public, that hasn’t changed.”

I say again, release the audit. If there are some people named in it who are not under any suspicion or who have no connection to the underlying problems, then go ahead and redact them out of it. Otherwise, I agree completely with what the representatives are saying. This is information for the public.

Step Two:

A group of 20 marched through drizzling rain on the downtown Houston streets Friday where thousands had just gathered for George Floyd, now demanding justice for a Hispanic man killed by police in April.

The rally ended in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where about a dozen more supporters joined and called for Houston police to release body camera footage of the incident in which 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was fatally shot by lawmen while, according to a cell-phone video of the encounter, on his knees.

“I know that they’re going to make him look bad and they’re going to try to justify what they did,” said his mother, Leantha Chavez. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. He was on his knees when they shot him and he was unarmed.”

Chavez’s family and friends emphasized that he seemed to be undergoing a mental crisis. His 5-year-old son stood nearby during the gathering outside of the courthouse, holding a sign that read, “Abolish the police!”

Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said while the family viewed their footage, the agency needs to consult with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before releasing video to the public.

“The family’s wishes are obviously a very important part of it, but we have to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office as well,” Smith said.

“We are certainly available to police if they want to discuss concerns about body cam videos or any other evidence,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We independently review all officer-involved shootings and we present all the evidence in every instance to a grand jurors, regardless of whether it has previously been made public, so they can determine whether a criminal charge is warranted.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has asked the FBI to review the April 21 death of Chavez. He called the cell phone video “difficult” to watch but has yet to make public any of the police department’s roughly 70 videos that captured the shooting.

The whole point of body cameras, and the reason why there was such a demand for them in recent years, is precisely because they can shed light on contentious and disputed interactions between the police and the public. If the DA needs some time to review the footage to determine whether or not to bring charges, that’s fine, but let’s not draw this out any longer than necessary. This is, again, information for the public. Let’s act accordingly.

Release the audit

That’s my three-word response to this.

A growing chorus of elected officials is calling on Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to release the findings of an internal audit on his department’s narcotics division, arguing that the chief’s refusal to do so contradicts his vows to be transparent and accountable.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of two homeowners and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant he used in the operation.

Now, with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota galvanizing worldwide protests and searing scrutiny of police departments across the country, state Reps. Anna Eastman, Christina Morales, Jon Rosenthal, Senfronia Thompson and Gene Wu are renewing their call from March for Acevedo to release the audit. And they are joined by three other members of the Texas House — Garnet Coleman, Gina Calanni and Mary Ann Perez — along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and more than half of Houston City Council.

Wu, who wrote both letters, said that the chief’s reluctance to release the audit is at odds with his past pledges to be transparent and hold officers accountable.

“The violations of policies, procedures and laws by officers in the Narcotics Division must be made known to the public,” wrote Wu, D-Houston. “If there are other officers who have repeatedly broken the law, the continued concealment of their behavior does a gross disservice to reputations of officers who are doing their jobs well.”

You can read the rest, and you can see a copy of the letter here; page two is visible on Dos Centavos, which is where the signatures are. I mean, being transparent means doing stuff like this. If there really is some content in that audit that might affect prosecutions, a little redaction is acceptable, as long as the substance of the report is not changed. But come on, either you meant it when you said you wanted to be transparent or you didn’t. Show us what you meant.

On a related note:

The mayor shouldn’t pretend that the calls for police reform were suddenly sprung on him this week. His own transition team in 2016 made a litany of reform recommendations. Our organizations participated in the committee, as did senior members of the mayor’s administration. Then in 2017, city council spent $565,000 on a 10-year financial plan that included recommendations to cut some of the 75 percent of the budget spent on public safety over that time span.

Houston does not need another study. What we need is action on the existing recommendations for police reform. After participating in the transition committee, our organizations established the Right2Justice Coalition. We have met regularly to address ongoing issues of policing and criminal justice in Houston and Harris County. Today, we are publishing a progress report of existing recommendations from Turner’s 2016 Transition Committee on Criminal Justice and the 2017 10-year financial plan.

The progress report shows that the city has implemented only a few of the recommended reforms, the most significant being the consolidation of the city’s jails with Harris County in 2019. It has failed to adopt recommendations to develop, in partnership with grassroots organizations, a plan for community policing, to enact a cite-and-release policy to divert people accused of minor offenses from the criminal justice system, to combine 211 and 311 to better meet residents’ needs for non-police services, and to implement a body cam video release policy that “maximizes public access to footage in a prompt manner.”

And instead of civilianizing 443 positions as the 10-year plan recommends to save $5-10 million, the administration has increased the number of officers by 81 and shrunk the number of civilian positions by 258.

Delays in implementing these recommendations in the last three years have further eroded public trust. Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s actions speak louder than words — by that standard, their message is unchanged.

C’mon, guys. The time for action is now. You promised it, we want it. I know you can do it. Don’t let us down.

So let’s talk about HERO 2.0 again

Surely now is the time.

In November 2015, 61 percent of Houston voters rejected a city ordinance that would have barred employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, a devastating blow for LGBTQ advocates in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Four and a half years later, two-thirds of the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court extended federal workplace protections to gay and transgender employees across the entire country, with Justice Neil Gorsuch — a conservative jurist appointed by President Donald Trump — penning the majority opinion.

The ruling marks a stunning turnaround for LGBTQ Houstonians, who lacked such protections under local, state or federal law before Monday. Still, they remain subject to discrimination in public places, meaning a restaurant owner may no longer discriminate against gay and transgender employees but can refuse service to LGBTQ customers.

Houston’s anti-discrimination measure — branded by supporters as Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, and by opponents as the Bathroom Ordinance — would have applied to employers, housing providers and places of public accommodation. It would have protected 13 classes on top of sexual orientation and gender identity: sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, and family, marital or military status.

Supporters of the local anti-discrimination law say they will continue tentative plans to push for a second version of the measure in 2021, the next city election, to ensure the remaining classes and locations are covered. They also say a local ordinance would provide an added layer of protection for members of Houston’s LGBTQ community beyond the Supreme Court ruling.

“It is very clear, if you put it in the context of what’s happening in our country right now, that having de jure employment protections doesn’t mean that the problem is solved,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor and first openly gay mayor of a major American city. “Because, in fact, we’ve had protections around race for a very long time and we still are trying to work hard to dismantle systemic racism. So, it is a big step forward, but there’s still much work to do.”

Houston’s LGBTQ advocacy groups have eyed the 2021 election since their first attempt ended in a resounding defeat. Monday’s court ruling will strengthen their case and their odds of success, contended Austin Davis Ruiz, communications director for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.

“If you can no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as it’s decided in this interpretation of the word ‘sex,’ then it should be able to be extended to all these other areas that still lack federal protection,” Ruiz said.

[…]

Alternatively, Houston City Council could pass an anti-discrimination ordinance if Mayor Sylvester Turner were to place it on a meeting agenda and the majority of the 17-person council approved it. Turner, who controls the City Council agenda, did not address that possibility in a statement Monday praising the Supreme Court ruling. Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to say whether he thinks the ordinance should go through City Council or the November ballot.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Turner said he was working with his LGBTQ advisory board to find “opportunities to do more public education” on the issue, but stopped short of saying he would advocate for a ballot measure in 2021.

We were talking about this last November, during the Mayoral runoff. I argued at the time for waiting until 2022, in order to get a better turnout model, but the engagement and outreach strategy is what really matters. Certainly, this could be passed by Council, but there would almost certainly be another referendum to overturn it, so you may as well have the election on your own terms. And despite what happened in 2015, there’s no reason why it couldn’t pass this time. It’s mostly a matter of making sure that Democratic voters vote in favor of a position that is almost universally held by the Democratic politicians those voters vote for. There are a lot of ways this can be accomplished, but the one thing I’d call absolutely vital is organizing and preparing a message strategy for it ahead of time. There’s no better time than now to be doing that.

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

What are we going to do about that Independent Police Oversight Board?

The easy answer is “make it better”, it’s how you do that that’s harder.

As protests over George Floyd’s death swept the nation, activists in Houston cried out for police reform. Among their demands: Give us an independent police watchdog.

One already exists, city officials said: Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board.

But the board lacks meaningful power, with one longtime civil rights activist calling it “window dressing.”

Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board, which reviews investigations completed by the Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division, meets at police headquarters. It cannot launch its own inquiries or accept complaints directly from civilians. Members are forbidden from discussing any of the cases they review — even with the mayor or other public officials. Its sparse website includes instructions on how to file a complaint with police, but little information on the board’s own work. It lacks the power to subpoena documents or compel officer testimony. It’s a volunteer body appointed by the mayor and has no professional staff. And when members of the oversight board make policy recommendations, they often never find out what happens to their suggestions, current and former members told the Chronicle.

“It’s clear if we had additional clout, we could do more and better work,” said Gerald Birnberg, a Houston attorney who serves on the oversight board. “It feels like we’re working in the dark.”

As America reckons with racism and calls to address police violence, critics say Houston’s police oversight board is inadequate. Those who argue against change say the board has sufficient power and lacks training to investigate or issue subpoenas.

[…]

The board can make recommendations to the chief related to disciplinary action, policies and training, but the chief has the final say.

While members are forbidden from discussing the cases they review, some of their recommendations became public in a police brutality lawsuit filed after the 2012 police killing of Kenny Releford.

HPD was forced to turn over internal affairs files related to several shootings, with recommendations filed by the IPOB and its earlier incarnation. When the board reviewed the July 2012 shooting of Rufino Lara, two members of the panel wrote notes urging de-escalation training.

The officer should not have “fired her gun on someone who was not pointing or near to pointing a dangerous weapon toward her,” one member wrote. “Better training needs to be provided.”

The majority agreed with the department’s conclusions, but all checked off boxes indicating training had not been sufficient.

The police department also maintains discretion in deciding what records to release to the oversight board, though board member Kristin Anderson, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said members “see all documents associated with any case” that comes to the board.

She said the public deserves transparency, but said granting the board subpoena power is a “red herring” and would not give members “the ability to tell if a cop is lying.”

Birnberg said board members do not have unfettered, immediate access to all the records they request. He recalled seeing cases where board members were told obtaining an autopsy would take four months — far longer than the two-week period the board’s panels have to review individual cases.

“I don’t know if the chief is aware of the structural impediments to the panels getting meaningful information at the time they’re supposed to be ruling on the cases,” he added.

[…]

Houston attorney Joe Melugin, who spent three years suing the Houston Police Department over the shooting death of Kenny Releford, said he disagrees with those who say holding police legally accountable police should be left to the district attorney.

“Until the city fires police officers for abuses of power and unjustified violence, and until the DA prosecutes police the same as any of the rest of us, then the problems with police abuses of power will persist regardless of changes to the IPOB,” he said. “We must change how the police force exists and operates in our city.”

There’s a lot of back and forth in the story about what the IPOB can and cannot do, and I’m not in a position to assess the claims. I agree with Joe Melugin, the ultimate goal needs to be accountability, where bad cops are fired and cops who break the law are arrested and prosecuted like anyone else would be. Surely if that had always been the case, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now. As for the “how do we get there” part of the discussion, I basically agree with the Houston Justice Coalition demands:

1. Uniform Body Camera Policy

The current body cam policy is a disjointed mess. Cameras are not on consistently. According to a KHOU investigative report completed in 2017, very few tapes were released to the public upon request. We demand that cameras run and that all tapes are released within 24 hours upon request.

2. Transparent Tracking of Complaints

When a complaint is made on an officer, there is no way to know the status of the complaint. The timelines for followup are egregious, and often aren’t even followed. Houstonians who want to hold police accountable must have a clear system with expedient, easily accessed methods of feedback between them and HPD to ensure that officers face consequences when they violate policy and civil rights.

3. Citizens Review Board with Subpoena Power

A citizens review board must have the power to bring officers in for questioning and possibly for charges and repercussions. Otherwise, a board is simply an artificial token, not an arbiter of true justice. We demand that a citizens review board chosen by The People, unchecked by the Houston Police Officers Union or City Hall, be formed immediately and granted with the power to subpoena law enforcement—full stop.

Maybe subpoena power isn’t all that, but let’s try it first and see where it gets us.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Budget amendments and a fight over police reform

That’s your City Council agenda for today.

City council members have authored more than four dozen amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget to trim spending, create new sources of revenue and expand police accountability measures.

Council members will take up the proposals Wednesday when they consider the mayor’s $5.1 billion budget plan, which is coming forward at an especially fraught moment. The city’s usual budget challenges have been aggravated by the economic crisis tied to COVID-19, while activists are gaining traction around the country in their calls to defund or scale back police departments after the death of Houston native George Floyd.

Many of the 50 budget amendments are a direct response to those topics, including one from Councilwoman Amy Peck that would establish a group to audit all city departments and programs, then recommend whether they should be continued with certain changes, folded into another program or dissolved altogether.

The process would in some ways parallel the zero-based budgeting process used for Turner’s spending plan, which required department heads to analyze every function and justify each dollar spent rather than adding to existing budgets. Peck said Turner’s administration never showed council members the detailed results of zero-based budgeting — and her so-called sunset review commission has a broader scope.

“With the sunset review, it’s looking at every line item, but it goes past that,” she said. “It involves citizens and stakeholders and really gets into whether (the program is) serving the constituents, whether there are ways to consolidate, if there are technology advances to make. There could be some program within a department that’s just not needed anymore.”

Other cost-cutting amendments include Councilwoman Sallie Alcorn’s proposal to study where Houston and Harris County can join forces instead of providing duplicate services, and a program suggested by Peck and Councilman Robert Gallegos that would allow city workers to voluntarily take unpaid time off. Councilman Greg Travis also proposed letting private firms compete with city departments for certain contracts, or studying whether it would save money to do so.

[…]

The mayor has expressed opposition, meanwhile, to a sweeping police reform amendment introduced by Councilwoman Letitia Plummer that would eliminate nearly 200 vacant positions in the Houston Police Department. The funds saved by getting rid of the positions and a cadet class would go toward beefing up de-escalation training and the police oversight board, among other proposals sought by those pushing for police department reform around the country.

Turner repeatedly said during last year’s mayoral campaign that he wants to grow the police department by several hundred officers, and he rejected the idea of reducing the police department’s budget during an appearance on CNN last week.

With a budget of over $900 million that is devoted almost entirely to personnel, HPD is by far the city’s largest department and would have little room to cut spending without diminishing the police force. The police union previously negotiated a 3 percent pay bump from July 1 through the end of the year, accounting for much of the department’s proposed budget increase.

On Monday, five black Houston council members released a series of proposed HPD reforms that include many of the measures contained in Plummer’s plan, but without the spending cuts. The letter included every black member of council — Martha Castex-Tatum, Jerry Davis, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Edward Pollard and Tiffany Thomas — except Plummer.

In a statement, Plummer said, “After reading my colleagues’ open letter, it appears we all want the same things. I look forward to having their support for my amendments on Wednesday.”

See here for some background, and here for the five Council members’ proposals. Here it must be noted that the police union was a big supporter of Mayor Turner, and they were the instigators of the lawsuit that killed the firefighter pay parity referendum. He campaigned on hiring more police, and that’s where he is. That said, nine votes on Council can pass a budget amendment, and in addition to those six black Council members there are five other Democrats – Abbie Kamin, Robert Gallegos, Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, and Sallie Alcorn – who should be open to persuasion on this matter. Maybe some of the Republican Council members might be willing to trim some budget as well – CM Dave Martin received no money from the HPOU PAC in 2019, for instance. Point being, there’s plenty of room to get at least the group of five amendments passed, if not the Plummer amendment. There’s a rally this morning at City Hall to build support for that. There won’t be any better opportunities anytime soon.

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.

Time for a task force

A good step, but it needs to be followed by real action.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to appoint a task force to review Houston Police Department policies amid growing calls for reform following local and nationwide protests over the death of former Houston resident George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Turner’s office said the task force would focus on ensuring accountability and transparency within the department. He announced the task force Thursday night during an hourlong ABC13 town hall on police and community relations.

“It’s so important to hold onto the trust between the community and police because the two have to work together, not be against one another,” Turner said. “Establishing that confidence and that trust is a critical component. That’s why it’s important for all of us to listen, to listen to what people are saying, to listen to the reforms that people want to see put in place, and then to act on those reforms. And we’re going to seek to do that.”

It was not clear Friday when the mayor would appoint people to the task force or when it would begin meeting.

Turner publicly has not endorsed any specific reform, though he consistently has emphasized the importance of police training in television appearances this week.

[…]

Conversations about potential reforms began before Floyd’s death, Councilwoman Tiffany Thomas said. After a string of six fatal police shootings here in Houston, several council members met privately with Police Chief Art Acevedo to address the deaths.

Thomas said she would favor strengthening the oversight board; ensuring there are public and readily available records of complaints made by both citizens and officers against their colleagues; and having some sort of research arm — either within the city or with an external partner, such as Texas Southern University — that could parse through data to illuminate other options.

Councilman Ed Pollard has offered a budget amendment to create an online database where residents can view complaints made to the police department. Pollard said the information would boost transparency and give the public and policymakers data to inform future reforms. His amendment calls for building off an existing platform, called Project Comport, that is free and already used in other cities, though Pollard said it would carry some costs to set up.

“We (would) have a public, online platform that is able to compile the data and put it out in real time on different complaints,” Pollard said.

Councilwoman Letitia Plummer has proposed the furthest-reaching budget amendment. It would eliminate 199 vacant HPD positions in the budget and one of five planned police cadet classes. Plummer seeks to redirect about $11.8 million of the proposed police funding toward a package of reforms, including subpoena-empowered oversight board probes; increased spending on re-entry and My Brother’s Keeper programs; and creation of a mental health unit to respond to some low-risk calls instead of regular patrol officers.

See here for more about CM Plummer’s budget amendment and plenty of other reform ideas, some of which are within Councils’ power and others of which are not. The formation of a task force or blue ribbon committee is always the first thing done when there’s a serious problem that demands actions that some people are very much going to not like. It buys time, it diverts energy, and if you’re not careful the formation of the task force can end up being the sum total of action taken. Look to see who’s on the task force (and how long it takes for it to be named), what their timeline and mandate are, and who does or does not commit to take specific actions based on their recommendations. Then remember that it exists, and that we’re waiting for it to do its job, and that the longer it takes the less momentum there is.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

Council adopts recycling bin fee

From last week:

Beginning in July, Houston residents will find a new $1.14 fee on their monthly water bills for leasing the city’s garbage and recycling bins.

A divided city council voted 8-6, with three members absent, to pass the new fee Wednesday after it was delayed twice at previous meetings. The fee will be in place for four years, and then it will have to return to council for consideration again because of a sunset amendment posed by Councilman Michael Kubosh.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the $5 million in new annual revenue the fee is expected to generate is needed to maintain the city’s stock of the bins, particularly in light of Houston’s budget difficulties. The dollars will be deposited in a separate account for that purpose. Turner said the city cannot afford to keep providing the bins for free.

“We have strained Solid Waste to the limit in this city,” Turner said. “The point is, we’re simply asking people to pay for the bins, just for the bins.”

Houston mayors and councils — including Turner — long have resisted the idea of monthly garbage collection fees like those imposed in every other major Texas city. As of last year, Austin charged a monthly garbage fee of between $25 and $50, San Antonio charged roughly $20, Dallas charged $27 and Fort Worth charged between $12.50 and $23.

Turner said he has resisted fees at those levels because the public would not allow them. He said he instead chose the “lowest denominator” — which he has insisted is not a garbage collection fee — amid pleas from Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes for a more robust fee to improve service.

Hayes told council Wednesday that 30-40 percent of complaints the department receives are related to missing or damaged bins.

“This is one of the lowest-hanging fruits to deal with one of the highest complaints that we get from customers,” Hayes said.

Nonetheless, the 57-cents-per-bin fee sparked a spirited debate around the council table.

You know me, I’ve long been in favor of a dedicated fee for Solid Waste. It’s never made sense to me that Houston funds this entirely out of general revenue. If I have any objection to this it’s that we didn’t go all the way and pass a fee to entirely fund the Solid Waste department. (Yes, I know, the timing for that would be lousy now, but we could have done this any time before now.) Maybe when this fee has to come up for a vote again in four years, we can finally have that debate. In the meantime, I hope this means that the Solid Waste department will be quick and responsive about replacing lost and damaged bins. The point was to improve the service, so let’s make sure that happens.

Mayor Turner and others test negative for COVID-19

They were tested following the news about CM Plummer’s infection.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and two of his top aides have tested negative for COVID-19, the mayor’s office announced Thursday.

Turner was tested for the novel coronavirus Tuesday by Kelsey-Seybold, the health care provider for most city employees. Turner’s chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, and one of his aides also tested negative Thursday, while another aide and members of Turner’s security detail were awaiting test results.

The mayor urged Houstonians to get tested even if they are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

“The results will help you take better control of your health during the pandemic,” Turner said. “While my test result was negative, I will continue to practice social distancing and wear a face covering to do my part to stop the virus from spreading in our community.”

Several city council members also got tested Tuesday, according to Turner’s office, a day after Councilwoman Letitia Plummer learned she had tested positive for the virus. At least two council members — Sallie Alcorn, who sits next to Plummer, and Tiffany Thomas — are quarantining and skipped Wednesday’s council meeting. Alcorn tested negative for COVID-19, one of her staffers confirmed Thursday.

Plummer’s staff members also were tested for COVID-19 earlier this week. She began quarantining at home last Thursday, one day after attending a city council meeting.

See here and here for the background. At least now we know who else had been self-quarantining; that detail was not in the previous story. I presume none of CM Plummer’s staff tested positive, though we don’t know that for sure. Not much else to say except I hope this is the extent of it.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Council will go virtual beginning next week, Mayor Turner said Tuesday, a day after one of its 16 members tested positive for COVID-19.

Turner said the switch to virtual meetings would continue for at least two weeks. All visitors to City Hall will have to wear face coverings and, eventually, there will be temperature checks at entrances, the mayor said.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. She said she started experiencing symptoms last Thursday, a day after the most recent council meeting. Plummer is quarantining and recovering at home, and at least one other member has entered quarantine as a precaution.

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais, at the press tables, sometimes even in the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

Other governmental bodies have been meeting virtually for weeks. Harris County Commissioners Court has been conducting its lengthy meetings online for two months.

See here for the background. I’d be very interested to know which Council member is voluntarily self-quarantining. Be that as it may, I guess I hadn’t realized that Council had been continuing to meet in person up till now. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was, but it wasn’t a great idea, if only because they should have set a better example. Better late than never, but this really wasn’t a good look.

CM Plummer tests positive for COVID-19

Get well soon.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first elected official in the city to have a confirmed infection of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Plummer, a first-term council member and dentist, has been quarantining at home since Thursday and received her results Monday, she said. She briefly went to the emergency room on Saturday to receive fluids, but otherwise has been at home.

Her staff members will be tested for the virus Tuesday, she said. Her dental office staff have all tested negative, as have her three sons.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said the administration is working to ensure any council member or staff member who wants to get tested can do so Tuesday at City Hall, though they are still are working through the details. Mayor Sylvester Turner is scheduled to unveil his proposed budget Tuesday.

“We have to be careful. This is a great wake-up call for a lot of people,” Martin said. “We think this is over? No. For us, it’s just beginning.”

[…]

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais and at the press tables in front of the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

First things first, I wish CM Plummer all the best for a speedy recovery, and I am glad that no one in her family or office appear to have been infected. I hope that’s true for all of her colleagues and other contacts as well. This is a shock, but it’s not really a surprise. Sooner or later, this was going to happen to someone in local elected office – as we have already discussed, it has happened elsewhere, in some cases with fatal results. We all hope and pray for a better outcome here.

But look, it’s not great that Council has continued to meet in person like this, even with masks. Go back and read this link I posted in th weekend roundup. Even sufficiently distanced, and even with masks, having people in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a high-risk scenario for coronavirus. City Council, and every other elected body, needs to give very serious thought to transitioning their meetings online, like now. If the Lege isn’t working on a contingency plan for this as well, even with their next meeting not scheduled until January, they’re needlessly risking the lives of their members, their staff, their security and other support personnel, and everyone else who crowds into the Capitol every two years. If SCOTUS can handle its business over the phone, these folks can do so as well. The alternative is an outbreak that prevents a quorum or upends the elected balance of power, and that’s without considering how many of these people are in high-risk categories. Let’s not be stupid about this. Hold the meetings online, and don’t delay. I don’t want to hear any excuses.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

And so reopening begins

I have questions.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that he will let the state’s stay-at-home order expire Thursday as scheduled and allow businesses to begin reopening in phases the next day, the latest ramp-up in his push to restart the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

First to open Friday: retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls. But they will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Museums and libraries will also be allowed to open at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits must remain closed.

Abbott said a second phase of business reopenings could come as soon as May 18 — as long as the state sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.” That second phase would allow business to expand their occupancy to 50%, according to the governor.

Abbott made the announcement during a news conference at the Texas Capitol, which he began by saying he would let the stay-at-home order expire because it “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” While the spread of the virus in Texas has slowed down throughout April, the number of cases is still increasing day to day, and it is unclear if the state has yet seen its peak.

“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”

Abbott said his new order “supersedes all local orders” saying those businesses must remain closed. He also said his order overrules any local government that wants to impose a fine or penalty for not wearing a mask — something the latest statewide rules encourage but do not mandate.

Speaking shortly after Abbott in Houston, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, told reporters that Abbott’s new order “pretty much will take these measures, the ability to [issue] stay-at-home orders and things of that nature, out of our hands locally.” He said he hoped Abbott’s plan works but offered a “cautionary note,” pointing out that there is still no vaccine and statistics show the “virus is still here,” even as local measures have slowed it down.

Abbott stressed that his order “gives permission to reopen, not a requirement,” and businesses can stay shuttered if they would like.

At the same time, Abbott said he is holding off on reopening certain businesses for the time, including barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms. He said he hopes those businesses can open “on or no later than mid-May.”

[…]

Abbott mostly focused Monday on contact tracing, or the practice of tracking down and isolating all the people someone who tested positive for the virus has come into contact with. Abbott said Texas is already in the second phase of its contact tracing plan, adding 1,000 tracers on top of the existing 1,100 and launching a statewide app and call center to improve the process.

Abbott continued to talk of a coming increase in testing and said the state soon would “easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day.” The state has been adding an average about 14,000 tests per day over the past week, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Still, the total number of tests done as of Monday — 290,517 — remained about 1% of Texas’ nearly 29 million people.

See here for the background, and here for the plan, such as it is. It’s full of guidelines for various businesses and customers and nursing homes and the like, and short on details about things like how we’re going to achieve the testing goal. If you haven’t yet started wearing a face mask you don’t have to, though you really should and in some places you won’t have a choice regardless of what Abbott says.

I said I have questions, so here are a few:

– How many businesses will consider it worth the bother to reopen at 25% capacity?
– What does “confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” mean? As the story notes, the daily number of cases is continuing to rise. If two weeks from now that is still the case, but the rate of the daily increase hasn’t gone up, is that a success under the Abbott plan?
– What happens if there’s a local “flare up”, like say at another meat processing facility, or just in some random part of the state? If Montgomery County has seen an uptick in cases, do they get to re-impose a shutdown order?
– When should we expect to see that statewide app? Will it require some minimum number of people to download and install it in order to work? What metrics will there be for it – number of app downloads, number of people traced, number of infections mapped out, etc? What happens if we fail to meet those metrics?
– What medical experts advised on this? Because clearly not all medical experts are in agreement with it.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I doubt Greg Abbott knows the answer to most of them. As I said before, the word that comes to mind for this is “half-baked”. Maybe everything will be fine, maybe we’re just easing up on less-risky behavior, maybe that testing and contact tracing regimen will be more robust than I expect, maybe people will continue to take social distancing seriously enough to keep a lid on things. I hope everything does go well. I’d surely like to start going places and doing things again. I’m just concerned that we barely have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. What will we do if this doesn’t go the way we hope? The Current, the Press, the Rivard Report, and the Chron have more.

The real problem is those uppity local officials

My God, the Republican playbook is so predictable these days.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Local governments have gone too far in issuing emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic and can expect to have those powers whittled down when the Texas Legislature meets again, key state lawmakers say.

State laws give local leaders broad power during emergencies, but state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, a leading Republican in the Texas Senate, said too many local officials have taken it too far.

“We are going to have to look at all these emergency powers and see if they have to be scrubbed down,” Bettencourt said.

In Chambers County outside of Houston, for example, 10 p.m. curfews have been imposed on adults. In other counties, it’s prohibited to have more than two people in a car. In Laredo, people were allowed to exercise, but bicycle riding was barred.

Local governments are accustomed to playing defense against the Legislature. During each of the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers have tried to curb local authority on myriad issues including tree ordinances, annexations and property tax collections.

Democrats say they’re getting used to this drumbeat of Republicans trying to take authority away from cities and suburbs as they have become more Democratic. They say the cities and counties needed to move quickly because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott waited to issue a statewide stay-home order until 30 other states had done so.

Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been a consistent target for frustrated Republicans.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said the Republicans should be thanking local leaders such as Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner. While Abbott waited to issue statewide orders closing restaurants or requiring residents to stay home, Turner and Hidalgo were moving far faster and helping keep down the spread of the virus, Wu said.

“It’s our local governments that have had to step up and done an outstanding job,” Wu said. “The reason our numbers are so low is because they took decisive action early.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott was only too happy to let local leaders do the leading, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene”? Good times. Have I mentioned that it’s really important that Democrats win the State House this election? Now you have another reason why.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Turner to ask feds for some relief

Can’t hurt to ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking the federal government to let Houston use an estimated $400 million in aid to help close its ballooning budget gap and reduce the number of expected furloughs in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Turner said the CARES Act, part of the $2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month, will give the city much-needed resources, but the rules accompanying those funds prevent the city from using the dollars where they are most needed: the budget.

“You don’t have to appropriate us more dollars, just allow us to have flexibility with regard to those dollars that have already been awarded,” Turner said he told lawmakers. The mayor said the request was made in a letter to Congress signed by 110 other Texas mayors.

There are three rules for the federal aid, according to Turner: expenditures must be directly related to COVID-19, it cannot previously have been budgeted, and it must be spent by the end of this year.

That helps, Turner said, but it would help more to use the funds as a budget stopgap. Southwestern cities like Houston have incurred fewer direct pandemic expenses than northeast cities because they took earlier social distancing actions, Turner said. The real brunt for governments here is the projected drop in sales taxes, which is expected to punch a massive hole in the Houston’s already cash-strapped budget. Sales taxes are the city’s second largest revenue stream, after property taxes.

It’s that or budget catastrophe, and there’s no good reason why we should have to have the latter. Which doesn’t actually matter, since I’m sure the Trump administration will say No, and even if somehow they say Yes or the Turner administration tries to find some clever way around the obstacles in their path, state Republicans will turn fire and fury our way. Because, obviously, being able to stave off massive cuts from a budget shortfall that was unforeseen and no one’s fault is totally irresponsible. That’s just math. Anyway, this is the process before us. May as well see where it leads.

Did we mention that the next city budget is gonna suck?

Because it is, in case we hadn’t mentioned it before.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the coronavirus crisis will impact “every facet of city governance” and require furloughs of city workers, though he declined to say how many employees would be forced to take unpaid leave.

Even before U.S. oil reached a lowpoint of minus-$40 a barrel Monday, city officials were preparing for Houston’s tightest budget ever, thanks to a precipitous drop in sales tax revenue and an already sharp plummet in oil prices.

The fresh collapse of the oil market prompted Turner for the first time to acknowledge that city employees would be furloughed, and the city would defer a number of payments, for the fiscal year that begins in July.

“It’s not any more unique than what other cities are facing across the country. But it’s real in the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to hide it. These are the realities. This will be the worst budget that the city will deal with in its history.”

Turner declined to provide further details about the scale of the furloughs or what level of budget cuts he expects city departments to undergo. He did say cadet classes would be deferred due to the economic crisis but did not specify whether he was referring to fire cadets, police cadets or both.

Houston Controller Chris Brown said the city’s budget situation likely will prove “equal to or worse than” the Great Recession in the late 2000s. In the fiscal year that began in July 2011, then-mayor Annise Parker laid off 764 city employees to close a $100 million budget gap.

We’ve known this is coming. We won’t have a starting point for exactly how bad it is until the Comptroller releases the March sales tax data, but I think we can all agree that it will be Very Bad. We need sufficient testing so we can begin to reopen things in a safe manner, but the only way out of the hole we’re in is going to be help from the federal government. Which, if we learned anything from the 2009 recession, should be obvious, in that the resulting deep cuts to state and local governments in the years following the initial downturn acted as a huge drag on the economic recovery, offsetting stimulus efforts to a large degree. There’s still hope for that to happen in another round of coronavirus response money, if only because keeping the economy from completely capsizing is in the Republicans’ interests in a way it wasn’t in 2009-2010. But until then, expect there to be a whole lot of doom and gloom.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.