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Sylvester Turner

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

Who’s worried about electricity in Texas?

The guy who writes The Watchdog for the DMN, for one. The people with real power in this state, not so much.

I was lonely.

For more than a decade, it was as if I were the only North Texas journalist regularly covering the flaws of the Texas electricity system. It’s not that I was so smart. I heard from hundreds of readers every year who complained about the confusing and unfair deregulated market.

Yet when the Texas Legislature met, nothing ever happened. An electricity activist, Carol Biedryzcki, promoted common-sense solutions that nobody listened to. Sylvester Turner, a former state representative who is now Houston’s mayor, introduced reform bills that never got voted on.

Another Houston representative, Gene Wu, introduced fix-it bills, too. Lawmakers who cared about the issue could fit in a small elevator.

It became obvious that no governor or state lawmaker wanted to tangle with what former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said of the electricity industry: “The most powerful, dangerous lobby… that has ever been created by any organization in this country.”

[…]

Then came the horrific February freezeout, and everything changed. People died. Homes were ruined. Businesses were shuttered. The suffering was immeasurable for days. One of the worst Texas weather events ever.

The story was suddenly front and center. The Texas energy house of cards collapsed. Complete favoritism toward the industry was as obvious as the noontime sun. Right before our eyes, in real time, corruption flourished.

[…]

When the power returned, I began by pointing fingers at the governors, lawmakers, regulators and industry powerhouses who were responsible.

“Don’t count on state lawmakers to admit culpability,” I wrote. “And don’t trust their coming investigations to be unbiased.”

I released the 2021 edition of my annual electricity shopping guide. It’s a free step-by-step guide with tips that I’ve shared with tens of thousands of Texans, online, in the newspaper and as a paper flier.

DeAnn Walker, the chairperson of the (p)UC, who months before in a huff had eliminated the Enforcement Division, appeared before the state Senate. I called her the “incredible shrinking chairman.”

“You’re the commissioner!” one Republican senator chastised. “Y’all don’t have any teeth,” another scolded.

Her reply shows why she lost the P: “If you believe we have that authority, I’m open to moving forward with it,” Walker said. Believe it.

She resigned in disgrace and was replaced as chair by Arthur D’Andrea.

He lasted two weeks. In a 48-minute conference call with investors, first reported by Texas Monthly, he assured them he was doing everything within his power “to tip the scale as hard as I could” so billions of dollars in overcharges from the freezeout would not be reversed.

He laid out the strategy that would come later when lawmakers, the Texas Railroad Commission (regulating oil and gas) and the (p)UC approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds to pay back energy companies’ losses.

Unfortunately, companies that made millions of dollars during the crisis will see some of that bailout money, too.

Who repays the $10 billion? You. But don’t worry, it’s a long-term loan.

D’Andrea also told investors in that call that he didn’t “expect to see a ton” of improvements passed by lawmakers. He was correct. Although for the first time ever, many reform bills were introduced. Most died.

The Watchdog kept a scorecard for good reform bills. Most had notations of either “Stuck in committee” or “No action taken.”

Texans should not have been surprised at electric grid operator ERCOT’s failing. The non-profit was a cesspool of corruption years before. In 2005, a massive procurement scandal led to criminal convictions. Fake companies were created by ERCOT managers, and millions of dollars were siphoned from ERCOT funds.

There’s more, but you get the idea. A lot of this we’ve seen before, but there’s no harm in being reminded. Greg Abbott is counting on a normal winter and a whole lot of short attention spans to claim a victory for doing nothing. Don’t let him do it.

Why your recycling hasn’t been picked up yet

Short answer: Staffing shortages, exacerbated by COVID.

A staffing shortage in Houston’s solid waste management department is causing delayed and missed recycling pickups across the city, the agency confirmed.

The Solid Waste Management Department is trying to fill 45 vacancies for waste collectors, said department director Mark Wilfalk.

Wilfalk, who assumed the position two months ago, said he’s reevaluating staffing needs based on the city’s population growth and demand for services like recycling.

“I don’t know what that magic number is just yet,” he said.

In the meantime, the solid waste department has been skipping some recycling pickups to make up the difference from staffing shortages.

Recycling is skipped first. Then, yard waste is skipped if necessary. Garbage collection is prioritized for health and safety reasons, Wilfalk said.

[…]

In addition to the 45 driver vacancies that haven’t been filled, [Mayor Turner] said current municipal waste collectors are being recruited by private companies that offer higher pay for fewer hours of work. Houston waste collectors sometimes work six or seven days a week.

COVID-19 has also led to fewer drivers available to pick up waste. Turner said 370 or more solid waste management employees were out due to the virus on Monday.

“That number is increasing every day,” the mayor said.

The city is paying additional vendors to supplement solid waste operations. Turner said they’re offering overtime pay and retention bonuses in an effort to keep current employees. Waste collection was also put on a holiday schedule the last two weeks of December to give collectors some time off.

Ours was not picked up two weeks ago; it’s the second time in the last few months we’ve been skipped. I’m hopeful for today or tomorrow – where recycling was usually picked up on the same day as garbage, lately it’s been collected a day or two after. It is what it is.

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

Mayor Turner tests positive for COVID

Get well soon.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday he has COVID 19, putting him among a rising number of infections as the omicron strain of the virus begins to sweep the country.

“I was not feeling well overnight and thought I was suffering from allergies or a sinus infection, so I decided to get tested before starting my daily schedule,” Turner said in a statement released by his office.

[…]

Turner said he received his confirmation of the infection Friday afternoon. The specific strain of the virus infecting the mayor was not released. As with other recent cases among people less at risk, Turner reported his symptoms were mild.

“I will spend the next several days isolating myself at home and getting some rest,” he said.

Turner is vaccinated, received a booster in late October or early November and has spoken repeatedly about the value of the vaccines and the need for Houston residents to get vaccinated.

“Mayor Turner has been a steadfast partner in our work to address COVID-19 and to educate our community about the urgency of getting vaccinated,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement. “I’m happy to hear his symptoms are mild and am looking forward to seeing him back out and about soon.”

Turner will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for isolating after a positive test, city officials said. CDC recommends anyone who tests positive — even those who are vaccinated — should isolate for 10 days, using the first full day of symptoms as a starting point. For Turner, that means if his mild symptoms do not worsen or go away entirely, Dec. 27.

“The mayor is a living example of the way to manage this,” [city of Houston chief medical officer Dr. David] Persse said.

Maybe this is omicron and maybe it’s not, but the reality is that with omicron more people who have been vaccinated will still catch COVID. The difference is that they will be much more likely to have a mild case that won’t require anything more than rest at home. The one bit of good news so far from Europe and South Africa is that while the case rates are skyrocketing, the hospitalization and death rates are not. The vaccine, especially when coupled with a booster or a previous infection, really makes the difference. Get your booster if you haven’t yet, y’all.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

I’ll see your AstroWorld lawsuit and raise you $10 billion

That’s a big number, though that’s partly because there are a lot of plaintiffs.

A local law firm has just filed the largest suit to date against Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival after the mass-casualty tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 concert-goers. Attorney Brent Coon is demanding $10 billion in restitution on behalf of 1,547 attendees — that’s more petitioners than any firm thus far.

Additionally, Coon’s firm, Brett Coon & Associates, has filed a request with the Harris County District Court system to consolidate all cases involved into one courtroom to provide for more efficient management of the docket on behalf of all claimants, per a press release. A hearing is scheduled for December 13, 2021.

Aside from the mammoth suit, Coon notes in a statement that he is demanding legislative action to include crowd control planning specialists to certify events, mandated training programs for event preparation and criminal liability for any wrongdoing.

[…]

Coon’s suit comes after a $2 billion filing by San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry and a $750 million petition by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

See here for some background, and here for the Chron story. I assume the mention of consolidating the cases is a reference to the many others that have been combined and will be heard in Harris County via the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel.

Not much else to add to that story, so let me note a couple of other AstroWorld items that I didn’t put into their own post. First up, Travis Scott is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant from eleven lawsuits.

Houston rapper Travis Scott has responded to 11 lawsuits launched against him in the deadly Astroworld festival tragedy denying all liability and requesting he and his record label Cactus Jack Music be dropped as defendants, according to court documents.

Scott, whose real name is Jacques B. Webster II, has been named in hundreds of lawsuits totaling billions of dollars since the tragedy that took 10 young lives on Nov. 5. Scott’s attorney Ed McPherson issued a “general denial” on his behalf to allegations claiming he was to blame for the deaths and injuries of concertgoers.

Scott is also requesting the claims be “dismissed with prejudice” so that once finished, cases cannot be refiled.

Representatives with Scott’s legal team said in an email to the Chronicle that the request is “a standard response to the plaintiff filing and reiterates what’s already been out there that Travis is not legally liable.”

One of the 10 victims, 22-year-old Texas A&M student Bharti Shahani, died nearly a week post-festival after succumbing to injuries that left her on a ventilator. Her family filed suit against Scott and festival organizers and refused to accept Scott’s financial assistance for funeral expenses. Their lawsuit is one of the 11 Scott’s lawyers responded to.

Not clear to me from the story why Scott is taking this action in only eleven lawsuits, or why these specific eleven lawsuits. Maybe they have something in common, maybe they were just first in line, maybe he’s in settlement talks with the others, maybe full dismissal will be sought for others. I have no idea, but given the high-powered legal team working for Scott and Live Nation, I’m sure this is just a first step.

Other AstroWorld stories that I have skimmed but not found anything original to say about:

Exclusive: CEO of Astroworld medical provider recalls moment when routine festival spiraled out of control

How missed warning signs at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to one of the worst U.S. concert tragedies

8 biggest revelations from the Houston Chronicle’s in-depth Astroworld investigation

This story will be with us for a long time.

Yes, omicron was found in the wastewater

In case you missed it.

Houston has detected the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 in eight of its wastewater treatment facilities, confirming the new strain is spreading in the city.

A Harris County resident was the first person in Texas to test positive for the variant Monday. She was fully vaccinated and did not report any recent travel history, officials have said.

City officials have been sampling wastewater facilities since last year, another metric to help the Health Department gauge the virus’s spread in Houston. People shed the virus through feces even if they are not symptomatic or have not tested positive, providing a truer picture than test results. It is also an early indicator, often presaging positivity rate and hospitalizations by weeks.

[…]

The city said the wastewater findings renew the need to get fully vaccinated and are cause for concern, but not panic.

“The Houston Health Department and Houston Water continue to do an exceptional job tracking the impact of the virus in our community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Vaccines help protect us, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues in the work environment. As the holidays approach, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant about their health and safety.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Houston Health Department press release. I find it comforting to know that when all else fails, you can count on the wastewater treatment plants.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

Our wastewater treatment plant is ready for omicron

One small bit of reassurance in these uncertain times.

The Houston Health Department is testing the city’s wastewater for the new COVID variant, omicron, which experts say could soon be found in the U.S.

The department tests the city’s wastewater weekly for COVID strains. The most recent samples collected the week of November 22 show no trace of the omicron variant, officials said.

“Although our team has not detected Omicron in Houston, we should anticipate it arriving, and the health department is prepared to scale its operations as needed to respond,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a release. “In the meantime, I encourage eligible Houstonians to get fully vaccinated.”

Much is still unknown about the new variant, including if it’s more transmissible, deadly or more bypasses vaccines.

“While we await data to show the level of threat from Omicron, it’s important to remember that vaccination is our best tool to reduce cases, prevent serious illness and death, and slow the emergence of new variants,” Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston said. “If you are not fully vaccinated or if you are eligible for a booster, please do it now to protect yourself, your family, and our community.”

Note that the omicron variant is already here in the US, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s detected everywhere. The wastewater tracking project here has been a big success, and since the latest variant is detectable via PCR testing, it’s no surprise that we’ll have this method to track it. Let’s please all do our part to keep it at a low level.

Sen. Whitmire will run for Mayor in 2023

Big announcement.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire, the longest serving member of the Texas Senate, told supporters at a campaign rally Wednesday that he intends to run for mayor of Houston in 2023.

“I’m no longer considering it, we’re not asking people, we’re running for mayor and we intend to win,” Whitmire told supporters in a video later posted to Twitter by journalist Jose de Jesus Ortiz. “We’re planning to win with your help.”

Whitmire long has been rumored to be interested in the seat, but the remarks make him the first candidate to publicly declare he is running for the office to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner.

He intends to run for re-election to the Senate in 2022, serve in the 2023 legislative session, and then run for mayor in the November 2023 municipal election.

Whitmire told the Chronicle Thursday he is focused on the Senate for now.

“I shared with supporters my plans for future,” Whitmire said. “There will be official public announcement at future date… But it’s no secret I plan to run for mayor.”

[…]

Whitmire, a Democrat, has represented Houston in the Texas Legislature since 1973, first as a state representative and then in the Senate beginning in 1983.

He has an $11 million campaign war chest, which alone would make him a formidable candidate in a city election. No city official currently has more than Turner’s $522,058 in the bank.

I at least became aware of those rumors back in May. I will just say that Sen. Whitmire’s proposed schedule for 2022 and 2023 sounds awfully busy, and may or may not be practical depending on what other candidates do. There are a number of other potential candidates out there, and I will be interested to see how they react. Whitmire will be a formidable contender, but we’re a long way off from November of 2023. As I usually say in these instances, let’s get through the next elections first. Campos, who knew this was coming, and the ,Trib have more.

Some more AstroWorld stuff

Firefighter logs from the event tell the story of early chaos and continued problems.

Houston firefighters arrived at a small command post parked on the far-flung Orange Lot, about a mile from the festival grounds. They spent the day listening to radio dispatches from some of the hundreds of Houston police officers inside and outside the park, or using cellphones to call the concert organizers’ privately hired medical providers. They added notable updates to the 11-page log.

After the early breach of the entry, firefighters wrote just after 10 a.m.: “Venue fences damaged. No control of participants.”

In the initial rush on the gates, four concertgoers were injured, the logs show. Revved-up concertgoers would rush gates at least nine other times Friday, fire officials wrote.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, firefighters noted that a crowd of about 100 people were headed toward the Fiesta. Eighteen minutes later, they noted another 200 people approaching the park’s Gate 10.

“Participants are now dismantling barricades,” firefighters wrote.

[…]

Shortly after 5 p.m., the place was already about two-thirds full, according to the logs. The number of concert crashers appears to have grown significantly as well, with one entry showing that officials estimated as many as 5,000 people had not been scanned entering the park.

Police continued to respond to calls of people pushing down fencing at 5:50 p.m. and an hour later. They reported a “mob” at Main Street at 7:15 p.m., and a crowd of some 250 people rushing a pedestrian bridge nine minutes later.

Half an hour later, police had another 13 people in custody.

At 8 p.m., they reported a Houston police officer suffering from a hand injury;

By 9 p.m. — about the time that Travis Scott began performing — the crowd at NRG park had grown to 55,000, according to the logs.

As the concert progressed, hundreds of festivalgoers continued to pour over fencing.

But if the security breaches were the first signs of trouble, the most significant signs of danger began to appear shortly after 9:15 p.m.

“Individual with crush injury, breathing difficulty,” firefighters noted, at 9:18 p.m. “(ParaDocs) en route.”

“This is when it all got real,” they wrote, at 9:28 p.m.

There’s more if you want to keep reading. I suspect we’re going to learn a lot from these logs, and from what the firefighters who wrote them have to say about it now.

Another source of information about this disaster will be all the litigation.

Attorneys representing more than 200 people claiming they were injured in last week’s Astroworld Festival stampede in Houston said on Friday that they are filing another 90 lawsuits against the promoters of the event in which at least nine people died.

The announcement marked the latest legal action to follow last Friday’s concert by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Travis Scott before a crowd of 50,000 at NRG Stadium that got out of control when fans surged toward the stage.

“We represent more than 200 victims who were injured mentally, physically and psychologically at the Astroworld Festival,” civil rights Attorney Ben Crump announced at a news conference in Houston.

At least 50 other suits have been brought against producer Live Nation Entertainment Inc and Scott over the deaths and injuries related to the Astroworld Festival that was intended to signal the resurgence of Scott’s hometown.

A ninth person succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday, raising the death toll to nine. It occurs to me that the families of the deceased have not yet filed any lawsuits. I have to imagine those will come later. We will be re-living this experience for a long time.

And in the end, I hope we learn from this terrible experience.

The Danish city of Roskilde shares little with Houston other than a proximity to a waterway and a music festival tragedy in which nine people died.

The Roskilde Festival, which typically draws more than twice as many music fans as the town’s population of around 50,000, made only celebratory news until its 30th year, when nine fans were crushed in a mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance there on June 30, 2000.

One year later, the festival returned with Bob Dylan headlining.

Carlos Chirinos, a music and global health professor at New York University, studies music-related crowds and behaviors. He worked with Roskilde Festival organizers in 2005.

“I was impressed with how they stepped up security in the pit,” he said. “I had an opportunity to be close with security and saw how closely they worked with stage management. They tried to achieve total control.

“And they haven’t had any incidents since then.”

[…]

In the meantime, experts say large-scale changes to how the music industry conducts its events are unlikely to take place. Those advocating for the end of general-admission music festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers may get a short-term reprieve: the festival season largely hibernates for the winter.

But by next spring and summer, music festivals will likely return in full fervor.

“It’s not cynical, but just an observation, that some of the most heartbreaking tragedies at mass gatherings in the United States have not yielded a lot of change,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. The non-profit organization was formed following a 2011 concert event that was to feature the band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. Severe winds knocked down supports for a temporary roof, killing seven fans and injuring dozens of others.

“What are the likely long-term changes after the tragedy at Astroworld? You can find people asking if it will be the end of GA shows, and commenters saying that will happen. I don’t think that’s likely at all,” Adelman said. “If for no other reason than the economic model for the music industry has changed. No one is selling records. So the industry sells live music, food, beverages and merchandise. That’s just the model. It’s economics.”

Of course, those that organize and promote these events have to be able to get insurance for them. The lawsuits may make that more difficult for them, or at least force them to make some changes. But yeah, it’s probably best not to bet on anything truly game-changing. Attend at your own risk, hopefully with the knowledge of what can go wrong.

The safety protocols

We won’t know for some time what exactly went wrong at AstroWorld, but we do know what should have been in place to keep the concertgoers safe.

When tens of thousands of people are packed into a confined area like NRG Park, crowd surges of some form are to be expected, security industry experts say, and certain precautions should be implemented.

“It’s very natural when the lights go down or somebody takes the stage, the entire crowd takes a step forward. It’s just natural, you move toward the point of interest. … And depending on the density of the crowd, that can become extremely dangerous,” said Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Herold researches crowd management and works with security firms and sports leagues around the world to ensure public safety at large-scale events.

While Herold couldn’t comment on the security at the Astroworld Festival, citing a lack of publicly released information, she said there are general steps organizers can take to mitigate risk at such festivals.

[…]

High-density events such as Astroworld carry with them inherent dangers, which have played out to tragic ends at concerts and sporting events throughout modern history. More specifically, Herold’s research has found that there is a much higher likelihood of violence and injury at events with general admission seating, the standard at festivals such as Astroworld.

One way to mitigate that risk is to separate the crowd into more manageable sections, Herold said. Videos posted to social media do appear to show the area in front of the stage separated into four sections.

If a crowd surge turns dangerous, the next best bet is to notify the performer, have them pause the show and encourage the crowd to settle down, according to Herold.

“If you allow the concert to continue, the pressure will continue to build, people will begin to panic and then they behave in ways that create even more pressure in the crowd as they try to escape, and it creates a very desperate situation,” Herold said.

See here and here for some background. Professor Herold is speaking in general terms, and what she says makes a lot of sense. This particular event should have had its own safety protocols, and there are questions about whether they were followed.

Astroworld had a plan for all sorts of emergencies. It designated who could stop a performance and how. It included a script for how to announce an evacuation. It detailed how to handle a mass casualty event.

Whether promoters followed it Friday evening, when eight concertgoers died and scores were injured during Travis Scott’s headlining performance, is unclear.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the 56-page “event operations plan,” which the festival promoter developed to ensure the safety of 50,000 guests at the sold-out event at NRG Park.

“Astroworld, as an organization, will be prepared to evaluate and respond appropriately to emergency situations, so as to prevent or minimize injury or illness to guests, event personnel and the general public,” the document states.

Attendees described an entirely different scene: an overwhelmed venue where security personnel were unable to prevent fans from being crushed. Where medics were too few. And where production staff were unwilling to halt the show despite pleas from fans that others had collapsed.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a review of the plan — and whether it was properly followed — should be part of an objective, third-party investigation of the tragedy.

“What I know so far is that Live Nation and Astroworld put together plans for this event,” Hidalgo said Saturday. “A security plan, a site plan. That they were at the table with the city of Houston and Harris County. And so perhaps the plans were inadequate. Perhaps the plans were good, but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.”

Litigation will provide a window into that, but that’s a slow process. Judge Hidalgo is right, we need a thorough investigation; I’m not sure what a third-party investigation would look like, but as long as everyone has sufficient faith in whoever is leading it, that’s fine by me. The goal should be to come to some answers, even just preliminary ones, in a short time frame. We all need to know how and why this happened. Ken Hoffman and Texas Public Radio have more.

Here come the AstroWorld lawsuits

As well they should.

At least 34 Astroworld Festival attendees have sued or plan to sue the event promoter in what is expected to be a bevy of litigation related to the mayhem at NRG Park.

At least eight people died and dozens more were injured Friday during rapper Travis Scott’s concert at the Houston festival. The plaintiffs in several of the lawsuits allege that their injuries — and in one case, a family member’s death — were aided by the negligence of organizers, who they say failed to plan a safe event and failed to provide adequate medical staff, security and equipment for what was expected to be an unruly scene.

“Tragically, due to Defendants’ motivation for profit at the expense of concertgoers’ health and safety, and due to their encouragement of violence, at least 8 people lost their lives and scores of others were injured at what was supposed to be a night of fun,” attorneys said in a lawsuit filed by concert attendee Manuel Souza.

[…]

Souza and another attendee, Cristian Guzman, filed separate $1 million lawsuits in state civil district court over the weekend, alleging they were both trampled and injured.

Guzman, who said he suffered a significant back injury, is suing Live Nation, NRG Park, NRG Energy and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

Souza is suing a variety of owners, operators, promoters and public relations representatives – including Scoremore, Live Nation, ASM Global, Travis Scott and a number of other named individuals.

Both of the men are also asking the court to grant temporary restraining orders that would require the defendants preserve evidence in the case.

See here and here for some background. Stories like this are certain to become obsolete quickly, as more lawsuits get filed. KUT and CultureMap both mention lawsuits not included in the Chron story, and legal experts anticipate many more. Which is how it should be! Eight people, including two children, died at this event, and many others were injured and traumatized. It may ultimately be shown that everyone involved in the planning and execution of this event acted responsibly and took adequate safety measures, but no one believes that right now, and nor should they. We have a civil justice system for a reason, and this is what it’s here for. I guarantee you, we will learn more about what happened via discovery and deposition than by any other means. The Press has more.

A timeline of the AstroWorld tragedy

Good reporting about a terrible event.

For 37 minutes after Houston police and firefighters responded to a “mass casualty” event at a packed Astroworld rap concert where attendees were crushed against the stage Friday evening, Travis Scott continued performing.

Police officials said the promoter, Live Nation, agreed to cut the show shortly after multiple people collapsed at 9:38 p.m. But concert attendees said Scott appeared to play his whole set and finished at 10:15 p.m. Concert staff ignored pleas from fans to halt the show, including some who climbed onto camera platforms to point out others who had collapsed and needed medical attention.

A review of videos and social media posts that documented one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history raises questions about the official timeline of events put forth by local officials, the swiftness of their response and their ability to communicate effectively with concert promoters during the disaster.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle the crowd of 50,000. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

The delay restricted the movement of first responders, who were still transporting limp bodies when Scott finished his final song, “Goosebumps.”

Eight people died, including 14- and 16-year-old high school students. Scores were injured.

[…]

Two veteran concert promoters of major shows — one with experience in Texas — said the plans and procedures between promoters, showrunners and local officials outline exactly how to pull the plug on a show. Neither would comment publicly because Live Nation, the company that managed Astroworld, is a dominant force in entertainment booking.

Often, a performer with a high-energy and complex performance such as Scott’s would have a direct line to a producer or stage manager via an earpiece. The producer/manager would be in constant contact and have the ability at practically any time to tell a performer what is going on and that a show is being abruptly halted.

Cancellation can come from various people along the process, ranging from the artists themselves to promoters and police. Stage crews can, in a matter of seconds if necessary, turn off all power to the stage and broadcast safety and security messages on video boards and over the audio system.

Live Nation did not use the PA system or video boards to broadcast any safety messages Friday evening, attendees said.

The procedures are especially common when promoters hold outdoor shows. Free Press Summer Fest, held across multiple stages and at multiple venues in the Houston area over the past decade, canceled and restarted performances in a matter of minutes as rain moved into the area in 2015 and 2016.

See here for some background, and read on for that timeline, which was put together with the help of eyewitness accounts and their social media posts. There are a lot of questions to be answered about whether security was adequate and what happened with communications, and it’s important that we figure that out and make the answers public. And then, as needed, seek accountability.

The AstroWorld concert tragedy

Just awful.

At least eight people are dead and dozens more injured after a sold-out crowd of roughly 50,000 surged during rapper Travis Scott’s performance late Friday at the Astroworld Festival outside NRG Park, overwhelming security forces and resulting in one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history.

As Scott’s performance started shortly after 9 p.m., the chaotic crowd seemingly swallowed everyone in it, Instagram user SeannaFaith wrote.

“The rush of people became tighter and tighter. .. Breathing became something only a few were capable. The rest were crushed or unable to breathe in the thick hot air,” she wrote. “It was like watching a Jenga tower topple. Person after person were sucked down…. You were at the mercy of the wave.”

“We begged security to help us, for the performer to see us and know something was wrong,” she continued. “None of that came, we continued to drown.”

Then, one person fell. And another.

“We had a mass casualty event here at Astroworld,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said.

Seventeen people were taken to the hospital, 11 of whom Peña described as being in cardiac arrest. Eight are confirmed dead. Some of the victims might be children.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called it an “extremely tragic night,” as families awaited word on whether their loved ones were safe. The Houston Police Department is in the process of identifying victims at hospitals, and a reunification center was set up at the Wyndham Houston Hotel at 8686 Kirby. People searching for loved ones can also call 832-393-2991 or 832-393-2990.

“Our hearts are broken,” Hidalgo said. “People go to these events looking for a good time. It’s not the kind of event where you expect to find out about fatalities.”

The news conference with Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo came on while I was drafting this, which confirmed that the casualty count remains at eight, including two people under the age of 18, and that there were no people known to be missing at that time. There will be an investigation into how this happened. My heart goes out to everyone who was affected by this tragedy.

Get ready to compost

I hope this expands in the near future.

The city launched a composting pilot program Wednesday, opening three sites where residents can drop off compost-friendly waste that otherwise would wind up in a landfill.

The hope is the program will help educate Houstonians on how to divert some of their trash away from the city’s rapidly filling landfills, which also can cut down on methane emissions.

“Very few people in Houston compost. This is a way to educate people about the benefits of it,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who led the effort to start a pilot program. “I know we’re not going to revolutionize the whole city by composting today, but it’s planting a seed, it’s educating people.”

Residents will be able to drop off their compost materials at three sites over the next six weeks: The Kashmere Multi-Service Center, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays; the Historic Heights Fire Station, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays; and the Houston Botanic Garden, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays.

The city and its partners, Zero Waste Houston and Moonshot Compost, will take the materials to Nature’s Way, an organization that will turn the compost into soil over the course of 15 to 18 months.

[…]

Food materials sitting in landfills mark the third-largest source of human methane emissions in the United States, accounting for 14.1 percent of the emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency reported that methane emissions from municipal landfills in 2019 were equivalent to more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

The region’s landfills also are quickly filling. A master plan for the Solid Waste department reported there is only about 30 to 40 years of capacity remaining at the city’s 12 landfills. Seven of them would be forced to close by 2040 unless they undergo major expansions. All private construction and demolition landfills are expected to reach capacity in that time, as well. The master plan called for increasing diversion programs, such as composting, to ease the burden on those sites.

I hope we can all agree that creating more landfill space is not the highest and best use of any existing property. Diverting some amount of waste that has other good uses away from the landfill is a great way to kick that can a good distance down the road. Recycling is a big part of that, composting is just taking it to the next level. Some places already have curbside compost pickup, and our goal should be to get there as well.

Compost-friendly materials include food scraps, such as coffee grounds and tea bags; meat and bones; moldy or freezer-burned food; fruits and vegetable; dairy; and seafood and shells. Alcorn reminded residents to remove paper stickers and other materials from the items before dropping them at the collection sites.

Acceptable materials also include compostable utensils, bags and cups; newspapers, fur, hair and nail clippings; flowers; paper napkins and towels; vegetarian pet bedding; and wood ash.

We do some backyard composting – my wife loves to garden, so she makes heavy use of what we compost – but not everything listed here goes into our bin. I need to make a plan to separate out some of that material and bring it to the Heights Fire Station next Wednesday.

Is there no way to fully close the flood bond funding gap?

Not looking great right now.

For three years, Harris County Commissioners Court members have bickered, haggled and negotiated over the $2.5 billion flood bond program voters passed after Hurricane Harvey.

Throughout all the discord over how projects should be prioritized and the order in which they should start, the group has stuck to one promise: All projects on the original list presented to voters would be completed, one way or another.

That guarantee may no longer be true, court members conceded Tuesday after Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed taking funding for seven planned projects in the Cedar Bayou watershed and reallocating it elsewhere.

While Garcia postponed seeking approval of the idea after County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned it effectively would kill the Cedar Bayou projects, the Democratic majority on the court said the county should consider re-vetting planned projects to see if better alternatives are available.

Court members are in a conundrum. The list contains about $5 billion worth of flood protection projects. The bond, however, provides only half that sum. The county planned for the rest to be covered through matching federal dollars that have failed to materialize, largely due to a distribution formula used by the state General Land Office that discriminated against populous areas.

“We only have $2.5 billion, so decisions have to be made,” Garcia said.

Through June, however, the county had received $1.2 billion in matching federal funds and diverted an additional $230 million in toll road revenue for the program, bringing the total available to $4 billion. The county budget office estimates the roughly decade-long program, currently 16 percent complete, is fully funded for the next five years.

Nonetheless, while no projects have been delayed or canceled to date, that day could soon arrive. Garcia’s proposal would shift $191 million planned for detention basins and channel improvements along Cedar Bayou, in northeast Harris County, to 17 projects in the Carpenters, Vince, Jackson, Greens, Armand, San Jacinto and Galveston Bay watersheds.

See here, here, and here for more on the attempts to fill the gap, and here and here for the reminder that the mess we are in is George P. Bush’s fault. According to Commissioner Garcia, his proposal to prioritize one project over another would protect more houses, score better on the county’s rubric for the projects, and get finished faster. I’m not sure why the order hadn’t been flipped before now, but that sure sounds like a worthy idea even without the funding issues. If nothing else, it may buy some time. But in the end, assuming we continue to be screwed by the GLO, it’s as Commissioner Ellis said: The Commissioners can find a way to come up with the rest of the money, or they can admit that not all of the projects will get done and explain their actions to the public. Those are the choices.

Last chance to make a good FIFA impression

Coming to the end of this very long process.

Houston’s diversity is being played up in the city’s recent push to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with prominent business people and community leaders to highlight the benefits of featuring such a rich multicultural community on the biggest stage for the global pastime.

Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be whittled down to 11 host slots for the 2026 games, hosted jointly between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide another five host cities. With FIFA officials set to make a site visit to Houston Oct. 26 to prepare for their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point harder than ever.

“Soccer is the world’s game, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect match,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely bring tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the 70,000-plus seat NRG Stadium and more would simply soak up the atmosphere at bars, restaurants and gathering spots around the city.

Host cities could net between $90 million and $480 million beyond taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. tournament, have burdened public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary expenditures in 2026 by utilizing preexisting infrastructure, such as the Houston Texans’ home.

Officials said that 2026 is still working through the cost estimates with FIFA and expect to have more details after the Oct. 26 site visits.

[…]

While many media rankings give Dallas the slight edge over Houston due to the city’s larger AT&T Stadium, the Bayou City’s bid committee is touting Houston’s diversity and pointing to the city’s successful track record of hosting major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Final Four.

See here for the last update. I’ll skip my usual nattering about the uselessness of these sports-related economic projections and just admit up front that it would be cool to host some World Cup games. The linked article at the end tries to suss out which 11 cities from the 17 contenders will get to host those games. I don’t see why Houston and Dallas have to be in competition with each other any more than they are with the other 15 wannabes, but we’ll know soon enough. I’m ready for this to be settled.

The Women’s March, the next generation

I look forward to a day when these aren’t necessary, but in the meantime I am grateful to all who cared enough to participate or were there in spirit.

A crowd of more than 10,000 turned out Saturday in downtown Houston to encourage voter registration and to fight Texas’ restrictive abortion ban.

Participants in the Women’s March, organized by the nonprofit Houston Women March On, made their way from Discovery Green nearly a mile to City Hall, where Mayor Sylvester Turner greeted the crowd and proclaimed Oct. 1 as Women’s Voter Registration Day.

U.S. Reps. Al Green, Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia attended, as did George Floyd Foundation executive director Shareeduh Tate, and DeAndre Hopkins’ mother, activist Sabrina Greenlee.

Although rain started falling as the speeches began, the crowd didn’t dwindle, even occasionally shouting in unison, “vote him out” or “our bodies, our rights.”

A main focus at the event was abortion rights in response to Senate Bill 8, which effectively prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks into a pregnancy. It became law Sept. 1.

[…]

Women’s marches took place in more than 500 cities across the U.S. Saturday. The protests emulated the women’s marches that were held across the country in January 2017 after the election of President Donald Trump.

The protests come just days before the Supreme Court reconvenes for its new nine-month term Monday. The court is expected to review whether all state laws that ban pre-viability abortions are unconstitutional.

Couple of things here. One, I wish media would be a lot more careful in describing this law, because the statement that it prohibits abortion “after a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks into a pregnancy” is factually inaccurate and I believe gives the law greater support in opinion polls than it would get if it were correctly attributed. The whole “fetal heartbeat” claim is one made by its advocates, and it is not backed by any medical evidence. It’s disappointing to see that just accepted without any reference to the facts of the matter.

Two, we’re very much going to need this kind of energy not only going into the 2022 election, but for now and for after it to put pressure on Congress and specifically the Senate to take action on a whole range of issues that have popular support but are being stymied by a range of anti-majoritarian practices, mostly but not exclusively the filibuster. The idea that the Texas ban on abortion would flip the script on abortion politics is theoretical. Seeing people take action is the practice. Let’s keep that up. Slate has more.

GLO still screwing Houston on Harvey aid

This shit has got to stop.

Harris County and the city of Houston this week blasted the Texas General Land Office’s revised plan for distributing billions in federal Hurricane Harvey aid, saying that while it is an improvement over the $0 the state originally awarded the local governments, it still is woefully inadequate.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer, said in a letter Wednesday that GLO’s proposal to send $750 million to Harris County and still nothing to Houston ignores what Congress wanted when lawmakers approved the aid package for Texas in 2018 — to help communities devastated by Harvey.

“It is unconscionable that the State would expect that this amount in any way represents an amount that is sufficient to address the extensive mitigation needs in Houston and elsewhere in Harris County,” the pair wrote the land office.

The city and county want at least $1 billion each, which they say is fair since that sum would be roughly half of the $4.3 billion in federal aid that GLO manages and Harris County has about half of all the residents in the 49 counties eligible for the funds.

They suggested the state could abandon its proposal to send more aid to regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council, to free up more money for Houston and Harris County.

[…]

The dispute with GLO has enormous consequences: Harris County is counting on federal aid to help complete projects in its $2.5 billion flood bond program and Houston desperately wants to improve urban drainage so neighborhoods no longer flood before stormwater can flow into bayous.

The GLO in May announced the results of a $1 billion funding competition for the disaster mitigation aid, which completely shut out the city and county governments, despite the fact that Harris County sustained the most fatalities and property damage from the 2017 storm.

Houston Chronicle investigation found the scoring criteria GLO used discriminated against populous areas and the state disproportionately steered aid to inland counties with a lower risk of disasters than coastal ones most vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Land Commissioner George P. Bush claimed falsely that federal rules were to blame for the result.

After criticism from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans alike, the GLO said it would revise its plan for spending more than $1 billion in additional federal aid it has yet to distribute. Instead of holding a second scoring competition as originally planned, GLO intends to award $750 million directly to Harris County, which it can share with Houston and other cities at its discretion.

An additional $667 million would be divided amount regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must approve the revised plan.

In a letter of its own to GLO on Wednesday, Harris County walked a fine line between thanking the state for offering the $750 million and making a case for why it remains insufficient.

Given its own need to fund flood bond projects, the county is disinclined to share its allocation with cities within its boundaries. Instead, County Administrator Dave Berry said county leaders support Houston’s request for a $1 billion allocation.

“The majority of the amount the State of Texas (federal) allocation — by far — was due to Hurricane Harvey and the documented damage suffered in Harris County and the city of Houston,” Berry wrote. “Congress clearly intended for this money to go to communities most impacted and distressed by Harvey.”

See here for my previous update, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for color commentary. This is the same tired bullshit from the GLO, with more insults. We’re going to need the feds to step in and apply the hammer, and then we’re seriously going to need to vote a lot of people out of office. There’s no other way forward at this point.

The Housing and Community Development mess

A review of headlines from last week, which I did not have the brain space to do anything with:

Turner fires Houston housing director who accused him of ‘charade’ bid process to benefit developer

Turner names interim housing director in wake of corruption claims by former department head

Turner orders legal review of housing deal at center of ‘charade’ claims by fired housing director

Editorial: Tell the truth, Mayor Turner. Why the ‘charade’ over wasteful housing contract?

I still don’t quite have the brain capacity to make sense of all this. None of it looks good for Mayor Turner, but how things end don’t always reflect how they began. These would be terrible headlines not just for the Mayor but for everyone on City Council if we had elections this year, but we don’t. There may be some echoes of this when the 2023 campaigns roll around, but my guess is that unless there’s something epic inside all of this we will have moved onto many other things by then. At heart, that’s one of the reasons I voted against the proposal back in 2015 to change from two year terms and a limit of three for local elected officials to four year terms with a limit of two. I know a lot of Council members hated having to run every two years, but I believed then and still believe now that there’s value to it. Anyway, here we are. We’ll see how many people remember any of this a month from now, let alone in two years.

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

Interstate 45 still is on a road to rebuild after Texas transportation officials on Tuesday kept the controversial project in the state’s 10-year construction plans, but warned that failing to get federal highway officials to remove their hold on it could halt the plan altogether later this year.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday approved the state’s 2022-2031 unified transportation program, keeping the I-45 project listed in it. The unified program is the guidepost for freeway construction in Texas, as only projects included can receive state funding.

That approval, however, is contingent on settling a dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal officials told TxDOT in March to stop work on the project until concerns related to its impacts on minority and low-income communities and how TxDOT addressed those effects is completed.

“It is not the local support that’s the problem. It’s Washington, D.C., (that) is the problem, impeding our ability to go forward with this project,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We will give FHWA 90 days and we will come back and revisit this,” Bugg said. “After the 90 days have expired we will discuss what to do with the project.”

He said if the issues have not made progress, the commission could start the process of removing the project from the long-term plan. TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said removing the project would require another 60-day public comment process.

Williams said discussions with federal officials are constructive and continuing, but he would not speculate whether it is practical or possible for federal officials to operate on the commission’s timeline.

[…]

As part of the UTP public comment process, TxDOT received 12,700 comments, 8,170 of them related to the I-45 project. The response, which included an online poll, was a record-breaking amount of public engagement for a TxDOT program, officials said.

Of those comments related to I-45, TxDOT said 5,529 — around two-thirds — supported keeping the funding in place.

Critics, however, questioned the process TxDOT used to solicit comments. The online poll, opponents said, set up a “take it or leave it” choice of either TxDOT’s vision or nothing at all.

“It is your responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to engage the public in productive ways and you have failed to do so,” said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINKHouston.

See here, here, and here for some background; the version of this story from before the meeting is here. I might suggest that the issue here is not with the FHWA and its timelines, but if we had agreement on that point we probably wouldn’t be here right now. Not much else to say here, we’ll see where we’re at after we catch up with that can we just kicked.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)

There needs to be more defiance of Greg Abbott and his no-mandates mandate

I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.

School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.

Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.

[…]

Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.

“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”

Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.

Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.

[…]

It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.

“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.

[…]

Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.

The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.

Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.

Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.

The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.

So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:

HISD to consider mask mandate

This would be a big deal, for all the obvious reasons.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday he plans to bring a mask mandate for ratification to the district’s board meeting next week, setting the stage for the state’s largest district to potentially buck a gubernatorial executive order banning such mandates.

Under the proposed mandate, all district students and employees would be expected to wear masks in facilities and buses, House said during Thursday evening’s board meeting.

If approved, the mandate would be among the first of its kind issued by a public school district in the Houston area, and apparently the state, since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting such directives.

[…]

It was not clear Thursday night if other districts plan to follow House’s initiative.

“We know that we are going to get pushback for this,” House said. “We are not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is: If we have an opportunity to save one life, it is what we should be doing.”

In revealing the proposal, House noted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and cited an increasing two-week positivity rate in the county and skyrocketing hospitalizations.

“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me,” House said. “It concerns me greatly.”

If approved, the mandate will bring the district closer to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in updated guidance suggested all individuals in schools not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors.

Children younger than 12 remain unable to get vaccinated.

Abbott’s order prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. Any local governments or officials who tried to impose such an order could be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000, according to Abbott’s office.

It was not clear how the fine would be given to school districts that challenged the order or whether any entities that announced mandates this week had been fined already.

Here’s the statement from Superintendent House. As noted, Harris County is back at the highest threat level, and Mayor Turner has ordered city workers to wear masks, also presumably in violation of Abbott’s order, so far without any repercussions. It’s hard for me to imagine that Abbott would let this go by, but all we can do is process the events that occur.

Also as noted, other Houston-area school districts were not planning to defy Abbott, though I’m sure they’re watching to see what happens here. What’s puzzling and infuriating is that the updated TEA guidance to school districts says that schools now don’t have to inform parents of positive COVID cases (though they do have to report that information to state and local health departments, and they also don’t have to contact trace, but if they choose to do so, parents can still choose to send their kid to school if they are a “close contact” of a positive COVID case. It’s almost maximally designed to be risky. There is some limited allowance for remote learning, and I don’t know how that may play out. We’re approaching September as if it were still May.

Superintendent House’s proposed action here – it would still need to be approved by the HISD Board of Trustees, who may decide that’s a step too far – is bold but carries a lot of risk. We don’t know what kind of blowback House and HISD could face from Abbott, who clearly values his primary campaign and pandering to the most extreme members of his party more than anything else. When he finally lashes out – again, I cannot imagine him letting this slide – it’s going to be ugly. But against that, Superintendent House has the best of reasons for his action – putting the safety of the kids and the teachers and the staffers first. I’m on his side and I’m impressed by his willingness to take a stand. We’ll just see how far it can go.

Back to Code Red

Pretty much inevitable at this point.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and urged unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

At a news conference, Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public settings, and avoid hospitals except for life-threatening conditions.

“We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very conceivable that we can once again be heading toward a public health catastrophe.”

[…]

The county’s data report Wednesday evening showed how far and fast the situation has deteriorated: an explosion of new cases and a positivity rate of 16 percent. Hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased for 20 straight days and show no signs of slowing; they are on pace to set a pandemic record in about a week.

At its heart, the stay-home request of unvaccinated residents is toothless. Hidalgo lacks the authority to enforce it, let alone issue less restrictive edicts, such as mandatory mask wearing. As one of the most popular local elected officials, however, she hopes to shake residents from a sense of complacency that the pandemic is over.

“I know there’s a lot of conflicting messages, there’s a lot of confusion, so I don’t want to talk about what I don’t have the ability to do,” Hidalgo said of the state pre-emptions. “The truth of the matter is, the best we can do right now, the most we have the authority to do right now, is what we’re doing. So, we’re going to continue to make the most of that and really be direct about what we want the community to do.”

The mayor, who bucked the governor in requiring city workers to wear masks this week, said the numbers would dictate the city’s response to the virus. As of Thursday, 197 city employees had active cases of COVID-19.

“The numbers will dictate my response, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after that. But I’m not going to be constrained by some order,” Turner said. “Wherever this virus goes, and whatever we need to do to check it and to save lives, is what I’m prepared to do.”

As the story notes, several other big counties have taken this step already, and more will surely follow. For those of you who like visuals, here you go:

Not a pretty picture at all. There’s nothing more Judge Hidalgo can do, since Greg Abbott has cut off any power that local officials had once had. I note that as of this writing, Mayor Turner’s employee mask mandate has not yet drawn a response from Abbott or Paxton. Makes me wonder if there’s more room to push the envelope a little, or if further provocation will draw their wrath.

While we can count on Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to mitigate the spread of the virus, we can also count on her colleague to the north to do nothing.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to increase dramatically in Montgomery County and around the region as the delta variant surges in unvaccinated residents.

While the Department of State Health Services recently started tracking cases in vaccinated people and specific data is not yet available, county health officials are reporting most new cases in unvaccinated residents.

“We can say that the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been vaccinated,” said Misti Willingham with the Montgomery County Hospital District. “Vaccines help reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Being vaccinated does a great job prepping your immune system should you encounter the virus.”

[…]

According to data from the health district since July 7, total hospitalizations in Montgomery County increased from 42 to 238 with 48 of those patients in critical care beds. MCPHD noted 157 of those 238 are Montgomery County residents.

The county’s active cases jumped 767 to 4,219. Since July 7, active cases in the county have surged by 3,624. The county’s total number of cases is now 60,941, increasing from 55,838 since July 7. Additionally, the county added three more reinfections bringing that number to 26.

However, health officials did not report any additional deaths from the virus. The total number of deaths remained at 354.

The county’s testing positive rate has climbed from 4 percent in early July to 19 percent. To date, 30,742 people have fully recovered.

Note there’s no comment from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough in that story. Which is just as well, because when he does talk, this is the sort of thing he says. I have no words.

Since it’s all up to us to keep ourselves safe, we may as well remind ourselves of what we can do. Or at least, what we could do with just a little cooperation from our state government.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing exponentially in Houston and Texas, responsibility for blunting the surge is still largely a matter of personal choices, leaving medical and public-health professionals pleading with Texans to be vaccinated, mask up and maintain social distancing.

On Wednesday, Texas reported 8,130 hospitalizations, a 44 percent increase since last Wednesday. At Texas Medical Center hospitals, 311 patients were hospitalized for COVID, up from 61 only a month before.

“When all the indicators head in the same direction, that gives you a good idea,” said epidemiologist Catherine Troisi, who teaches at UT School of Public Health. “Right now everything is looking bad.”

[…]

“Delta is so transmissible, it’s picking off anyone who’s unvaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. “That’s what’s been happening in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now it’s starting here.”

Of the three main strategies to blunt the effect of the coming surge — vaccinating, masking and social distancing — Hotez favors vaccinations, and says it’s crucial to administer as many as possible immediately.

“If we wait until mid-surge, a vaccine campaign will be much less effective,” he said. “If ever there were a time to vaccinate, it’s now.”

He continued: “The single best thing we could do is mandate vaccinations for schools, but in Texas we’re not even talking about that. We can’t even mandate masks.”

Troisi agreed that urging individuals to act responsibly isn’t enough.

“From a public health standpoint,” she said, “we need to get people vaccinated, and we need to increase testing. Maybe we don’t have to mandate vaccines. But you shouldn’t be able to go into Target or eat at McDonald’s if you’re not vaccinated. There have to be consequences for not getting the vaccine. You can’t just put other people at risk.”

The delta variant moves faster than previous coronavirus strains, notes Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“With the traditional coronavirus, if someone is infected, on average they’re infectious starting two-and-a-half days after infection and show symptoms at five days,” he said. “But with delta, a key difference is that the time between exposure and being infectious is shorter by a day.”

A percentage of people infected today are almost certain to need hospitalization within one to two weeks. So preventive measures taken today, he said, “will help reduce hospitalizations a week from now, and will have major impacts two weeks from now.”

In other words, all of the same risk-minimization techniques we had before, back when we didn’t have an amazingly effective vaccine that was free and available to everyone over the age of 12 to really truly minimize the risk. I’m going to boil it all down to “get you and everyone in your family who is eligible vaccinated, and do everything you can to avoid any contact with unvaccinated people”.

For sure, stay the hell away from this.

Texans for Vaccine Choice will host a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol later this month, protesting “the current state of medical mandates” as the state grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccination rates.

The rally is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. A panel discussion will address the state’s current COVID protocols and vaccine requirements.

“I’m speechless,” Dr. Peter Hotez said Thursday morning. “To do that when there’s a public health crisis, with COVID rates going up — it’s terrible.”

As someone once said, terrible is as terrible does. If the COVID they will spread could be limited to just them it would be one thing. But it’s not, and so here we are.

Mayor Turner tells city employees to mask up

We’ll see how it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner told city employees Monday that they again must wear masks when they are at work and unable to socially distance, a requirement that could run afoul of Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order.

Turner’s memo mentioned the recent uptick in cases because of the delta variant of the coronavirus and the importance of remaining vigilant against the spread of the virus.

“Therefore, effective Wednesday, August 4, 2021, all city employees able to medically tolerate a face covering shall wear a face covering that fully covers the individual’s nose and mouth upon entering the city premises and while on city premises in an area where social distance measures are difficult to maintain,” Turner wrote.

That includes bathrooms, elevators, meeting rooms and offices where people cannot sit at least 6 feet apart, Turner said.

The governor’s order, signed last week, appeared to bar such mandates. Abbott’s office Thursday evening did not respond to a request for comment.

“No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering,” the order stated.

Mary Benton, the mayor’s communications director, said the city was within its rights to take the action, despite the governor’s order.

“The mayor has a right and responsibility to ask city employees to wear face coverings indoors to help stop the virus from spreading,” Benton said. “With the rise in the delta variant cases and high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, Mayor Turner is doing what is necessary to keep (city) employees healthy, so they can provide for their families and the city can ensure that government services are provided to the public without interruption.”

I mean, we’ll see. Not only has Abbott refused to consider any state action to fight COVID, he’s issued an executive order banning localities from taking any action, which includes school districts and also includes mask mandates. I have a hard time believing that neither he nor Ken Paxton will respond, though to be fair the last time Paxton tried to block a city from doing a mask mandate, he was largely unsuccessful. Sure seems like it can’t hurt to try at this point, though I hesitate to suggest that there’s not a next level Abbott could take this to.

The Chron story notes that Dallas County courts have put out their own mask mandate as well. I would like to see Harris County follow suit on that. If nothing else, flood the zone a little. Fort Bend County has raised its threat level, which comes with a blanket call for everyone to mask up, while retail outlets are starting to move in that direction as well, because they kind of have to. The more everyone actively works to limit the spread of COVID, the worse and more out of touch the actions of Greg Abbott will appear.

One more thing:

Today would be an excellent day for the Supreme Court to rule that Abbott’s veto of legislative funding was unconstitutional.

UPDATE: This is also good.

President Joe Biden directly called out Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates in a speech Tuesday in which he begged Republican governors to “please help” curtail a rapidly growing fourth wave of COVID infections.

Biden condemned states that have banned public schools and universities from requiring workers and students to wear masks or get vaccinated, saying “the most extreme of those measures is like the one in Texas that say state universities or community colleges can be fined if it allows a teacher to ask her un-vaccinated students to wear a mask.”

“What are we doing?” Biden said. “COVID 19 is a national challenge and … we have to come together, all of us together, as a country to solve it.”

“If some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” he said. “I say to these governors: Please help. If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” can apply to many situations. This is one of them. As above I’m sure Abbott will have something to say in response, but maybe this time he will find it a challenge to defend the indefensible. One can hope, anyway.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County

As we know, this is not an election year for city of Houston offices. That usually makes for a pretty dull summary of finance reports, since it’s just incumbents and about half of them are term-limited and thus not really motivated to do much. But I had last checked on these in January 2020, which was the conclusion of the 2019 election cycle, and I didn’t want to wait till next year for a first look. And you never know what you might find.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       185,055     76,357        0     522,058
Peck          14,915     10,892    5,000      18,072
Jackson       19,700     14,126        0      33,317
Kamin         79,860     10,697        0     115,828
E-Shabazz     36,000     19,879        0      20,468
Martin             0      3,473        0     130,577
Thomas        
Travis        34,950      5,886   21,000      76,500
Cisneros       1,000        456        0      18,296
Gallegos       2,075      8,620        0      77,372
Pollard      280,908     11,371   40,000     303,572
C-Tatum       58,718      6,847        0     117,013
Knox          11,685      4,571        0      16,510
Robinson      58,983     16,085        0     149,046
Kubosh        60,910     24,318  206,010      65,667
Plummer       30,770      6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn         3,200      5,251        0      31,013
Brown         24,550      3,892   75,000      19,281

Edwards            0      2,580        0      45,081

Sorry, no links to individual reports this time – the city of Houston’s reporting system spits out downloaded PDFs, which I have to rename and upload to Google Drive to be able to provide links for them, and it ain’t worth the effort at this point. I’ll do that in 2023, when things heat up.

One of these things is not like the others. I’ve been asking folks who they think will run for Mayor in 2023, partly to see how my own speculations have turned out. One name that has come up a lot is that of Ed Pollard, the first-term Council member in District J. Let’s just say his July report does nothing to temper that kind of talk. To put it mildly, one does not need $300K to run for re-election in a low-turnout district like J, and that’s more than two years out from the actual election. Pollard may have his eye on something else, of course – he ran for HD137 in 2016, and who knows what opportunities the next round of redistricting may present – but if one is being mentioned when the question of “who is thinking about running for Mayor” comes up, this is the kind of finance report that supports such talk.

Other names that come up when I bring up the question include Michael Kubosh, Chris Brown, and Amanda Edwards. Neither of the first two has raised all that much, though they both have the capability. Kubosh has knocked $60K off his loan total, which may have contributed to his lower cash-on-hand total. As for Edwards, she’s the opposite of Pollard at this point.

The one person who has been openly talked about as a candidate – by someone other than me, anyway – is Sen. John Whitmire, who has enough cash in his treasury to not sweat the small stuff. He recently announced his intent to run for re-election in 2022, which is completely unsurprising and not in conflict with any 2023 speculation. Mayor Turner ran for and won re-election in HD139 in 2014 before officially beginning his Mayoral campaign in 2015.

Beyond that, not a whole lot to report. Mayor Turner has some money on hand if he wants to influence a charter amendment or two. CM Tiffany Thomas did not have a report that I could find – sometimes, the system is a little wonky that way. The only other number of note was for term-limited CM David Robinson, who has added over $100K to his cash on hand since last January. Maybe that’s a sign that he has his eye on another race, and maybe that just means that some people are good at fundraising. I’ll leave that to you. Next up, HISD and HCC. Let me know what you think.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

Supporters of state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston northward trekked to Austin on Thursday to keep the imperiled project on pace, fearing the region could be stuck with an aging freeway and no sign of relief.

Urging state officials to stay committed to the project — and, most importantly, pay for it — supporters said it is up to highway officials to deliver the benefits they say will help heal issues of racial and income inequity raised by opponents.

[…]

Fifteen years in the planning, the project to rebuild I-45 around the central business district and north to Beltway 8 near George Bush Intercontinental Airport is estimated to cost $9 billion but can start construction only if the Texas Department of Transportation keeps its money on the project. Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who oversee TxDOT’s spending, are considering removing all phases of the project from the state’s 10-year plan, essentially shelving it until Houston-area leaders and highway planners can come to agreement.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners will hold a public comment session Monday and accept input via mail, phone, email and online forms until Aug. 9. The commission is scheduled at its Aug. 31 meeting to decide whether to remove the project from the annually updated 10-year plan. If removed, the rebuild would need to be reinserted into the plan, allowing TxDOT to redirect the money to other highway expansions or rebuilds in the meantime. Most of the money would have to remain in TxDOT’s Houston region that covers Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller counties.

Yes, that is the infamous I-45 survey. You still have time to fill it out.

Critics said the pause gives officials ample time to rethink the design but that a last-ditch online survey with a yes-or-no vote is not a way to come to agreement.

“Honestly, we are on the same team and we want the same things for all of the communities,” said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Stop TxDOT I-45 group opposed to the project. “We want economic development, we want to reduce flooding, we want safety, people to be able to move through the region freely. This is not the answer.”

Cook was one of two speakers Thursday among about a dozen opposed to the project. Transportation officials limited public comment to one hour as part of their meeting.

A larger turnout of opponents is expected for the full public hearing Monday. Stop TxDOT I-45 has continued walking door to door in affected communities where hundreds of homes and businesses could be impacted, as community business groups mounted an aggressive online campaign in support of TxDOT.

“You can find a way to connect this project with something someone cares about,” said Ben Peters, a Stop I-45 volunteer, as he walked in Fifth Ward on Saturday.

Opponents, Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have said that rather than widen the freeway, more of it should be converted to accelerate Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, replacing two managed lanes with, perhaps, a transit-only lane and dedicated stations along the freeway.

TxDOT, while incorporating some changes from more than 300 public meetings over the past decade, has not wavered from the managed lanes plan, saying some of the suggested changes are too significant and would set the design process back years. Regional officials repeatedly approved those designs, TxDOT leadership noted.

“I-45 is established as one of the most pressing candidates in our region for TxDOT to make improvements to address safety, traffic delays and potential emergency evacuations,” said Craig Raborn, director of transportation services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal transportation money in the region.

H-GACs Transportation Policy Council supports the project but has encouraged critics and TxDOT to keep addressing differences. The policy council’s chairman, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, urged his county leadership this week to write a letter in support of the project.

I kind of have a hard time believing that TxDOT would pull the money from this project – which would not kill it but would move it to the back of the line while the current funds were used on other projects – but I can imagine them getting a little antsy. We’ll know soon enough.

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether.

“A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

Many fear the state — if it does not get full-throated support — simply will pull the project and leave one of the spines of the local freeway system a crumbling mess.

If removed from the state’s 10-year unified transportation program, updated annually and approved by the commission, the planned rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 would be shelved. That would leave drivers and residents waiting months, maybe years longer than promised for two managed lanes in each direction, updated and additional rainfall detention, wider frontage roads and upgrades bringing some aging parts of the freeway up to current standards.

See here for the previous entry. My first thought in reading this story was “SurveyMonkey? Really? How sure is everyone that this can’t be hacked or spammed?” But Mayor Turner in his full statement and Michael Skelly on behalf of the Make I-45 Better Coalition articulate a different problem: The survey doesn’t have enough choices. From Skelly’s email:

The worst part is that the only two options on the public comment form are both flawed:

  1. Supporting the I-45 expansion exactly as it’s designed — despite the many flaws we’ve previously discussed, or
  2. Rejecting the I-45 expansion entirely and removing all funding for it

What about keeping the funding, but building a redesigned project that actually supports the residents and environment of the City of Houston? We could “make I-45 better” by—for example—following the alternative designs that the City of Houston Planning Department unveiled after listening to many, many public comments. The City of Houston pushed for a Vision C which would have accommodated transit, reduced rights of way impacts, and saved money, but TxDOT completely ignored the City’s suggested plan. If TxDOT truly cared about the public, they would allow for a better, safer project to be built.

Just to be clear—despite a new public comment period opening, the I-45 project has not changed since the last comment period in 2020, following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Having a third choice would risk not getting a majority in favor of any one option, but it would be a better gauge of what the public actually wants. As configured, there’s an even higher risk of “be careful what you ask for”.

In the meantime, you have until August 9 to submit your comments, and there’s an online public engagement on August 2. See the Skelly email for all the details. I have no idea what might happen here, but you should make your voice heard while you can.

Council will decide when charter amendment votes will be

Fine, but they should be this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday promised to bring a charter amendment petition to City Council before a key August deadline to order an election for this year.

A diverse coalition of groups, including the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341 and the Harris County Republican Party, delivered the petition in April, and the city secretary confirmed the signatures earlier this month. The measure would allow any three council members to place an item on the council agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under the city’s strong-mayor format.

The council can put the charter amendment on the ballot this November or during the next city elections, which are in November 2023. Turner said he was not sure the city would order an election this year, prompting concern among petition organizers and supporters, who have sought an election in November. The last day to order an election for this year is Aug. 16.

“It will come before you, and this council will decide whether it goes on this year’s ballot or on the next city ballot,” Turner told his colleagues at the City Council meeting Wednesday. “I won’t be making that decision, we will be making that decision.”

The fire union is pushing a separate charter petition, which it delivered to City Hall last week, that would make binding arbitration the automatic resolution to contract impasses. The city and union have been in a deadlock since 2017, and have contested the contract talks in court battles.

[…]

The mayor said the city has to decide if it is going to take each charter petition individually, or if it would be smarter to lump them together in a single election, “which, from a cost perspective, would be quite wise,” he said.

“What we will have to decide is whether or not you do these one at a time, and every time you put it out there it’s a cost to the city (to run the election),” Turner said. “Now, there’s another one that was just delivered to the city secretary (last) week… Let’s say that gets the requisite signatures, do we do another election on that one?”

The fate of the most recent petition from the fire union is less clear. Turner said it takes the city secretary an average of three months to count the signatures, even with added personnel the mayor says he has approved for their office. That would mean workers likely will not finish verifying them before the Aug. 16 deadline to order an election.

The union has alleged the city is slow-walking the count for the second petition. The Texas Election Code allows the city to use statistical sampling to verify the signatures, instead of vetting them individually, as the city is doing now.

See here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, but I don’t think it is commonly used. Not sure what the objections are to that. I say do them both in the same election, and it should be this election. I’d rather just get them done, if only from a cost perspective.