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Local politics

The new county COVID risk assessment system

We’ll see how it works.

Harris County has revamped its method for assessing the public’s risk for contracting COVID-19, replacing the threat level system that has been in place since early in the pandemic with a community level system that places a greater emphasis on new cases.

The change was made due to a “decoupling” of the relationship between new cases and new hospitalizations during the most recent wave of COVID-19 fueled by the BA.5 subvariant of omicron, Judge Lina Hildalgo said during a news conference Thursday. Harris County did not see a spike in hospitalizations as COVID-19 cases surged this summer, she said.

The new system will allow the public to make their own decisions about the level of risk they are comfortable with taking, knowing that the chance of being hospitalized with a severe illness is relatively low if they have been vaccinated and boosted, Hidalgo said.

“We’re turning a page on a phase of this virus, and I’m very hopeful that we won’t have to go back to a time when surge hampered the entirety of the community,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo said the threat level system had been an important tool for gauging risk throughout the pandemic. It had been updated before, but this week’s changes represent a “wholesale redesign,” she said.

The new system uses a trio of color-coded community levels that indicate the risk for contracting COVID-19. Low is green, medium is yellow and high is orange. Harris County is currently yellow, but Hidalgo anticipated the community level could rise to orange with the risk for transmission increasing with children back in school.

[…]

The Harris County Public Health website offers guidance for each of the three threat levels, including recommendations for wearing a mask, traveling and social gatherings when the county is green, yellow or orange. The site will continue to offer other pertinent information, such as wastewater monitoring data and the percentage of county residents who have been vaccinated and boosted.

I had to find the appropriate webpage for this on my own – click the embedded image to get there. The old threat level webpage now gives a 404 error. This new system seems fine and reasonable. The main concern is about what might come next.

Q: So how are we doing these days? The numbers certainly look better than they did.

A: They are falling, no doubt about it. But we have to keep in mind that we don’t have a lot of details about the real number of cases. Most of us are getting diagnosed at home using home testing kits. The numbers were always underestimating by a factor of four or five. Now it’s probably seven to 10. So you have to have to look trends.

Numbers are going down. But here are numbers I keep reminding people of: We’re still losing 400 or 500 Americans a day to COVID, which makes it the third or fourth leading cause of death on a daily basis in the United States. There’s still a lot of terrible messaging. People say we don’t have as many hospitalizations. Or that everybody has been infected or vaccinated or vaccinated with breakthrough. All of that is true. On a population level, it has had mitigating effects. But that doesn’t help you make an individual health decision.

People conflate that with individual health decisions. If you’re unvaccinated, there’s still a possibility you could lose your life to COVID. Even if you’re vaccinated and not boosted, there’s that possibility. And we’re seeing the boosters aren’t holding up as well as we’d hoped. That’s one of the reasons I’m strongly encouraging people to get this new booster, which has the mRNA for the original lineage and an added one against BA.5. After four or five months, there’s risk again for being hospitalized. The coverage declines from 80 percent to 50 percent protection against hospitalization.

Then this BA.5, even though it’s going down, it’s a long, slow tail. It’ll be around well into the fall. And the toughest thing to get people to understand is what’s going to happen in the winter. Obviously there’s no way to predict. But I think it’s still quite likely that we’re going to see a new variant just like we have the last two winters. Last winter it was omicron, BA.1. The winter before that we saw alpha. And new variants are arising because we’ve done such a poor job vaccinating low and middle-income countries.

We don’t know what a next variant could look like. More like the original lineage? Or something more like BA.5? The advantage of the new combined booster is that it gives you two shots on goal. It’s more likely to cross-protect against what’s coming down the pike. That’s no guarantee. But we’ve never done this before in terms of what the FDA does. We’ve never vaccinated against something that might be lurking out there. It’s a paradigm shift. What’s happening, and I don’t think the FDA will phrase it this way, but we’re creeping toward a universal coronavirus vaccine.

That’s from a Q&A with Dr. Peter Hotez, who knows better than I do. But I do know enough to say that you should get the omicron booster. And I also know enough to say that political stunts that endanger public health are bad. I think that about covers it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

People who live in crime-filled houses should not throw stones

Local idiot megachurch pastor Ed Young recently said some typically ignorant and politically-charged things, which has people justifiably upset. Not the first time for him, either. I have better things to do than think about Ed Young, so let me just note one thing from that story:

Young, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, leads one of the country’s biggest churches, touting a membership of 80,000 across several locations as of 2019. His congregants include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Texas lawmakers.

Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, you say? Where have I seen that name in the very recent news?

Federal investigators are probing the Southern Baptist Convention over its handling of sexual abuse following the publication of an explosive report that found top officials had for two decades silenced abuse survivors and fought reforms out of fears of lawsuits, leaders of the nation’s second-largest faith group said on Friday.

In a statement, the SBC’s top leadership body, the Executive Committee, confirmed that the Department of Justice is looking into “multiple” Southern Baptist entities.

The statement was signed by all of the leaders of the SBC’s seminaries and main entities. They said they will cooperate fully with the criminal investigation and “continue to grieve and lament past mistakes.”

[…]

The SBC’s handling of abuse has been in the public spotlight since 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published the first of an ongoing series, Abuse of Faith, that found hundreds of church leaders and volunteers had been convicted of sex crimes.

They left behind at least 700 victims, nearly all of them children.

The newspapers’ reporting prompted Southern Baptist church members to request a third-party review last year of the SBC’s Executive Committee’s handling of abuse reports dating back to 2000.

Clean up your own fucking house, Ed. You have zero moral authority over anyone.

(I’d also tell you to get your facts straight, but I know you don’t care.)

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

This is why elections administrators are under attack

What a lousy thing to do right now.

Harris County’s new elections administrator has not taken office yet, but the Harris County GOP is already trying to shape his reputation.

On Wednesday, State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted an image of records showing Clifford Tatum has a federal tax lien of more than $100,000. Bettencourt questioned Tatum’s ability to run the office based on his tax records. According to the tweet, the records were obtained July 5, the date Tatum’s selection was announced.

The Internal Revenue Service filed the $108,209 lien against Tatum last October.

In response to Bettencourt’s tweet, Tatum said in a statement: “This is a personal tax matter and not related to my career as an elections administrator. I have been in touch with the IRS and expect the matter to be resolved by the end of the year. I have been a public servant for over 20 years and my personal life has never impacted my professional career.”

Tatum was selected by a unanimous vote of the five-member Harris County Election Commission in July.

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel was the only person on the five-member Harris County Election Commission to vote against final approval of Tatum, which could not be completed until after he had established residency in Harris County. The commission met briefly to take the vote and adjourned in under 10 minutes.

“Why did the four Democrats on the Election Commission shut down debate on this yesterday?” Siegel said in a statement on Wednesday. “Why didn’t the recruiter do their job and disclose issues with Mr. Tatum’s background before the original offer was voted on? I’ve been asking the paid recruiter and the county attorney’s staff about this for a month.”

In response, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee issued a statement: “The interview, offer, and selection process for the new elections administrator was thorough and all members of the Elections Commission participated. Mr. Tatum’s experience speaks for itself, and I look forward to working with him.”

See here for the background. Personal tax issues are standard fodder in election campaigns, mostly for the purpose of casting someone as untrustworthy or irresponsible. This isn’t an election, though, it’s a job application, and and having a personal tax issue is generally not an obstacle to getting hired. If there’s evidence that Tatum was dishonest about this to the recruiter and/or the Commission, then bring it forward and we can evaluate that. If not, if he answered honestly any questions he might have been asked about this, then it’s not that much different than telling me he’s got a big unpaid balance on his credit cards. Not great from a personal finance perspective, but not relevant to the job he’s been hired to do.

Also, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re out there being a big public supporter of Ken Paxton and The Former Guy, dismissing all criticism as mere partisan attacks, I’m not very likely to take seriously your complaints about some other guy’s back taxes. We all love throwing the word “hypocrisy” around, but maybe try a little self-awareness. I’m just saying.

And look, while no public servant is above criticism or having their conduct scrutinized, now is maybe not the best time to be pointing and screaming at election officials for things that have nothing to do with running elections. Election officials around the country and right here in Texas are besieged by violent threats and harassment from the people that Paul Bettencourt is talking to when he says this stuff. Someone is going to get attacked, even killed, if this keeps up. Could you maybe refrain from throwing gas on the fire for a little while? Is that so damn much to ask?

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

City Council redistricting on the agenda

Get ready for some public hearings.

The City Council of the City of Houston, Texas, will hold the following public hearings in the City Council Chamber, City Hall, 2nd Floor, 901 Bagby, Houston, Texas 77002. The purpose of the hearings is to receive comments, suggestions, and alternate plans from the public regarding the Proposed City Council Redistricting Plan, in accordance with the City Charter, Article V, Sec. 3:

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

All persons desiring to be heard at any of the public hearings must reserve a specific amount of time (up to 3 minutes) by contacting the City Secretary’s Office at 832-393-1100. Details for signing up to speak in-person or virtually are posted at https://www.houstontx.gov/council/meetingsinfo.html(External link). Reservations for each hearing will be received up to 3:00 p.m. the day before each hearing is scheduled to begin.

See here, here, and here for some background. The current map is here and the proposed new map is here. As expected, the changes are fairly minor, to correct population imbalances. The Let’s Talk Houston redistricting page has more details, both overall and for each district. I don’t think this is going to be particularly eventful, but it’s redistricting so there’s always the potential. The question of whether we should get rid of At Large seats will need to be a separate discussion; it may come up here, but it’s not in the scope. Look for a lawsuit down the line. What do you think of the new map?

Some ideas for improving elections in Harris County

Put it on the new guy’s to do list.

When Harris County’s new elections administrator starts the job next month, he will have less than three months to get ready before polls open on Oct. 24 for early voting in the November election. On top of the tight timeline, he will run his first Harris County election under intense scrutiny from political insiders who will watch to see whether the county repeats its mistakes from the March primary.

There is work to be done to prevent those and other missteps in the upcoming November election, according to a new report commissioned by the county to look for weak spots in the March primary. The findings point to numerous changes Harris County could make, such as improving training and resources for workers and voters, strengthening recruitment of election workers and streamlining operations.

[…]

The draft report from the research firm Fors Marsh Group offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the primary election — and an accounting of the many challenges the county elections office faces as employees adapt to new leadership, new voting machines and new state laws.

Before Commissioners Court created the appointed elections administrator in October 2020, the county clerk and tax assessor-collector managed voter registration and elections in Harris County. Longoria took on the newly-created position just as the county began to roll out its new voting machines in May 2021.

According to the report, executives at Hart InterCivic — the company that makes the county’s voting machines — pointed to several reasons behind difficulties in the March primary, such as “the transition of electronic to paperbased voting, compounded by the creation of a new Elections Office, the pandemic, and the lack of funding for execution of an effective training and voter education effort.”

A survey of Harris County election judges and poll workers included in the report showed 91 percent were satisfied with the instructors who trained them and the answers they received. However, only 66 percent of those who served as election judges in March thought the training was sufficient, while 35 percent of first-time election judges and poll workers said they did not feel adequately prepared to serve in the election.

Voters would benefit from training on the new machines, too. According to the report, however, “much of the funding initially planned for education and outreach had to be repurposed as part of the office’s internal budgeting process in order to meet other pressing elections needs.”

There also is room to improve how election judges and poll workers are recruited, according to the report. Many election workers were recruited at the last minute for the March primary, the report revealed; 30% were recruited three to four weeks before the election, and 29% recruited one to two weeks before the election.

The report indicates Harris County could streamline its election operations by switching to joint primaries. In Harris County, the Democratic and Republican primaries are operated separately at each voting location, with separate lines and separate machines. In the March primary election, the county had 90 voting locations open during early voting and 375 locations on Election Day, but the report suggested the county really operates double those numbers since each polling place housed two separate primaries: “This system effectively meant setting up and managing 750 polling locations on Election Day, each with its own equipment pick-ups and drop-offs.”

Honestly, a lot of this sounds like growing pains to me, with adjustments needed to get used to new voting machines and the new Election Administrator office. I haven’t gone looking for a copy of the report, but I would also put the issue of collecting election results on Election Day, which also needs a clear answer from the Secretary of State office about what is legal. There’s nothing here that suggests to me that this is a big broken mess that’s going to require a total redesign of the entire system. More training of election workers and of voters on the new machines, both of which will require some more funding, is the big takeaway. That sounds very doable to me, and it sounds like a clear and measurable mission for the new Elections Administrator. Welcome to the job, Clifford Tatum.

Commissioners Court takes some action on access to contraception

From last week:

Harris County leaders on Tuesday passed a trio of items in support of women’s access to abortion and contraception in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The most significant of the three measures directs county departments to find ways to protect and expand access to affordable and no-cost contraception, sexual education, family planning, and other programs including “access to safe abortions where possible under the law.”

A second measure provided for the county to lobby the state Legislature to mitigate the effects of a near-total abortion ban in Texas, while a third item was a symbolic resolution to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe.

All three measures passed 3-2 on party-line votes.

Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote in favor of all three items, “in recognition of the fact that we’ve had a right curtailed, and what that might mean for future rights that might be curtailed. I’m very, very concerned about that.”

It’s hard to know how much effect that first item can have, as it is giving direction to county departments rather than implementing something specific. I hope there will be a report at a later date with some details about what actions can be taken and are being taken. It’s also important to remember that as long as the Republicans have full control of state government, they can pass laws forbidding or outlawing whatever these actions turn out to be. I very much approve of the intent here, but we have to keep the bigger picture in mind.

We have a new Election Administrator

From the inbox:

Harris County’s election commission today named Clifford D. Tatum the county’s next Elections Administrator. He is scheduled to take over from interim EA, Beth Stevens.

Mr. Tatum is the chief information security officer for the DC Board of Elections in Washington, D.C. He brings 16 years of election experience to the EA position.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice from Guilford College and a Juris Doctorate from Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.

In response to the selection, Harris County Democratic Party Chair Odus Evbagharu issued the following statement:

“Following a nationwide search, the election commission is thrilled to select Clifford D. Tatum as the county’s new elections administrator.

“The commission worked well together to reach our decision, and Mr. Tatum was unanimously selected in a 5-0 vote.

“Mr. Tatum has an impressive background in leading elections — currently with the DC Board of Elections and prior to that as general counsel for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. We are excited to bring him on board.

“Mr. Tatum’s elections experience — combined with a background in information security and elections law — make him perfectly suited for the Elections Administrator position, and we look forward to welcoming him to Harris County.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The above is a press release from the HCDP. As of 5:30 PM when I draft this, I’ve not seen a news story yet, though there’s this tweet from Judge Hidalgo saying that his hiring was unanimous. I’m sure there will be some coverage shortly. In the meantime, the Google machine found this biography for Cliff Tatum from the US Election Assistance Commission, and this WaPo story from 2011 about Tatum taking over as the head of the DC Board of Elections. He sounds like a solid hire, and he certainly has the background and experience you’d want for the person taking this job, especially with the next election looming. I’m sure we’ll learn more about him soon. In the meantime, welcome to Houston, Clifford Tatum.

UPDATE: And here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t have much in the way of new information but which does remind us that “Tatum’s appointment will be confirmed in a vote at a later meeting pending a background check and after he meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code”.

SCOTx re-enables statewide abortion ban

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court has blocked a lower court order that had allowed clinics in the state to continue performing abortions even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it’s landmark 1973 ruling that confirmed a constitutional right to abortion.

It was not immediately clear whether the clinics in Texas that resumed performing abortions just days ago would halt services again following the ruling late Friday night. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

The whiplash of Texas clinics turning away patients, rescheduling them, and now potentially canceling appointments again — all in the span of a week — illustrates the confusion and scrambling that has taken place across the country since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

An order by a Houston judge on Tuesday had reassured some clinics they could temporarily resume abortions up to six weeks into pregnancy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly asked the state’s highest court, which is stocked with nine Republican justices, to temporarily put that order on hold.

“These laws are confusing, unnecessary, and cruel,” said Marc Hearron, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, after the order was issued Friday night.

Clinics in Texas — a state of nearly 30 million people — stopped performing abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned Roe v. Wade. Texas had left an abortion ban on the books for the past 50 years while Roe was in place.

Attorneys for Texas clinics provided a copy of Friday’s order, which was not immediately available on the court’s website.

See here and here for the background; Steve Vladeck provides a bit more context. You can see a summary of the order (order 22-0527) here. The relevant bits:

The parties are directed to submit briefing by 5 p.m. July 7, 2022 regarding whether the 269th District Court of Harris County, Texas, has jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of a criminal statute. See State v. Morales, 869 S.W.3d 941 (Tex. 1994). Real parties in interest are requested to respond to relators’ petition for writ of mandamus by 5 p.m. July 11, 2022. This order does not preclude further proceedings in the court of appeals and district court, including proceedings to address the jurisdictional issue described in paragraph 2 above. The Court is confident that those courts will proceed expeditiously.

[Note: The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.]

The 269th Civil Court in Harris County, which issued the temporary restraining order that SCOTx has now lifted, has a hearing scheduled for July 12 to determine whether an injunction can be granted. We may get that on the 12th or 13th, and then subsequent rulings from SCOTx shortly thereafter. I assume the writ of mandamus was filed by the Attorney General to supersede all this and just declare that there’s nothing stopping them from enforcing that 1925 law that criminalized abortion. Don’t you just love it when this kind of order drops on the Friday evening of a holiday weekend? Axios, the WaPo, the NYT, and the DMN have more; as of Saturday morning when I drafted this the Trib had not yet published anything and the Chron was carrying this same AP story. Like I said, Friday night, holiday weekend.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

Still no new Election Administrator

C’mon, y’all.

Harris County officials canceled an election commission meeting for the second time this week, again citing a lack of quorum because only two members were able to attend in person. The rescheduled meeting now is set for Tuesday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, one of five members of the commission, announced Sunday evening that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

When they meet, members of the county’s election commission are expected to pick a new official to run elections, as outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation went into effect Friday.

At their most recent meeting on June 15, members of the commission narrowed their search to two finalists. Both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience, according to Hidalgo.

See here and here for the background. Again, I would like to know who (besides the presumably still-testing-positive Judge Hidalgo) was unable to attend and why, and I would like to know when we might reasonably expect the next meeting to occur. We may be at risk of losing out on one or both of these candidates if we don’t move forward, and that would be a catastrophe. I want to see this done by the end of next week. Please!

No new election admin yet

Hope this delay is brief.

Harris County’s top election position remains unfilled, after a Monday meeting of the county’s election commission to select a candidate was canceled due to a lack of quorum. Their final pick will face a narrowing time frame to prepare for his or her first test: Early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24, less than three months after the new administrator’s likely start date.

The tight schedule adds to an already daunting job in a sprawling county with more than 2.5 million voters, an adversarial political climate with frequent election lawsuits, and a startlingly high rejection rate of nearly one out of five mail ballots in this year’s March primaries under the state’s new voting laws.

Only two of the five members of the commission were able to attend the Monday meeting in person, a day after County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. The commission has not yet rescheduled the meeting.

With outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation going into effect Friday, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim administrator until the new hire begins, which Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said is likely to be Aug. 1. The new administrator’s appointment will be voted on at a later meeting after the selected candidate meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code.

The commission was slated to hold a closed-door executive session to interview two finalists for the position and take “possible action” to name the administrator at Monday’s meeting. Both finalists have prior experience running elections and are located out of state, according to Hidalgo.

See here for some background. I agree with Campos, it would have been nice to know who besides Judge Hidalgo (who had a perfectly good excuse) didn’t show up and why. May have been valid reasons, but the clock is ticking and we deserve to know. I get the impression that there’s no real dissension on the committee, they just need to finish the job.

The target date to have the new admin in place is still August 1. That’s a brief time to get up and running, but if they are hiring an experienced person and the operational staff is in place – and hopefully we have a way forward on the ballot collection question for Election Day – then I think we’ll be fine. So with that in mind, let me comment on this:

At the commission’s most recent meeting on June 15, Rob Icsezen, deputy chair of the Harris County Democratic Party’s primary committee, presented a letter to the commission signed by around 100 members of the public, many of them current or former Democratic election workers, asking that Longoria be reinstated as elections administrator. One of the reasons they cited was the time frame left until the November election.

“Any new elections administrator would have the same challenges as Ms. Longoria, without the benefit of a year and a half of hands-on experience,” the letter stated. “In short, they would be starting from scratch. November is rapidly approaching. The voters of Harris County do not have time for this.”

This will not be the first time an administrator has overseen a major Harris County election on relatively short notice. In June 2020, Chris Hollins took over as county clerk shortly before the November election, after outgoing clerk Diane Trautman resigned her position, citing health concerns during the pandemic.

“On my first day as County Clerk in 2020, we had just four months to figure out how to administer an election in pandemic conditions for the first time in Texas history,” Hollins said in a statement. “That included acquiring the necessary protective equipment, recruiting the election workers we needed, and creating and training our team on new safety procedures.”

Hollins benefited from an unprecedented budget to administer the 2020 election, after Commissioners Court approved $27 million — much of that coming from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund his plan, which included additional polling locations, up to 12,000 election workers and an extra week of early voting.

“Many core planning items (e.g., number and location of voting centers) should be well under way by August, but the new EA will need to ensure that solutions are in place for issues that have arisen in recent elections, as well as problems created by the recent voter suppression law,” Hollins said. “These include record rejection rates for mail ballots, which we saw in March, and intentional disruption by partisan poll watchers, which will be something we face for the first time in November.”

I was contacted by Icsezen and a couple of other folks, all people I respect, with this pitch. I did not join them. I like Isabel Longoria and I totally get where Icsezen and the others are coming from, but I just think that ship has sailed. It didn’t work out. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Let’s get the new person in there, give that person all of the support and financing they will need to run a successful election, and do everything we can to help. At least COVID ought to be a much smaller issue this time around. We can do this.

We have finalists for the Election Administrator job

Good.

The director of voting for Harris County will become the interim elections administrator, officials said Wednesday as the county elections commission narrowed its search for the permanent job to two candidates.

Following a closed-door executive session of the Harris County Elections Commission, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said both candidates live outside Texas and have previous election experience. The commission will schedule another meeting to make its choice to replace Isabel Longoria, the outgoing elections administrator whose resignation takes effect July 1.

[…]

In the meantime, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim elections administrator until the new hire begins, which Hidalgo said is likely to be on Aug. 1.

That will give Longoria’s replacement less than three months to prepare for his or her first test: early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24. The fall ballot will include several high-profile state and local races, including those for governor, attorney general and Harris County judge.

See here for the previous update. It would have been nice for this person to have a longer runway, or a lower-profile election in which to get themselves acclimated, but this is the hand we’re playing. I certainly hope that whoever these folks are, they have a lot of experience doing this job. They’re going to need to change the narrative about how elections are run in Harris County, sort out the best way to collect and transport election night returns (at last report, the Supreme Court has still not issued any ruling on that writ of mandamus the local Republicans filed), and probably deal with a slavering horde of Republican poll-watchers in November. Godspeed and keep a stiff upper lip, whoever you are.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

Harris County leaders will begin discussions Tuesday about whether to add a bond election to the November ballot.

The bond would be a hybrid measure to raise money for roads, parks, flood control, and public safety. It’s unclear how much the bond would be for, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office said it could come in the ballpark of $1 billion.

Garcia, who asked the county budget office to look into the possibility of a new bond, said Commissioners Court will first have to hear from the office on whether the county’s finances can sustain new borrowing.

Garcia, a Democrat, is up for reelection this fall.

“I’m in favor of putting it on the same ballot that I would be on,” he said. “I think it’s important to show the folks that we’re working on their behalf, we’re making investments, and we need their support to make the investments that they want to see done.”

[…]

Garcia’s office says the commissioner is flexible on the bond amount, as he’s hoping to win bipartisan support from his fellow commissioners to put it on the ballot.

There was the post-Harvey $2.5 billion flood bond election in 2018, a bond package in 2015 that passed easily, and the 2013 joint inmate processing center referendum that just barely passed (the “save the Astrodome” item on the same ballot went down). That was a sort-of sequel to a series of bond issues in 2007 that included one for jail construction, which was defeated. So yeah, there’s room for a new issue. Obviously, what would be in it needs to be defined, and it would need to be approved by Commissioners Court for the ballot by mid-August or so. We’ll see what they come up with. The Chron has more.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Houston updates its noise ordinance

This was probably inevitable, though it sure took a long time.

Houston bars, nightclubs and restaurants must obtain new permits to play amplified music within 120 days under a revised ordinance aimed at cracking down on disruptive late-night noise without sacrificing the city’s vibrant nightlife.

City Council approved amendments to the noise ordinance in a 15-1 vote Wednesday, two years after council members first began considering ways to address disputes between homeowners and neighboring businesses. Complaints against bars and clubs nearly doubled in the first three months of 2022.

The revamped noise ordinance sets stricter limits on nighttime noise and requires businesses abutting homes to obtain permits to play amplified music. It also creates a new administrative hearing process for bars and nightclubs that violate noise limits, giving business owners the chance to craft a mitigation plan within 10 days of the violation or risk losing their commercial sound permits for up to a year.

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

Permitted businesses can play amplified music up to 75 decibels, which is about as loud as landscaping equipment, until 10 p.m. on weeknights or 11 p.m. on weekends. After those cutoffs, music would have to stay below 58 decibels until 2 a.m., as measured from the property of any resident who calls the Houston Police Department to complain.

At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who shepherded the rule changes to the vote, said the amendments target repeat violators that “flaunt the rules” and are “destroying quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

“These changes aim to strengthen current rules and bring more businesses into compliance,” Alcorn said Wednesday.

[…]

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, council members did not discuss the city’s shifting demographics or the apparent connection between gentrification and increased noise complaints. Under the ordinance, enforcement largely will rely on nonemergency calls for service or 311 complaints, a feature experts said may lead to inequitable treatment among neighborhoods.

The changes moved ahead over objections from At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the sole dissenting vote. Kubosh said he worried it will have little impact while overburdening police officers with enforcement.

“Where is the actual solution here?” Kubosh said after the vote. “Why would we tie up police with noise when they are busy responding to murders, aggravated assaults and people stealing catalytic converters?”

Not mentioned in this story and forgotten about by me until I went looking in my archives is that Council had passed an update to the noise ordinance back in 2011 that was aimed at big vibrating bass sounds, as well as making the language of the ordinance more specific. It did not have an auspicious debut, though perhaps by now it has been more successful in its application. Noise complaints in various gentrifying parts of the city, especially but not exclusively the Washington Avenue corridor, have been a thing for a long time. I’ve expressed some skepticism in the past towards the complainers on the grounds that the noisy bars and music venues were there first, but after all this time I think this approach makes sense. Maybe we can at least get some consistency, so that everyone knows and understands the rules from the beginning.

As for CM Kubosh’s complaint regarding enforcement, he has a point but the same thing could be said about literally any other law. I would not make noise enforcement a top priority for HPD, but I can think of some things above which it should be elevated. CultureMap has more.

New bail bond rules survive initial court challenge

There are a couple of stories all rolled into this, so my apologies for any confusion.

A ruling by a Harris County judge Friday will allow a recently-approved policy requiring bail bond agents to charge some defendants a 10 percent minimum to start Saturday after a last-minute lawsuit tried to stop it from happening.

Court records filed Friday showed a bail bondsman sued Harris County as an attempt to stop the new rule, which would require agents like her to charge defendants jailed on violent offenses a 10 percent minimum to secure their freedom after an arrest. But in court over Zoom late Friday afternoon, Judge Cory Don Sepolio rejected a temporary restraining order request, allowing the rule to take effect.

“The Bail Bond Board adopted this rule after hearing directly from the families of victims of violent crimes, community organizers, and law enforcement. Their decision was supported by Harris County Commissioners Court and leaders of both political parties,” a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee read. “I’m pleased with the court’s decision today to reject the request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked this rule from being implemented.”

Regarding the temporary restraining order request getting rejected, Kevin Pennell — the plaintiff’s lawyer — said in an email Friday he had no comment.

The lawsuit follows the approval by the Harris County Bail Bond Board to require bondsmen to take in 10 percent or more of the surety bond minimum — set by a judge or magistrate — to make it more difficult for violent offenders to leave jail and go on to commit more crime. The proposed rule stemmed from concerns that defendants were being released on bail fees lower than the 10 percent and then being forced into payment plans.

[…]

The bail board, as the lawsuit points out, is designed to oversee the bonding business in Harris County. Up until March, the board primarily approved and renewed bail bondsman licenses. The Harris County Attorney’s Office determined that the board can do more than that and Commissioners Court passed a resolution urging its members to adopt rules regulating the minimum that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release from jail.

The board passed the rule April 13 after a failed vote the month prior.

I didn’t write about the initial failure of the board to pass a rule requiring that bail bond companies must charge a minimum of ten percent of whatever bail had been set. Bail band companies had been lowering that percentage from what had once been seen as a de facto standard of ten percent because of the misdemeanor bail reform. With fewer people needing bail bonds because fewer people were being assessed bail, bail bond companies saw their revenues decline and so they looked for new customers by lowering their fees so as to entice those who were still being required to pay bail but couldn’t afford their fees. It’s a complicated story. The Harris County Bail Bond Board, on its second attempt, passed a rule that made the ten percent minimum a requirement, and in response a bail bond company owner filed a lawsuit to stop it.

All About Bail Bonds owner Sunya Claiborne, plaintiff in the lawsuit, contends that her business is at stake because the minimum charge requirement is “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation without any grant of state authority to displace competition,” according to court documents. The county and Claiborne’s lawyers are expected later on Friday to debate whether a temporary restraining order and injunction should be granted.

“She reasonably fears that, unless she complies with these unlawful rules, her license will be suspended or revoked,” the lawsuit reads. “But if she does comply with them, she will be participating in an illegal price fixing scheme and violating her customers’ privacy rights.”

[…]

The new rule is at odds with how Claiborne, whose license the board renewed ahead of the most-recent vote, plans to conduct her business, according to the court documents.

“She intends to offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” the lawsuit continued.

As a bail agent for the corporate surety Allegheny Casualty Co., she also worries that the new rule will put her at odds with the insurance company — which she fears could violate customer privacy. Part of the new rule requires that bail bondsmen have to report the premium amount collected ahead of the defendant’s release. The bondsmen would also have to report how the premium was paid and who paid it.

Premiums are, in some cases, documented in the public record. Affidavits of surety to surrender principal often list the premium and are filed by bail agents as an attempt to cut ties with a defendant’s bond, usually after a new charge. In filing the form, bail agents ask deputies to take the defendant into custody, while they keep the defendant’s bail deposit and stop being responsible for the person in the eyes of the court.

I’m pretty sure this is not what antitrust law was intended for, but what do I know? The initial request for a temporary restraining order was denied on Friday, and there will be a hearing for a temporary injunction on May 6. I don’t expect that to be any more successful, but we’ll see.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

We will have a new elections administrator on July 1

Let’s get the best we can.

The Harris County Election Board on Tuesday voted to accept Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation and hire a national search firm to find a replacement, two weeks after the five-member panel could only agree to adjourn without taking any action.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who chairs the election board, said the county would post the job Tuesday, as well as review applications submitted when the elections administrator job was created in 2020. Before then, elections in Harris County were managed by the county clerk’s office, while the tax assessor-collector’s office handled voter registration and maintained the voter rolls.

“I think it bodes well that the body has worked well together,” Hidalgo said afterward.

The board, which at times sparred over election procedures and replacing Longoria, approved the county administration’s preferred search firm and settled on the job description the firm will circulate and the timeline to have a new elections chief in place by July.

The steps taken were the first since an April 6 meeting ended with nothing achieved after members balked at proceeding with a a search before they formally had accepted Longoria’s resignation. Though she announced her intent to resign after the botched March primary, the election board had — until Tuesday morning — never accepted it.

[…]

Hidalgo had defended leaving Longoria in place through the upcoming election, saying officials needed to efficiently find a permanent replacement by mid-year and not try to transition to an interim leader and then into a second permanent person.

“I am afraid if we have another transition it will complicate things,” she said.

As a compromise, the board agreed to a change in its timeline by [Republican Party Chair Cindy] Siegel to meet by June 30 to appoint a permanent administrator or an interim replacement, assuring Longoria would not last into July.

“I just want to make sure we are not artificially boxing ourselves in,” Siegel said.

See here for the previous update. I think it’s fine to not want to have an interim administrator in place for the May elections, and it’s also fine to want to ensure that we have closed the books on Longoria’s term by July 1. It would be nice to have the next administrator in place by then, but I’d rather we get it right than we get it done quickly. There’s plenty to learn from the last couple of years’ experience, and I hope that whoever comes in fully avails themselves of that opportunity.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

Here’s your public meeting schedule for Houston City Council redistricting

Attend one and be In The Know.

Houston residents will have a chance to preview potential changes to Houston’s 11 City Council districts at a series of public town hall meetings in April and May.

[…]

The town hall meetings will start at 6 p.m. Residents can find redistricting information, sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting.

The meetings are set for:

Tuesday, April 19 : District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Kingwood Park Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Dr., Kingwood

Monday, April 25: District H, Councilmember Karla Cisneros, Moody Park Community Center, 3725 Fulton St.

Tuesday, April 26: District A, Councilmember Amy Peck, Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd.

Monday, May 2: District J, Councilmember Edward Pollard, Sharpstown Park Community Center, 6855 Harbor Town Dr.

Tuesday, May 3: District C, Councilmember Abbie Kamin, Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Blvd.

Wednesday, May 4: : District K, Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, Fountain Life Center 14083 S. Main St.

Tuesday, May 10: District I, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, HCC Southeast Campus, 6815 Rustic St.

Thursday, May 12: District G, Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman, Grace Presbyterian Church, 10221 Ella Lee Lane.

Monday, May 16: District D, Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, HCC South Campus, 1990 Airport Blvd.

Tuesday, May 17: District F, Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, Alief ISD Center of Talent Development, 14411 Westheimer

Wednesday, May 18: District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Johnson Space Center Special Event Room, 2101 E. NASA Pkwy.

Thursday, May 19: District B, Councilmember Tarsha Jackson, Acres Home Multi-Service Center, Senior Service Room, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd.

See here and here for some background. Most likely these will end up being minor changes, unless there’s further effort to get rid of the At Large positions. That said, there’s always some support for or opposition to joining or splitting particular neighborhoods – there was an effort to put all of the Heights into a single Council district back in 2011, for example – and that might be a thing that you have opinions about. Attend one or more of these meetings and find out for yourself.

City Council approves paid parental leave for city employees

Good.

City of Houston employees will have access to paid parental leave for the first time beginning in May after a decade-long push to adopt the family-friendly policy that advocates hope will help the city attract and retain working parents.

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the new leave policy, which will give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also includes paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

Council members, many of whom described their struggles with pregnancy and childcare ahead of the vote, greeted its approval with cheers and tears. City workers previously had to accrue vacation time or take unpaid leave after welcoming a child.

“Parental leave is not a vacation,” said District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

See here for the background. I got one week off when my first kid was born – there wasn’t an official company policy in place at the time, it was just my manager (a father of three) telling me to take the week off, which didn’t count as vacation or sick time. I don’t even remember what happened with kid #2 – maybe I had a week off, maybe I didn’t, who knows. We have a policy now that would have allowed me to take either eight or 12 weeks off, I forget which. Too late for me, so I haven’t investigated the matter too closely. Anyway, this is a thing that everyone should have access to as a matter of federal policy, but until we get there, let’s plug all the holes we can. Kudos to City Council for getting this right.

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

Three Harris County staffers at the center of a mounting investigation into a since-canceled vaccine outreach contract have been indicted with misuse of official information and tampering, according to district clerk records.

Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis face one felony count on each of the charges. Warrants for their arrest have been issued. Documents elaborating on the charges were not yet available on the district clerk’s website.

Lawyers for at least two of the defendants professed their innocence Monday as the charges were made public.

“Aaron Dunn is innocent — he has been an honest public servant,” attorney Dane Ball said.

A lawyer for Triantaphyllis said she believes upcoming court proceedings will “shine a light” on the lack of wrongdoing.

“These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case,” lawyer Marla Poirot said in a statement. “In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Nader’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. The three defendants are expected Tuesday in the 351st District Court.

In the months leading up to the indictments — the Texas Rangers, at the request of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, identified the three staffers in search warrants as having a role in potentially steering a vaccine outreach contract in 2021 to a vendor by giving them early access.

The three worked under County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time of the $11 million contract, which she canceled in September amid accusations that her office manipulated the procurement process.

Dunn has since left the office, while Triantaphyllis is the judge’s chief of staff and Nader is her policy director. According to lawyers for Hidalgo and the aides, the three did not view Elevate Strategies, owned by Democratic political consultant Felicity Pererya, as a potential vendor while planning the contract, their lawyers have said. Pererya’s company ultimately won the bid.

The lawyers have argued that one of the documents outlining the outreach contract’s scope of work were sent by mistake. Another was sent as part of an unrelated project.

There are reasons to be dubious of the evidence, but once there’s a headline like this, it’s hard to shake no matter what happens next. I certainly have my doubts about these indictments. We’ll know more soon enough. That’s all I’ve got to say at this time.

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still has emergency powers to handle COVID, after a proposal to end her authority failed at commissioners’ court this week.

The proposal, by Precinct Four Commissioner Jack Cagle, failed on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, with the three Democratic members voting against.

Cagle sought to end the emergency powers granted to Hidalgo, citing the major improvement in pandemic realities and the court’s ability to frequently and quickly convene.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called the idea “ridiculous.”

“The mayor will still have emergency powers, the county judges around us would still have emergency powers,” Ellis said.

[…]

Since March 2020, Hidalgo and every county judge in Texas — along with mayors — have had extraordinary ability because of the public health risks of the pandemic to close and open public places, approve contracts and establish emergency shelters, testing sites and vaccine distribution locations. When a disaster is declared by the state — in this case across all 254 counties — county judges are considered the top health official and assume emergency powers similar to those of the governor.

The difference, Cagle argued, is the governor needs them because it would take weeks to reconvene the legislature. Commissioners court can call a meeting in 72 hours.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it was basically a stunt by Commissioner Cagle. It’s not even clear that Commissioners Court could have rescinded the emergency powers, as the preview story notes.

Numerous elected officials continue to have authority under the disaster declaration, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all county judges across Texas. Under the state’s disaster declaration procedures, county judges in an affected area — in this case all of Texas — have emergency authority. Absent Abbott removing Harris County from the state’s disaster declaration, it is unclear whether Hidalgo would retain that authority with or without the support of local officials.

County judges typically need commissioners’ court approval, but their powers expand greatly as the head of county emergency management. Much of that comes from a 1975 state law that gave special responsibility to mayors, county judges and county health officials.

Exercising the powers, however, is different than having them, some officials said.

“We used common sense, but as the emergency has dragged on I think we have used that authority less and less because we didn’t need to,” said Jason Millsaps, chief of staff to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

If literally every other county has retained emergency powers for their Judge, it makes no sense at all for Harris County to do otherwise. When the state and the country are no longer on emergency footing, which is to say no longer feels the need to act quickly in the event of another variant or other crisis, then we can talk.

City Council to return to in-person meetings

I feel like I should always append a “For now” onto commentary about things like this. You know, for all the obvious reasons.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wants all City Council members to return to the chamber next week for meetings, the first such requirement since May 2020.

City Council went virtual after its first member tested positive for COVID-19, about two months after the pandemic began to upend life in Houston. The body met digitally until the summer of 2021, when it began holding joint meetings that gave council members the choice of joining in person or on Microsoft Teams.

Attendance has varied, but several members typically join the meeting online. On Wednesday, eight of the body’s 16 members attended in person.

“I want you back around the horseshoe,” Turner said Wednesday, referring to City Hall’s arc-shaped table in the second-floor council chamber. “The technology has been fine, but I want you back around the horseshoe next week.”

Still feels a little weird to me to have things going back to full-on in-person as before. You can fill in your own proverb about COVID not being done with us if you want. That said, we are right now in a period of low transmission, and many people do want to get back out into the world. It’s hard to justify high-alert requirements under these conditions. I figure the only way to get people to respond the way we’ll need them to when the virus does come back is to ease up now so we can say “hey, we backed off when the science said we could, now we have to tighten up again”. I can’t say that will work, but at least it feels like it has a chance.