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Local politics

County Court judge Barnstone resigns

Ugh.

George Barnstone

A Harris County civil court judge has resigned amid several allegations of judicial misconduct, including showing bias or prejudice toward litigants and attorneys on the basis of race, sex or socioeconomic status, according to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

George Barnstone, of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1, was the subject of six complaints encompassing at least seven allegations of misconduct. Those also included claims he used his judicial office to advance his private interests and made appointments violating the Texas Government Code, which bars conflicts of interest, the resignation agreement states.

He signed the agreement on July 12, records show, and state commission Chair David Hall approved the decision Monday.

[…]

Other complaints — all listed in the agreement — alleged the judge didn’t comply with the law related to awarding attorneys fees or statutory interest post-judgment; failed to give a defendant their right to be heard; failed to treat attorneys with patience, dignity and courtesy; and failed to require and maintain order and decorum in court proceedings.

The state commission had not made any findings related to the complaints, and Barnstone’s resignation will take place instead of disciplinary action, the document reads. The resignation, however, is not an admission of guilt.

Barnstone won’t be able to run for judicial office or sit in a judicial capacity again, the agreement stipulates.

We won’t get a lot of details because the Commission will not make any findings due to the resignation, but all of this sounds bad. I found this story from 2019 while image searching, and that isn’t a good look, either. I’ve known George Barnstone for a few years – he’s a genuinely affable guy – and he made at least one other run for judge before winning in 2016, but it clearly wasn’t a good fit. I’m sorry it came to this, but it’s the right call.

Because this is a County court and not a District court, County Commissioners will get to name a replacement, as they have done before in recent years. Between this and the forthcoming replacement of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, they’ll have some big decisions to make. I would assume they’ll have a new judge on the bench in a couple of weeks. Get your name in the hat quickly if you think it should be you.

Sheriff Gonzalez gets a confirmation hearing date

Mark your calendars.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 15, the committee announced Wednesday.

President Joe Biden nominated Gonzalez to lead the agency in May, potentially positioning Gonzalez as a key player in the administration’s effort to build what Biden has called a more “humane” immigration system.

Gonzalez will appear before the Democrat-led committee, which does not include either Texas senator, as the administration is working to handle a record numbers of encounters with migrants crossing the border. Republicans have hammered Biden for months over the influx, which they say he created by moving away from former President Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, even though encounters began rising when Trump was still in office.

ICE was in many ways the face of Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration, which Biden has sought to move away from. If confirmed, Gonzalez would be instrumental in setting its course under Biden, a difficult task as ICE has become one of the most politicized agencies in the federal government.

See here for the background. This is just the committee hearing. Once the committee advances his nomination, which should be a formality, then the full Senate will vote on him. Barring anything weird, he’ll be confirmed, though I have no idea how much longer it may take from here. But at least we’re on the way. Once he is confirmed, he will formally resign as Sheriff, and Commissioners Court will pick someone to fill his spot. I’ll talk about that more as we get closer, but for now I’ll just say that Constable Alan Rosen is highly unlikely to be on the short list.

Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday created a new administrator position to oversee departments, which the three Democrats described as a wonky internal move to improve efficiency but the two Republicans decried as a radical and dangerous usurpation of their power.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to hire the administrator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 20 departments that directly report to Commissioners Court. David Berry, the county budget director, will fill the administrator role.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the move is long overdue, arguing that too often departments duplicate efforts addressing some needs, ignore others and fail to work together on big-picture problems that have plagued the county for decades.

“I’m so proud of the things that have been achieved, but would it have taken three 500-year floods for us to have a flood bond that, by the way, isn’t enough?” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “(Tropical Storm) Allison happened in 2001. But because it’s a parochial system, these kind of things went hush-hush.”

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the administrator role will be nonpartisan and noted the other largest counties in Texas, except Travis, already have adopted the model. He said it also would leave intact the longstanding practice in which each commissioner oversees his precinct’s roads, parks and community centers without meddling from other court members.

“Look, I think this makes sense,” Ellis said. “This doesn’t take away from anybody’s fiefdom.”

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have a different view. Ramsey said the county has a long history of competent department heads and said he failed to see a need for a new layer of bureaucracy, which the budget office estimates will cost $2 million annually. He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to sneak a “power grab” past residents.

“Public transparency we get an F on, in terms of this issue,” Ramsey said.

Cagle said since Democrats control the court, and, thus, get to appoint the administrator, the new position merely allows them to grow their power. He echoed Ramsey’s concerns about redundancy and said the administrator would allow the Democrats to outsource unpopular decisions — such as firing personnel — to an unaccountable bureaucrat.

“We’re accountable to the people in our precincts,” Cagle said. “But the county administrator has no duty except to the majority of three here on the court. In essence, we become isolated.”

1. I dunno, this seems like pretty normal reorganization to me. I’ve been a drone in the corporate world for almost 30 years, I’ve lived through dozens of these. The reason for this reorg makes sense. Whether it achieves success or not will depend on a number of factors, including how the metrics of success are defined (trust me, this is always key). But it’s just normal, boring stuff. I do not understand the freakout.

2. Along those lines, spare me the “power grab” rhetoric. It’s called “having a majority”, and if the voters don’t like it they will get their chance to express that opinion soon enough. The “unaccountable bureaucrat” thing is especially laughable. By that logic, each individual department head is also an “unaccountable bureaucrat”. We elect people to run the government. That comes with a lot of hiring people to do the actual government work. Again, calm yourself down.

3. Whoever this person turns out to be, they’re gonna need a better title than the one I suggested in this post. Feel free to leave your best suggestion in the comments.

Glaser removed as HCC Chair

Appropriate.

Robert Glaser

Houston Community College board of trustees member Robert Glaser was removed from his position as chair following allegations that he sexually harassed an instructor.

The board voted on June 25 to replace Glaser with John P. Hansen as chair, according to a university statement. Hansen, who was elected to the board in November 2015, represents District VI and has served on the board for Alief Independent School District for over 20 years, according to his biography on the HCC website.

“Dr. Hansen brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in board leadership in both community colleges and public schools. Dr. Hansen has served in the capacity of HCC Board Chair the previous calendar year and is deeply committed to the mission of our college and the important return to campus across the district,” said HCC’s written statement to the Houston Chronicle Wednesday.

Glaser will remain on the board, according to the statement, and “the Board of Trustees will be cooperating with the appropriate authorities and protecting personnel privacy due to the sensitive nature of these allegations.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, there is an ongoing investigation, about which we know nothing. The Board could not operate with legitimacy with Glaser as Chair while this was happening. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, this was the right thing to do at this time.

Chron story on Odus Evbagharu

Some good stuff here.

Odus Evbagharu

When Odus Evbagharu, a 28-year-old legislative staffer and campaign organizer, took the reins of the Harris County Democratic Party Sunday evening, he inherited a party that stands on some of its firmest footing in years, despite several defeats in 2020 that disappointed local Democrats.

Evbagharu succeeds former chair Lillie Schechter, who won the position in March 2017, months after Democrats had swept every countywide race and delivered Harris County to Hillary Clinton by 12 points. It was a massive swing from the 2014 midterms, when it was Republicans who swept the countywide slate, but also one that leaned heavily on deep-pocketed political donors and grass-roots activity by groups such as the Texas Organizing Project, amid lackluster fundraising from the party itself.

Now, Evbagharu is taking over a party that has taken in more than $2.2 million since the start of 2018 — double the amount raised during the last comparable three-year period from 2014 to 2016 — and overseen countywide sweeps in 2018 and 2020, too. Democrats also gained control of Harris County Commissioners Court under Schechter.

“We have a robust thing going down here,” Evbagharu said Monday. “Lillie did a good job of building a great foundation. Now it’s our job to build on top of it.”

Harris County Democrats, however, still are smarting from a number of 2020 losses in local elections they had cast as battleground races, including several contests for the Legislature and Congress, along with an open commissioners court seat race. Evbagharu attributed the Democrats’ underperformance in part to their reluctance to campaign in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think what went awry was, we didn’t block walk,” Evbagharu said. “And I don’t want to oversimplify it, I don’t want to say there weren’t other factors. We’ve got to do better with our messaging, and our data’s got to be better as a party. I’m not afraid to say that out loud — polling accuracy, targeting, who we talk to and not just making assumptions.”

We talked about some of this stuff (and some of the stuff later in the story that I’ll get to in a minute) when I interviewed Odus a couple of weeks ago. I trust him to have a clear view of the data and to have a plan to shore up weaknesses and build on strengths. To whatever extent that the lack of Democratic blockwalking hurt last year – everyone agrees it did, it’s putting a number on it that’s hard – that will not be an issue in 2022. There will be new challenges, and who knows what the Trump Factor will be, and we will just have to try to figure them out and make a plan.

Evbagharu said the party’s strong position, relative to the one inherited by Schechter, means he can be more proactive in sharing resources and information with local Democratic parties in surrounding counties, some of which have made electoral gains in recent elections. He said he also hopes to attract a state or national Democratic Party convention to Harris County, a goal that could become easier if more of the Houston region becomes bluer.

“It’s great that Harris County’s always at the forefront, but we need Montgomery County, we need to at least cut margins there,” Evbagharu said. “We need Galveston County, we need Brazoria, we need Waller, we need Fort Bend, which is turning blue if not already blue. We need southeast Texas to be strong.”

Evbagharu said he also wants the party to be more aggressive in lobbying elected officials — including Democrats — on policy and issues, a role that traditionally has been left to activists and advocacy groups instead of the formal party apparatus. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers passed “the greatest hits of the red meat Tea Party Republican whatever,” he said, arguing that the local Democratic Party has a stronger role to play.

“We have to make it a habit to engage our electeds in D.C., in Austin, here in Houston at county Commissioners Court, City Hall and school boards,” Evbagharu said. “…We have to do a better job of getting in there and fighting.”

Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said she was not aware of the Harris County Democratic Party ever making a concerted effort to share resources with other local parties. And the last time the party took a more aggressive on policy came under Sue Schechter, Lillie Schechter’s mother, who chaired the party in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until now, Democrats were not in much of a position to do that, Cross said.

“If you’re the party that’s trying to gain power, all your emphasis is on getting those folks elected,” Cross said. “You just don’t have the luxury of lobbying, necessarily, if your party’s out of power.”

Still, county Democrats’ hold on power is far from ironclad as the 2022 elections approach, Cross said. For one, they will have mobilize enthusiasm without former president Donald Trump in office, and Democrats’ lineup of statewide candidates remains uncertain.

“There’s a big target sitting in the White House now, which we haven’t had in four years. Republicans are certainly going to go after Preisident Biden and VP Harris, so Odus is going to have to combat that continually,” Cross said. “…And there’s no doubt that part of the success in Harris County in 2018 was part of Beto (O’Rourke) being at the top of the ticket. It was the star power of Beto that really helped turn out the vote. And I think without that, Democrats have a really tough road ahead.”

We talked about some of this stuff too. I have been an advocate for better regional coordination – it’s not just in our interest from a statewide perspective, we will also have various offices (Congress, SBOE, State Senate, appellate courts) that cross county lines and need a bigger-than-Harris response. There may be a risk of overextending ourselves, but I can’t see any good reason to not at least be talking to our neighbors.

I respectfully disagree with Professor Cross – Beto surely gets some credit for 2018, but you know who was coordinating the HCDP combined campaign that year? Odus Evbagharu, that’s who. Look, Dems have proven their ability to win in high-turnout Presidential years since 2008. We won in a high-turnout off year in 2018, and I concede that until we win again in an off year there’s room to be skeptical. I would just point out a couple of things in rebuttal. One is that Dems have built a big edge in voter registration over the years, and we’re still very good at doing that work. Two, the shift in the Trump years of college-educated Anglo voters into the Democratic column has been profound – here again I will say that Mitt Romney got 60% of the vote in HD134 in 2012, while Joe Biden got and equivalent amount in 2020. National data shows no sign of this reversing or even slowing down, and what’s more these are very reliable voters. When I say that the climate is very different now, these things are a part of that.

We don’t know what the national climate will be like, and we don’t know what Joe Biden’s approval numbers will be. If they’re in the tank, then hell yeah we have problems. Dems either have to ensure that they don’t have a turnout problem in 2022, or they have to show they can still win in Harris County in a lower turnout environment. Bear in mind, there are risks for the Republicans too. They own any future blackouts due to weather, that’s for sure. Donald Trump is not going to sit by quietly, Ken Paxton could get arrested by the FBI, the reconstituted January 6 commission will be producing reports into next year – there’s lots of things that can go wrong for the GOP as well. I am pretty reasonably optimistic about 2022, at least from a Harris County perspective. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see if that has held up.

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

The HPD transparency portal

This is good.

Traffic stops. Discipline. Use of force. Following widespread calls for police accountability, Houston residents now can use the city’s “Police Transparency Hub” to get far more detailed, accessible information about some of police’s most controversial topics than has ever been available previously.

The online tool — compiled in a series of dashboards — provides information about the work and conduct of Houston police officers, including how often they use force, how often they are disciplined, statistics on the department’s diversity, information on traffic stops, and information on the department’s implementation of “cite-and-release,” in which officers issue citations for some misdemeanor offenses instead of arresting people.

Since the start of the year, police officers conducted 88,301 traffic stops, used force 4,203 times, and issued 152 citations instead of arrests.

In a news release that accompanied the launch of the tool earlier this month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was “a significant step toward increasing transparency and accountability while building trust between the public and the police department.”

The website also tells residents how to file complaints about police officers and shares information about other controversial policing topics, including the city’s contract with its officers, the police department’s general orders, the city’s new Office of Police Reform and Accountability, and the Independent Police Oversight Board.

[…]

Criminal justice reform advocates called the dashboard a “critical step” toward keeping HPD accountable but said it needs more work.

“Data transparency is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of policing,” said Julia Montiel, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We hope city leaders will collaborate with advocates to further refine the dashboard.”

See here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The portal looks pretty useful, and the key here is just that the data is publicly available, in easy to view form. That will help answer a lot of questions, and will be a force for accountability just because people will be able to see how the data trends over time. I don’t know what specifically could be done to make this better, but the suggestion that the city work with activists and get their feedback makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of work done under Mayor Parker to make a bunch of city data available in raw form for developers and other folks who might want to make use of it, and I hope that is the case with this data as well. Take a look at what’s there and see what you think.

HCC Trustee accused of sexual harassment

Ugh.

Robert Glaser

A Houston Community College instructor who accused a college board of trustees member of sexual harassment said HCC executives, including the college’s chancellor, were aware of the misconduct but did nothing to stop it.

Documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal that a 50-year-old female instructor at HCC filed a Title IX complaint, reporting that HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado knew she was being sexually harassed by trustee chair Robert Glaser.

The instructor alleged in a May 10 complaint that since November 2019 Glaser has “physically, mentally and emotionally abused and continually sexually harassed” her and offered to help improve a hostile work environment in exchange for sex.

The Houston Chronicle typically does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

Maldonado, who was allegedly on phone calls with Glaser when he visited the instructor’s home, however, did nothing to stop their interactions, according to the filed complaint. The instructor claimed that Maldonado was guilty of his own misconduct, and at the time, was having a sexual relationship with a married female subordinate who was also his direct report.

The instructor’s attorney Ben Hall said the woman received a notice May 21 stating that her contract at the college would not be renewed.

“The sexual harassment she endured at HCC by one of its trustees was consistent with a pattern and practice of top HCC executives engaging in illicit sexual conduct with female subordinates. This practice included the wrongdoing of the college chancellor whom the trustee used as an example or excuse for his own sexual misconduct,” the complaint says.

Maldonado said in a written statement that the allegations against him are false — that he had not had an affair with a direct report, nor had he any prior knowledge of a relationship between Glaser and the instructor.

“I was not aware of any inappropriate relationship between Trustee Glaser and any college employee until recently, at which time I reported the information to the board and to appropriate regulatory authorities,” Maldonado wrote. “The college and I take all such allegations very seriously and I expect an objective and thorough investigation.”

[…]

Dr. Reagan Flowers, vice chair of HCC’s board, said in a written statement Monday that trustees recently learned about the “disturbing allegations” and launched an independent investigation.

“We find the content of the complaint deeply concerning and take this and any accusations against trustees very seriously. We will be cooperating with the appropriate authorities and protect personnel privacy due to the sensitive nature of these allegations,” Flowers wrote.

Paul Lamp, outside counsel for the community college and a partner at Karczewski Bradshaw Spalding, said the investigation, which was launched by an independent law firm soon after the instructor’s complaint was received, is still ongoing.

The story contains more details about the complaint, and you can go there to read more. It’s also an update to an earlier version hat mentioned “a live hearing, during which the instructor and her adviser will be able to cross-examine or ask Glaser and witnesses questions, which follows the college policy”. I hope that the investigation and hearing will shine more light on all this, but let’s be clear that if there is any truth to these allegations, then Glaser needs to resign. He should also recuse himself as Board Chair until there is a resolution.

One more thing:

Hall said more damaging details related to the case will likely be revealed within the weeks to come.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hall said.

I don’t know what else to say. Get it all out in the open, and be ruthless about cleaning whatever needs to be cleaned.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

Flood Control District director to resign

Interesting.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe submitted a letter of resignation to Commissioners Court on Friday, saying he plans to step down July 2.

Poppe, 45, said the demands of the job, which have grown significantly since Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the passage of the historic $2.5 billion flood bond program the following year, had grown too great.

“While I greatly appreciate your continued support for making Harris County more resilient with natural disaster, the growing expectations associated with these efforts have adversely affected the quality of my personal life to a point I can no longer sustain,” Poppe wrote.

His departure comes at a precarious time for the agency, which is attempting to close a $700 million funding gap in its flood bond program. Poppe is due to present a plan to Commissioners Court June 29 to ensure all planned projects can be completed.

Poppe, who has worked as an engineer for Harris County since 2005, became head of the flood control district five years ago.

The rest of the story recaps the history of those five years, from Harvey to the 2018 bond referendum that is now massively underfunded thanks to a miscalculation in how federal matching funds would be allocated, the relationship Poppe has had with the Democratic-majority Commissioners Court, and the current mishigoss with the General Land Office and George P. Bush. HCFCD may have been a sleepy place when Poppe got there, but it’s on everyone’s radar now.

We can speculate as to the reasons why he is leaving now, but none of that really matters. What does matter is who and what comes next. The next director will have a full plate and a lot of directions to be going at once, with a state government that is outright hostile to the county. I hope whoever that is enjoys a challenge, because they’re going to get one. Best of luck to Russ Poppe in whatever comes next, and let’s all light a candle for his successor.

Bring in an outside investigator

That’s the Chron editorial board’s advice for Constable Alan Rosen.

Constable Alan Rosen

Rosen’s office declined to comment to the editorial board Thursday, but in an earlier statement, he said that when he was made aware of the allegations, he “proactively” ordered an internal affairs investigation months ago and “immediately” replaced the supervisor of the human trafficking unit. The investigation, he said, found no violations of law or policy. The constable, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez if he joins the Biden Administration, suggested the allegations were being brought to impugn his department’s reputation.

“I have a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment and would never allow a hostile work environment as alleged,” he said.

If Rosen means that, he shouldn’t hesitate to call for an independent investigation by the FBI’s public integrity unit or the Texas Rangers to get to the bottom of the disturbing claims. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others on the commissioners’ court should be seeking the same probe and certainly not consider Rosen for the sheriff’s post until they get to the bottom of what happened.

We don’t encourage public officials to cast early blame without all the facts. And indeed, people other than Rosen have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, including that the implication that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wasn’t willing to get involved.

“The allegation that our office failed to take action is completely false. It’s offensive,” said DA spokesman Dane Schiller. “There was no cover-up, no laziness, no lack of caring by our prosecutors.”

Still, somebody must investigate — other than the department accused. If the allegations don’t pan out, Rosen’s name is cleared. If they are true, the officers’ actions suggest far more than workplace harassment but deeper corruption, potentially criminal wrongdoing and a toxic culture in urgent need of reform.

See here and here for the background. I basically agree with all of this, and I agree that it’s what Constable Rosen himself should want. It’s the best way to get at the truth and have it accepted as such. If Constable Rosen resists this idea, then Commissioners Court should give him a push, or take the decision out of his hands. Let’s not waste time on this, we the voters in Precinct 1 deserve to know what’s going on.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

Another deputy constable files suit

More bad.

Constable Alan Rosen

When Precinct 1 Constable deputies accused their bosses of sexually exploiting them during undercover vice operations last week, their attorney vowed there would likely be more allegations in the near future.

On Wednesday, Cordt Akers returned to the podium in the foyer of his Montrose firm, and introduced Pct. 1 Deputy Constable Jasmine Huff. And Huff, he said, had also been sexually exploited during so-called “bachelor party stings” while working on the department’s human trafficking task force.

“She is not hiding behind the anonymity of Jane Doe lawsuit, as is her right to do,” Akers said.

Huff is the fourth current or former deputy of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to say she was sexually mistreated while working on the the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force. A fifth employee —Jacquelyn Aluotto, who worked for the agency as an advocate for victims of human trafficking — has also sued Precinct 1, saying she was ignored and then fired when she conveyed concerns about the department’s vice operations to superiors.

The suit, initially filed last month, names Rosen, Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, and Lt. Shane Rigdon. The alleged incidents occurred in the department’s human trafficking task force in 2019 and 2020. In response to the initial lawsuit, which raised similar allegations of sexual misconduct and other improprieties, Rosen released a statement late last month saying his office had previously investigated the alleged incident, but found no violations of law or department policy.

In response to the latest accusations, Rosen on Wednesday issued a statement declining to comment on the case because “there is a legal matter pending” and privacy issues.

In an amended 45-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Huff’s attorneys alleged that she was a young deputy when her bosses assigned her to the HCCO-1 Human Trafficking Unit.

See here for the background. I’m skipping over the details of the allegations for the same reason as before, it’s disturbing stuff and you can read it in the story. I have the same reaction as before, that this is bad on every level, and even if you believe that Rosen had no direct involvement, this happened on his watch. He’s responsible for that.

Brock Akers, another attorney on the case (and Cordt Akers’ father) also rejected accusations that the lawsuit was an attempt to hamstring Rosen’s political ambitions. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Rosen had been widely rumored to be interested in seeking appointment to replace Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, or to run for sheriff in 2024.

Akers called such speculation “flat out wrong.”

“These things happened,” he said.

County commissioners have yet to address the allegations against Precinct 1, or Rosen, a fellow elected official. In response to questions, a spokesman for Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware of these allegations and obviously concerned,” before declining to comment further because of the ongoing court fight.

I have not seen any names floated as possible replacements for Sheriff Gonzalez as yet – I daresay that will wait at least until his confirmation hearing is on the Senate calendar. Rosen would normally be an obvious possibility, and he is known to have bigger ambitions, but again, this happened on his watch. I don’t know how this turns out, but it sure seems like a bad time to be seeking a promotion.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

Threat level down again

Nice.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday downgraded the county to the yellow COVID-19 threat level, citing improving metrics for the virus here coupled with increasing vaccinations.

“This is an important and encouraging, but still fragile, milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “Our community is doing what it needs to do to move the needle in the right direction, but the threat of stalling or moving backwards remains very real.”

Hidalgo urged unvaccinated residents to avoid gatherings over Memorial Day weekend and implored them to get inoculated.

Friday’s move was the second downgrade in two weeks, following months of criticism the threat level had become meaningless as COVID numbers improved and the governor opened the entire state for business.

See here for the previous update. You can complain if you want, but Judge Hidalgo was just following the data and not screwing around with the agreed-upon metrics for the sake of politics. If you want to keep this moving along, go convince your unvaccinated friends and family to get the shot or stay masked up. The path forward has always been simple, the problem has been the unwillingness of too many people to follow it.

State Reps to P Bush: Reconsider

Nearly all of the Harris County State Reps have written a letter to Land Commissioner George P Bush asking him to reconsider the ridiculous process that completely shut Houston and Harris County out of federal flooding funds.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Tuesday asked Land Commissioner George P. Bush to reconsider his agency’s move to deny Houston and Harris County any funds out of a $1 billion federal pot of flood mitigation aid stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

In a letter to Bush, 22 state representatives — the entire Harris County delegation, aside from state Reps. Briscoe Cain and Mike Schofield — wrote that they found the decision “disappointing” and asked that the General Land Office “work to rectify this situation.”

The GLO, which Bush oversees, is responsible for disbursing more than $4 billion in federal aid to fund flood mitigation projects across southeast Texas. In the first round of aid payout last week, four smaller municipalities in east Harris County were awarded $90 million, but the city and county received nothing for the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for various projects.

“We recognize there have been disagreements between local and state leaders on how to allocate various sets of federal funds around mitigation and recovery since Hurricane Harvey,” the lawmakers wrote. “(H)owever, no reasonable person could believe that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development intended or … envisioned a scenario where a county of 4.7 million people and the fourth largest city in the United States, after experiencing three consecutive years of flood disasters, would not receive any of this $1 billion allotment.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the letter. As noted, the two Republican County Commissioners have also complained to P Bush about this. I’m not surprised that Briscoe Cain didn’t sign on to this – he’s a complete waste of space – but Mike Schofield’s omission is intriguing. I know things will change with redistricting to strengthen his position, but I thank him for providing the campaign fodder nonetheless. Whether this will make any difference or not I have no idea, but it was the right thing to do regardless. Kudos to Jon Rosenthal, the county delegation chair, for organizing this and to all of the members who did sign it.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

Harris County finally will downgrade from its highest COVID-19 threat level, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday evening, after 47 weeks of urging residents to stay home.

Hidalgo said the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and improving local metrics were among several factors that convinced her to revise the threat level system the county debuted last summer. The U.S. Centers From Disease Control also told fully vaccinated Americans last week they may resume their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’re very much at a turning point,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t want to claim victory because there certainly there’s a possibility that amongst the unvaccinated, the virus gets out of control. But we do have reason for celebration.

Hidalgo said she would make a formal announcement Tuesday. Remaining guidelines would only apply to unvaccinated residents.

The two Republican county commissioners had urged the Democratic leader for weeks to abandon Level Red, which states that virus outbreaks are uncontrolled and worsening; data show the opposite is true.

The pair, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have said that while COVID-19 still must be taken seriously, the Level Red designation obscures the progress the county has made in containing the virus.

[…]

Currently, Harris County meets four of five criteria to downgrade to the next-highest threat level, including 14-day averages of new cases below 400 and share of ICU beds occupied by virus patients below 15 percent.

The remaining barrier is a test positivity rate below 5 percent; currently that metric stands at 9.4 percent. That result differs greatly than the positivity rate recorded by the Texas Medical Center system, which currently is 3.7 percent.

The TMC rate comes from tests conducted on patients at member hospitals in the Houston region; the county rate comes from tests taken by the Houston and Harris County health departments, as well as local pharmacies.

Hidalgo said experts she consulted said since few residents were being tested, Harris County’s rate likely was artificially high. She said her team would revise the metrics so positivity rate and new cases are secondary criteria.

See here for the previous update, which was a month ago. We’re a lot farther along on vaccinations, and all of the numbers have moved in accordance with that. I like the fact that we’re being true to the metrics, and that we are making adjustments to them based on new facts on the ground. I commend Judge Hidalgo for consistently doing the right thing, which would have been a lot easier to do if we didn’t have Threat Level Super Duper Bright Red stupidity and malevolence from other parts of our government. The later story also notes that government buildings would reopen to 50 percent capacity, and the county is reviewing that dumb anti-mask mandate order. The Press and the Trib have more.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

A little incentive

If it takes a reward of some kind to get a few more people to be vaccinated against COVID, I’m fine with that.

Could be yours

To increase the rate of vaccinations, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved giving incentives to citizens.

At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, the court authorized for up to $250,000 for gift cards, events and other incentive programs, to increase vaccine participation among Harris County citizens.

The money will come from the county’s Public Improvement Contingency fund.

“We desperately need these people to get vaccinated, particularly the young people,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “I asked you to be as creative as we possibly can because I don’t want to sit here a month from now and see the numbers worsen, or see this pandemic extended, and say ‘If we had just done X, would we have avoided this situation?’”

[…]

Commissioners pitched vaccine-promotion concerts, gift cards to local businesses, firework shows and Jose Altuve bobblehead dolls as incentives.

The immediate goal is not to use county coffers to pay for gift cards, said Hidalgo, who suggested the county find corporate partners to offer gift cards as a contribution to the community.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried that people may take advantage of direct cash payments or gift cards by returning for multiple shots.

“I do not think giving out gift cards or other pecuniary financial incentives is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “You may have people who get multiple shots so they could get their new gift card, so I have some concerns on that side of the equation.”

Ramsey said he didn’t have a problem with trying to promote vaccinations in the community through other means, such as bobblehead giveaways or veteran-centered events during Memorial Day weekend, complete with a fireworks show.

“If we give them out during a ‘Bobbleheads Weekend,’ we would pretty much max it out,” he said. “We could have a whole initiative around this… ‘What better way to honor our vets than to come get your vaccine.’”

We’ve discussed how it’s more challenging to vaccinate people now, because everyone who really wanted the vaccine and had no barriers to getting it has gotten it. What we have left for the most part is the people who need assistance and/or incentive (I’m not counting the absolute refusers, since there’s no reaching them), and this plan tries to provide some of the latter. Other places have tried similar strategies, and there is evidence that it is effective. Seems simple enough to me.

I do not believe that double-dipping is a concern, though perhaps there will be some people who will wait till there’s a reward available rather than get a shot at their earliest possible time. That seems like a minimal risk. I do think the approach of offering rewards at specific publicized events rather than making them a new default part of the experience could be worthwhile – it’s the vax incentive equivalent to the retail strategies of “blowout sales” and “everyday low prices”. Keep an open mind and track your data for every different method used. Finally, please keep to yourself any complaints about how you personally did not need any gift cards or Altuve bobbleheads to get your shot. You got the reward of getting the shots and their accompanying freedoms weeks if not months ahead of these slower-moving folks. That’s how economics works, bud.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Sheriff Gonzalez nominated to lead ICE

Wow.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will nominate Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a vocal skeptic of cooperating with federal immigration authorities in certain circumstances, to serve as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As head of ICE, Gonzalez would help oversee one of the most contentious parts of Biden’s agenda: enforcing U.S. immigration law. Biden has promised to unwind much of predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline border policies.

Gonzalez is a former Houston police officer who served on the City Council before first getting elected sheriff in 2016. He won a second four-year term in 2020. During his first term, he was a vocal critic of Trump’s approach to immigration.

In 2019, when Trump tweeted that his administration would be deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” Gonzalez posted on Facebook that the “vast majority” of undocumented immigrants do not proposed a threat to the U.S. and should not be deported.

“The focus should always be on clear & immediate safety threats,” he said.

And soon after taking office, Gonzalez ended a Harris County partnership with ICE that trained 10 deputies to specifically screen jailed individuals for immigration status and hold any selected for deportation. According to the Houston Chronicle, cutting the program still meant Harris County would hold inmates for deportation regardless of their charge, but only if ICE officials themselves made the request. According to a 2020 report by Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, ICE responded to the program’s cancelation by stationing nine ICE officers in the jail, who continued to screen and detain Harris County residents.

The program ended in late February of 2017, but between Jan. 20 and May 4 of that year, the number of people transferred into ICE custody from Harris County was 60% higher than it was for the same period in 2016. TRAC, a federal agency research center run by Syracuse University, found that Harris County received the most ICE immigration holds in both fiscal year 2018 and 2019, but it’s unclear how many resulted in deportations. The HILSC report estimated that ICE physically deported 6,612 Harris County residents in 2018.

Syracuse University found that Harris County had the third most immigrants transferred to ICE from local law enforcement in fiscal year 2018, in large part due to fingerprint records shared under the Secure Communities program. Harris County is the third most populous county in the United States.

Gonzalez also vocally opposed 2017 legislation that would prevent cities from banning local law enforcement from asking about immigration status and would push civil fines and a misdemeanor offense on law enforcement who don’t comply with federal immigration enforcement.

In a letter to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, Gonzales opposed what supporters dubbed “anti-sanctuary city” legislation, saying it would take public safety resources away from addressing other local safety issues, such as human trafficking and murder.

“I am also concerned about the risk of an unintended consequence: creating a climate of fear and suspicion that could damage our efforts to reinforce trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” he wrote.

Let’s just say that ICE is an institution in need of some big, big reforms. I have a ton of faith in Sheriff Gonzalez, and I believe he is up to the challenge. He’s going to have his work cut out for him.

More from the Chron.

Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Judge, lauded the nomination and called Gonzalez her friend.

“I’ll be sad for him to leave us, but President Biden will gain a compassionate, thoughtful and courageous leader,” Hidalgo said in a tweet. 

Under state law, Harris County Commissioners Court, which Hidalgo leads, is tasked with appointing Gonzalez’s replacement, who would then serve until the winning candidate from the November 2022 election is sworn in.

Gonzalez took office after defeating Republican Ron Hickman, his predecessor and a Commissioners Court appointee, in 2015 after former sheriff Adrian Garcia resigned to run unsuccessfully for Houston mayor.

Garcia, now a Commissioners Court member, would be among the county leaders to pick Gonzalez’s replacement.

“He brings with him such a wealth of experience — the wealth of experience coming from the fact that he is a long-time law enforcement leader,” Garcia said.

Past immigration enforcement leaders, Garcia said, have not brought that experience to the table.

Garcia pointed to Gonzalez’s decision to end a contested ICE partnership — known as 287G — in which some Harris County sheriff’s deputies were trained to perform the functions of federal immigration officers. Under the program, deputies were trained to determine the immigration status of jailed suspects and hold those selected for deportation.

Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office saved at least $675,000 by redeploying deputies to other law enforcement duties.

“I supported him in abolishing that policy,” Garcia said.

[…]

Immigrant advocates expressed guarded optimism to the Biden administration’s ICE choice, with FIEL Houston officials calling him a listener.

“We can attest to is the fact that he has been and continues to be a man who listens to and takes input from the community,” Cesar Espinosa, FIEL executive director, said in a statement. “We understand that the role he is about to undertake is a huge and controversial role and we wish him well in this endeavor.”

Regardless of who leads the law enforcement agency, Espinosa said he would like for ICE leadership to end immigration raids, the use of the 287G program elsewhere and stop forcing ankle monitors on those “who do not pose a flight risk.”

Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, called Gonzalez a humane choice for ICE leadership.

“His proven track record of pushing for smarter immigration enforcement, as well as advocating for Dreamers in his community, is an encouraging sign that he would run ICE with both practicality and compassion,” she said.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a law professor at the University of Denver focused on immigration, noted Gonzalez’s “complicated history” with ICE, given his decision to end the controversial 287(g) agreement with the agency.

“It will be interesting to see how much that decision is reflected in his work as head of ICE assuming he confirmed by the senate,” he said.

He also noted that while Gonzalez, if confirmed, would take over a significantly larger agency, but would be accepting a role where he would no longer be the top decision maker or policy setter — and instead accept direction from the Biden White House or Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

True, but Sheriff Gonzalez was also a City Council member, so he has experience in not being the top person in the organization. He’ll do fine, as long as he has the resources and the mandate to do what needs to be done.

As for the local political implications, we may get a current Constable elevated to the Sheriff’s job, or we may get one of Gonzalez’s top assistants. I’m sure we’ll start hearing some names soon, and I expect Commissioners Court to fill the spot within a month or so of his departure. Which will not be until after he’s confirmed, so we’ll see how long that takes. Whatever the case, all the best wishes to Sheriff Gonzalez. We’ll miss you, but the country as a whole will be better off.

(The same press release also announced that former CD23 candidate Gina Ortiz Jones was nominated to be under secretary of the Air Force. She is highly qualified for that job, and I wish her all the best as well.)

Harris County drops its vaccine waitlist

Sign up and get a shot if you haven’t already.

Harris County Public Health has ended its waitlist for COVID-19 vaccinations, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday.

The new portal at ReadyHarris.org allows residents to register, after which they can pick and choose their appointment time, according to the website.

Hidalgo said there’s currently “more vaccine supply than ever” and encouraged people to sign up for vaccines, which are free and do not require insurance to receive.

She added that the county has 55,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines available for next week.

You can also call to schedule an appointment at 832-927-8787. There are equity issues to deal with, but making the vaccine more widely available, and to people who don’t have Internet access, will help.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

Where are we with Houston police reform?

It feels like it’s been on the back burner for awhile, but we’re about to get some action this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston officials are developing a system for residents to report police misconduct online and will announce changes later this month to the city’s body camera policies and Independent Police Oversight Board, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner responded Tuesday to written questions from the Chronicle, more than six months after his police reform task force released a lengthy report with more than 100 recommended changes to the Houston Police Department, including stricter disciplinary rules for officers and an overhaul of the police oversight board. Though the mayor endorsed “almost all” of the task force’s recommendations at the time they were released, he has yet to announce any major policy changes and has enacted only a handful of the smaller proposals that task force members said could be carried out within 90 days.

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

“We haven’t made any meaningful progress since the George Floyd protests, just forget about it,” said Alan M. de León, an organizer with MOVE Texas. “Whether the oversight board, union contract negotiation, or crisis intervention, on no front are we making meaningful progress, and that’s completely disappointing.”

The mayor, who controls the city council agenda and policy changes, said he plans to hire staff within the city’s Office of Inspector General — including a deputy inspector general — as his task force recommended. Turner also said he supports body cameras recommendations, including publicly releasing footage of major incidents within 30 days and installing dashboard cameras in all cop cars, and promised more details later this month.

Those pushing for police reform hope new Police Chief Troy Finner, a native Houstonian who took over Monday, will push reform. Since being appointed in March, Finner has promised to meet with and listen to reformers.

“You could tell he wanted changes to happen,” said Harrison Guy, a police reform task force member who met with Finner twice last year. “I feel like (former chief Art Acevedo) led with a lot of ego, so I felt like he got in the way of a lot of change.”

[…]

Lacy Wolf, president of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said Turner’s administration has not updated task force members on the status of their recommendations. However, Wolf said after seeing bureaucratic barriers that delay reforms, he is more forgiving than some fellow union members.

“But if I put myself back in that place I was at (last summer), I could see why people would be frustrated.”

Bobby Singh, another member of the task force, said he believed Turner viewed policing reform as among the most significant policy issues of his administration.

“This is going to be a legacy line item for him,” he said.

I sure hope so. Someone once said that it’s better to be right slow than to be wrong quick. There are limitations to that, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling like this has taken too damn long, but when all is said and done either Mayor Turner has delivered on this promise or he hasn’t. I believe he can, but we still have to see what changes he makes.

One more thing:

In September, HPD joined Harris County’s cite-and-release program, which allows police officers to issue tickets for various low-level crimes instead of arresting people, fulfilling another task force recommendation.

But despite much fanfare, reform advocates say the city has failed to provide data about whether police are actually using the new rules to arrest fewer residents than before it was enacted. They said city officials told them no information was available.

“It seems like the police department is completely ignoring the mayor’s executive order, and has no intention of complying unless the county collects this data,” said Nicholas Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.

Not to get all “run it like a business” on you, but one thing I have learned in a million years of working for a large company is that if you can’t (or don’t) measure something, you can’t say anything about it. Either you provide an objective metric to show how something is or isn’t changing over time, or it’s all talk. This should be an easy fix, and it’s the only way anyone will know if HPD is doing what it says it’s doing. We have to do better than this.

Here come the petitions for the latest charter amendment effort

I’m still skeptical of this, but we’ll see how it goes.

A coalition pushing to give Houston City Council members more input at City Hall says it has gathered the required 20,000 signatures to place a charter amendment on the ballot.

The measure, if approved by voters, would allow any three City Council members to place an item on the council’s weekly agenda. Right now, the mayor has near-full control of the agenda. That allows the mayor to block measures he or she does not support.

Houston has a strong-mayor form of government that gives the chief executive far-reaching powers over the city’s day-to-day business. The city charter currently allows three council members to call a special meeting and set its agenda. That power is rarely used, however, and typically occurs as a rebuke of the mayor, failing to attract the majority of council needed to conduct business.

The coalition said it will deliver the signatures, which it began collecting in October, to City Hall on Monday and is eyeing a referendum on the November ballot this year. The coalition is a widely divergent group of organizations, including the Houston firefighters’ union, the Harris County Republican Party, Urban Reform, Indivisible Houston, the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and Houston Justice.

The city secretary will have 30 days to validate the signatures, and then council will have to put the measure on the ballot for the next election date. The organizers likely missed the deadline to get on the May 1 ballot, which was Feb. 12, according to the Secretary of State’s website. The next election date is Nov. 2. The last day to order an election for that date is Aug. 16.

Charles Blain, an organizer with the coalition and president of the conservative Urban Reform, declined to say how many signatures the coalition gathered. That will be revealed at a Monday news conference, he said.

Blain argued the measure is needed to “finally get some resolution” to critical policy issues that have not reached the agenda.

“It’s important because the community deserves representation,” Blain said. “I know we all have district council members, but it’s incredibly frustrating that our district council members can’t team up with a few of their colleagues and get something on the agenda.”

See here for the background, and for how I feel about this, which remains true today. Maybe on Monday when they have that Monday news conference they can tell us what ideas that 1) have majority support on Council but are opposed by Mayor Turner and 2) would not be blocked by the state via lawsuit or new legislation they have in mind. I believe that setting the threshold to three means the most frequent use of this power would be for the troublemaker factions to bring forth items that can’t and won’t be passed but can waste time and cause division. But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe there will be some currently-blocked agenda items that meet my criteria that would finally get a Council vote that will be revealed on Monday. I’m open to persuasion if the argument is there, but I need to hear the argument first. Perhaps I’ll get to hear it on Monday.

(FYI, I was approached by a petition collector for this effort at our neighborhood Kroger about a week ago. I declined to sign, but assumed at the time that they must still be in need of signatures to meet their goal. I’m a little surprised at the timing here, but maybe this guy was an outlier.)

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Consent decree to fix sewers finalized

All done.

A federal judge on Wednesday signed off on a deal between Houston and federal regulators that will require the city to spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system.

Judge Charles Eskridge of the Southern District of Texas approved the consent decree — an agreement negotiated by city and Environmental Protection Agency officials to address the hundreds of sewage overflows around Houston that occur each year — over opposition from local nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper. The environmental advocacy group had sought to focus the agreement more on low-income communities, where a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur.

The approval ends a long-running issue for the city dating back to the administration of Turner’s predecessor, Annise Parker. A few years before Turner took office in 2016, EPA officials began negotiating the deal with Parker’s administration instead of suing the city for violating the Clean Water Act through its sewer overflows, which frequently send waste spilling into local streams and bayous.

Under the agreement, the city will adopt a more aggressive schedule for cleaning and repairing its lift stations, treatment plants and 5,500 miles of sewer pipes. Residents likely will see their water bills rise to help cover the new costs, which are expected to total $2 billion beyond what the city otherwise had planned to spend.

It is not clear when the rate increases will kick in, though residential water rates already have gone up 12.5 percent over the last four years and are scheduled to rise another 1.5 percent next week, when the city’s annual adjustment for inflation and population growth takes effect.

[…]

Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director, said the nonprofit would “diligently monitor the city’s compliance with the consent decree” and take future legal action if it fails to uphold the agreement.

“This consent decree represents an important first step to giving Houston residents a real solution to the sewage problems we see and smell after every major rain,” Schlemmer said in a statement. “But it falls short in one key respect: it does nothing to help our low-income neighbors fix problems that lead to sewage backing up into their homes, pooling in the yards where their children play, and dirtying our local bayous and creeks.”

See here for the previous update; there are further links in that post if you want to go farther back. Remember how we all lost water during and after the freeze, even if your pipes didn’t bust? Among the other benefits of this consent decree, updating the sewer system should help with that. If the Biden infrastructure bill passes, I would assume that should have some funding for water and sewer projects as well; what if any effect it might have on this consent decree is a question I can’t answer. Anyway, this has been about a decade in the making, and it’s about time.

Meet your new voting machines

Long time coming.

Harris County’s new voting machine, which county leaders showed off on Wednesday, incorporates old and new technology the county election administrator says will make voting easier and boost public confidence in elections.

The Hart InterCivic Verity Duo, the county’s new model, has a touch screen interface that allows users to quickly make selections. It also produces a paper ballot which voters can ensure accurately marked their choices before submitting it into a scanner.

“I am ecstatic about the new machines,” Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria said. “The touch screen process, the accessibility features, the paper ballot so that people can make sure the selections they made are the ones that are counted — this is all phenomenal for Houston.”

[…]

The Verity Duo stores a voter’s ballot in three separate locations, Longoria said: on two separate hard drives inside the machines and also on the paper ballot that is scanned. The hard copy ballots are kept for 22 months, in case a manual election audit is needed. The paper ballots are printed in English rather than a bar code, which allows humans and computers to read the same document, Hart Senior Vice President Peter Litchenheld said.

The machines are enabled to perform in the county’s four ballot languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin — and also offer large text sizes for visually impaired voters.

The Harris County Election Administration Office is debuting the new machines in the May joint election. November will be the first countywide election in which they will be used.

See here for the previous update. There’s a video in the story showing how the new machine is used. I think people in general will find the touchscreen interface to be easier and more intuitive to use, but I agree with Campos that the Elections office should do as much public outreach about these new machines as they can. We all know that if it’s this year or 2024, some number of people are going to show up and have no idea that there are new machines and won’t know what to do with them. The best we can do is try to minimize that number. Houston Public Media has more.

Mayor Turner selects the new HPD Chief

Congratulations, Chief Finner.

Houston’s next police chief will be Troy Finner, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday afternoon.

Finner is one of outgoing Chief Art Acevedo’s two top assistant chiefs.

Turner’s decision comes just days after Acevedo abruptly announced that he was resigning to lead the Miami Police Department.

[…]

Finner’s career took him on patrol assignments in Southwest Patrol and South Gessner; he also handled assignments in Communication Services, Internal Investigations, Criminal Investigations and Public Affairs. Finner spent 12 years working as a patrol officer before being promoted to sergeant in 2002. He spent five years in that role before becoming a lieutenant, and then was promoted directly to assistant chief in 2014.

After Acevedo arrived, he tapped Finner to be one of his two top subordinates. Finner now oversees the department’s Field & Support Operations, which includes all of the department’s patrol commands, as well as the property room, fleet maintenance, the joint processing center and the traffic enforcement division.

[…]

The day Turner was set to make his pick, criminal justice reformers sent him a letter asking him to conduct a “transparent” hiring process of the next chief, and make changes to the mission for the role.

Noting that criminal justice reform and police-community relations are at a “critical moment,” members of the Right2Justice coalition called on Turner to conduct a national search for a new chief.

“This past summer demonstrated that the people in Houston want you and the city council to lead,” the letter’s authors wrote. “Sixty-thousand Houstonians decried brutal and racist policing practices, including those in Houston.”

In the letter, the coalition members urged Turner to focus on reducing disproportionate arrests of Black Houstonians within a year; implement changes recommended by the mayor’s previous task forces on criminal justice reform; to reduce unnecessary police interactions on low-level offenses and mental health calls, and host community meetings to gather input from residents about qualities needed in HPD’s next chief.

See here and here for the background. The Right2Justice webpage is here but I couldn’t find the letter quoted in the story; their Facebook page hasn’t been updated in months and I didn’t find a Twitter page for them. I agree broadly with their goals, and I hope Chief Finner will take steps to achieve them, beginning with those task force recommendations that we’re all still waiting on. The Houston Press reports that he is committed to doing that, which is encouraging. I wish him well in the new job, and I look forward to him getting started on that project.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Who might succeed Acevedo?

Names are floating about.

With Police Chief Art Acevedo announcing his departure from Houston, law enforcement insiders say they believe Mayor Sylvester Turner is likely to select one of Acevedo’s two top assistants — Executive Assistant Chiefs Troy Finner and Matt Slinkard — as the next chief.

Acevedo named both in his farewell letter, saying the two chiefs are “ready and highly capable” of moving the department forward. Houston Police Officer’s Union President Doug Griffith said the union supported both men.

“From a union standpoint, I think anyone inhouse could do the job and be very effective,” Griffith said. “I think our two executive assistant chiefs would be a benefit to the department and do phenomenal job. They possess the skills to lead our organization.”

Law enforcement veterans say one factor they believe may prompt Turner to choose one of the two is that if he picked someone else within HPD, it would amount to an obvious vote of no-confidence in the two men, with whom he has worked for the last five years.

At the same time, Turner’s remaining time in office — his second term ends in January 2024 — is another consideration. Given the custom of new mayors choosing their own leadership when they take office, outside candidates are presumably less interested in a job that they know has an obvious expiration date of just a few years from now.

See here for the background. What the story says makes sense, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I want to know who is going to prioritize the reforms we’ve been talking about, or at least who isn’t going to stand in their way. I don’t know what criteria Mayor Turner will use in picking a new Chief, but I sure hope he’s got that on his mind, because this is a golden opportunity for that.

HPD Chief Art Acevedo leaving

Headed to Miami.

Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving Houston to take over the Miami Police Department, the chief told his officers in an email obtained by the Chronicle.

Acevedo informed HPD troops in an email dated Monday, March 15, that some officers working Sunday night received early. The Miami Police Department is expected to announce the news at a 9 a.m. Monday press conference.

“This is like getting the Tom Brady or the Michael Jordan of police chiefs,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald Sunday.

In the email, Acevedo thanked officers and called his departure “truly bittersweet.”

“We have been through so much as an extended family,” he wrote. “Hurricane Harvey, two World Series, a Super Bowl, (Imelda), the summer of protest, and most recently, an ice storm of epic proportion. On top of all this, we have sadly buried six of our fallen heroes.”

Acevedo said he hadn’t been looking to move, “but with the end of Mayor Turner’s final term in office fast approaching and my strong desire to continue serving as a police officer, we decided that the timing for this move was good. Good because you will continue to serve with the strong support of Mayor (Sylvester) Turner and his council colleagues and good because Executive Assistant Chiefs (Matt) Slinkard and (Troy) Finner are ready and highly capable of continuing to move our department forward.”

The story goes into Chief Acevedo’s career and the main things that happened on his watch, so read the rest to review the history. It’s safe to say there’s a range of opinion out there about Chief Acevedo. He definitely had his good qualities, while also being a fairly straightforward law-and-order guy. He was more talk than action on police reform items, which is a big reason why some folks were not impressed by him. Of course, the impetus and agenda for reform come from the Mayor, and that will be top of mind for many people as we consider who will succeed Acevedo.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner confirmed Monday that Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving for Miami, Fla., a decision the mayor said caught him by surprise.

“I hate to see him leave the city of Houston,” Turner said. “But I also realize this is an excellent, extraordinary opportunity for him at a time when he is one of the nation’s leading voices in law enforcement.”

Acevedo informed Turner of his decision Sunday at around 5 p.m., Turner said, acknowledging he had received no prior hint about his police chief’s departure. Acevedo never formally applied to be Miami’s top cop and was not on anyone’s radar there “other than just a few people at City Hall,” the Miami Herald reported Monday.

Turner said Acevedo will stay in Houston for a few more weeks. He said he would announce a new chief by the end of the week, though it was not clear if that appointment would be an interim or permanent replacement.

The mayor declined to say whether he would look to hire Acevedo’s successor from within the department or elsewhere. He downplayed the significance of the chief’s departure, while praising his tenure in Houston.

“No one person is indispensable,” Turner said. “It is about the organization and the institution that you put together. …I would like to believe that we are building a city that even if one person leaves, or two or three, this institution, this cruise ship, will continue to move forward.”

Acevedo’s replacement will inherit a department of more than 5,000 officers, which Turner has pledged to grow even amid calls from activists to divert funding to other city departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota last year. The mayor has said he plans to funds six police cadet classes next fiscal year, instead of the usual five, which he said he necessary to fight an ongoing crime wave in Houston.

Last year, Turner convened a task force to recommend reforms to the police department and said he supported “almost all” of the recommendations laid out by the group in October. He defended the slow progress of implementing the reforms, such as bolstering the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board and tightening disciplinary rules for officers, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent winter storm.

“Many of those things are being implemented as we speak,” Turner said. “My timetable doesn’t mean you don’t have winter storms. …Nature has its own timetables.”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, who pushed most aggressively for police reform during last year’s budget debate, said reform should be top of mind in selecting a new chief. She said it needs to be someone who is open minded and will help implement the recommendations from a task force Turner appointed last year.

“Whoever that person is, as soon as I hear the name, I’m making a phone call,” Plummer said. “That task force worked hard on getting that done, and they delivered an impeccable document. I don’t believe that document needs to sit on the shelf.”

The councilmember said she did not have anyone in mind that fits the bill.

“Every time someone exits, in my opinion, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make a really great choice,” Plummer said. “It’s a choice now. We have clean slate. So let’s choose someone that understands the systemic issues that we’re dealing with when it comes to policing. Let’s find a chief that can be a partner in making (reform) happen.”

I’m with CM Plummer on this one. This is indeed an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it. I wish Chief Acevedo well in his next phase. I wish his successor even better in the next phase of HPD. The Trib and Stace have more.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.