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It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston updates its noise ordinance

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

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

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

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

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

New bail bond rules survive initial court challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will have a new elections administrator on July 1

Let’s get the best we can.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attend one and be In The Know.

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

[…]

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

The meetings are set for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Council approves paid parental leave for city employees

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

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

City Council to return to in-person meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules that can’t be enforced are just suggestions

This is ridiculous.

Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman’s dual roles as a member of the Houston region’s transportation planning board and consultant at an engineering company will not receive further scrutiny by the local board after staff concluded the panel cannot police its own ethics policies.

A three-month examination of questions raised by opponents of the massive Interstate 45 rebuild in Houston concluded Friday with only minor changes for the Transportation Policy Council, a subcommittee of the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The opponents had accused Zimmerman of having a conflict of interest in supporting the project while his employer, Halff Associates, is under contract with the Texas Department of Transportation for work on the project.

Asked to analyze the accusations, staff and H-GAC lawyers concluded that while they had rules, they do not have mechanisms to enforce them.

“Neither the TPC, nor the staff, have authority to investigate ethics complaint,” said Craig Raborn, transportation program manager for H-GAC.

Because the local board cannot investigate the conflict of interest complaint, it also cannot say whether one occurred, Raborn said. In its report, the agency said no further action on the matter was needed, and recommended only minor changes in policy so officials are of aware of and can report conflicts of interest.

[…]

Members of the transportation council, as is common on many boards across Texas, are expected to police themselves and report conflicts so they can abstain from voting. The TPC ethics policy is mostly verbatim the state’s ethics guidelines, which make violations either a criminal or civil complaint.

While the policy has ethics rules about conflicts of interest, they are rarely, if ever, applied. In the past decade, no disclosure form has been filed by a member of the transportation policy council based on prior open records requests and the recent analysis. Conflict of interest disclosures have been filed by H-GAC board members, however, including Zimmerman in that capacity.

The analysis has led to changes internally, meanwhile, for the policy council. Meetings now include a reminder at the beginning for members to submit declarations of any conflicts of interest.

Three separate parts of state codes outline conflict of interest, as it could be applied for transportation council members. State law requires an elected official to declare a conflict if they have a “substantial interest” in a business, defined as owning 10 percent of the company’s stock or deriving 10 percent or more of one’s gross income from the company. Another portion of the law requires any member of a board to abstain from voting on an item that includes something in which they have a business relationship.

Texas Transportation Code, meanwhile, sets out specific ethics rules for metropolitan planning organizations. In that section, it says board members may not “accept other employment or compensation that could reasonably be expected to impair the member’s or employee’s independence of judgment in the performance of the member’s or employee’s official duties.”

The provision, however, only allows for someone to file a complaint with the district attorney’s office, which can — if it thinks the allegation has merit — ask for assistance from the Texas Ethics Commission.

I make no judgment about the merits of the accusations here – I’d not heard of this before now, and I don’t know enough to say anything substantive. You can read the rest of the story and draw your own conclusions. What I will say is that as much as I’d like to crap on H-GAC, the real problem here is the Legislature and its longstanding allergy to ethics and ethics enforcement. On the list of priorities the Lege should have, I can’t say this is up there. It still boggles the mind that there isn’t even a mechanism to force a clearly unethical member of a body like H-GAC to resign. Yes, a criminal complaint can be filed – that would be the case regardless of what the statutes relating to these rules say – but there’s a significant gap between what’s illegal and what’s merely unethical. What we’re left with is an unsatisfactory mess for all involved. We deserve better.

Paid parental leave for city employees

This is a thing that should have happened a long time ago.

City of Houston employees soon could be eligible for up to three months of paid parental leave under a policy change expected to reach City Council next week.

The proposal, set for council consideration next Wednesday, would give workers who have been with the city for six months up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The policy also will include paid time off during pregnancy for certain health matters.

The city’s workforce of about 22,000 employees currently has no paid parental leave. They must use accrued vacation time for those days off. If approved by council, parental leave will not be limited to women.

The policy change was the result of recommendations from the city’s Women’s Commission, formed in August 2021 at the recommendation of District C Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who gave birth to a son last year.

“This is a pivotal moment for the city,” Kamin said. “No parent should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for yourself and your family.”

However late, good for the city to do this. Lord knows, most city employees are not paid much, so at the very least this will help them a little with recruiting and retention. We should have this as a matter of national policy, but until we can get there we’ve got to plug the holes one by one. I look forward to seeing this get passed.

Chron story on City Council redistricting

Lots more info now.

As Houston begins to redraw its City Council map for the 2023 elections, two districts representing western portions of the city, including Montrose, the Heights, River Oaks, and Uptown, among other neighborhoods, have out-sized populations that likely will have to be reduced, according to census data.

Meanwhile, majority-Hispanic districts on the Near Northside, East End and in southwest Houston — predominantly Sharpstown and Gulfton — now include fewer residents than the average district and likely will have to expand.

The population distribution, released district-by-district on Tuesday, is based on the 2020 census, which the city must use to create new boundaries. That survey was conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and under-counted Hispanic and Black populations nationally, according to the Census Bureau.

[…]

City staff presented the population numbers but have not yet begun to discuss how to redraw the lines. They are aiming to maintain relatively equal population numbers, have easily identifiable boundaries, and retain the integrity of neighborhoods and communities of interest.

Another priority: “preserve incumbent-constituency relations,” which means they will try to keep communities in their existing districts when possible. That also makes it unlikely any incumbent council member will be drawn out of his or her district. Eight of the 11 current district council members are eligible to run for re-election.

While redistricting often is overtly political at the county, state and national levels, city offices are nonpartisan. City council redistricting is more focused on balancing populations and demographic representation.

Residents can sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting. In addition to 11 district council members, the city has five at-large council members elected by voters citywide. Houston is the only large city in Texas that still elects at-large members.

The city has hired a law firm, Thompson & Horton, to help the planning and legal departments produce the maps and defend against any legal challenges.

One such lawsuit already has been promised. The League of United Latin American Citizens has said it plans to target Houston’s at-large seats, arguing they should be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts. Hispanic residents make up 45 percent of the population, but only one council member right now is Hispanic, Robert Gallegos of District I.

The group also plans to pursue a charter amendment, which would present the same argument to city voters.

“It’s just a glaring example of inequitable representation.” said Sergio Lira, a local leader with LULAC. When other cities converted at-large seats to district members, he added, “the effect was more minority representation.”

See here and here for some background. This PowerPoint presentation is a good overview including the current district populations, and the Let’s Talk Houston page for redistricting has the schedule, the current Council map, the dates for each community meeting, and more. I don’t have anything else to add, I’ll obviously be paying close attention to all this, and I would encourage you to attend one of those community meetings if you can, they will have a lot to offer for you.

Council adopts vape extension to smoking ban

Good.

The city outlawed vaping in public spaces Wednesday, amending Houston’s smoking ordinance to include electronic cigarettes.

City Council voted 16-0 to approve the amendment, proposed last year by the Houston Health Department in response to growing scientific consensus on the dangers of vaping.

The amendment adds all types of e-cigarette devices — including vape pens, electronic pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, which bars cigarettes from enclosed public places and seating areas and within 25 feet of any building. It does not affect hookah bars or other private areas where smoking is permitted.

“You can now go into bars and restaurants without fear that someone vaping nearby will be impacting your health,” said District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, chair of the council’s Quality of Life Committee.

Gallegos cited the public health benefit of regulating e-cigarettes, which are filled with a liquid nicotine derived from tobacco that becomes an aerosol when the user inhales. Ultra-fine particles emitted by the vapor and toxins from the devices’ heating elements can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, federal studies suggest, even when nicotine-free vape liquid is used.

The council member offered few details on how the ban will be enforced, but said law enforcement would likely extend a “grace period” to vape users in the coming months.

See here for the background. As I recall, there were grace periods for each of the previous additions to the smoking ban. There was some fuss about enforcement with the previous amendments as well, though from today’s vantage point it hardly seems like it amounted to anything. My expectation is that places will update their signage, some people will need to be tapped on the shoulder and informed of the revised ordinance, and modulo an unhappy vaper or two that will likely be the extent of it. I suppose in a world where a non-trivial number of people were giant assholes about wearing masks during COVID that some vapers could make public displays of resistance that are designed to go viral. I’m not too worried about that, but I will note it because I can’t say it won’t happen. I don’t expect it to, but you never know.

City Council to consider adding vapes to smoking ordinance

Sounds reasonable. I’ll be interested to hear what the opponents have to say.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a proposal to bar the use of e-cigarettes and any kind of vaping in public spaces under Houston’s smoking ordinance.

The move would update the city’s rules for public smoking, which were written before electronic cigarettes existed, Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal said Monday.

Houston currently bars tobacco smoking in enclosed public places and seating areas, and within 25 feet of any building. Smoking in covered bus stops and light rail stops also is prohibited.

The measure would add all forms of vaping — including electronic cigars, pipes and hookahs — to the smoking ban, enacted in 2007 to reduce public secondhand smoke exposure.

Health officials proposed the amendment in light of rising e-cigarette use among middle and high school students, Villarreal said. As many as one in 10 Houston middle school students vape, according to health department data.

[…]

While scientists do not have a full picture of the long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes, research suggests the ultra-fine particles within the vapor can increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, said Ronald Peters, Jr., a retired professor at the University of Texas at Houston’s School of Public Health who studied teen vaping behaviors. Banning public e-cigarette use is a common-sense way to reduce the risk of exposing children and vulnerable people to those potentially harmful vapors, he said.

In addition to removing vaping aerosols from public settings, the ban would have the added benefit of reducing kids’ exposure to all forms of nicotine use, he said.

If you’ve been around this blog for awhile, you know I’ve closely followed the various efforts to restrict smoking in public places. I’m all in favor of such things, though to my surprise in searching for the origin of the city’s ban, which was first proposed in 2004 for restaurants, it turns out I was an incrementalist at first. Go figure. After nearly two decades of lived experience, I see no real problem with keeping all forms of smoke away from the general public. Vaping is less objectionable than tobacco, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that the availability of e-cigarettes has enabled some smokers to transition to something less damaging to them. But they have also served as an on-ramp to nicotine for kids, and if there’s a case to be made that limiting where vaping is allowed will help reduce its appeal to kids, I’m all for it.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out at Council. There was a lot of opposition from some folks back in the day, mostly bars and musicians who worried about the effect on their livelihood, but all these years later I have a hard time imagining that kind of organized resistance to this. Still, it took several tries to get to where we are, with small steps taken each time, so it would not surprise me to see a somewhat watered down version of this pass at first, to be revisited at a later date. We’ll see if I get any press releases from a pro-vape/anti-ban constituency like I did with regular smoking back in the day.

UPDATE: A later version of the story contains this bit of interest:

Most restaurants support including e-cigarettes in the ban, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Great Houston Chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association. Health officials consulted the chapter on the proposed amendment in December, she said.

“Many restaurants have already been enforcing a no-vaping rule at their own discretion,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon. “Overall, what we have seen is most restaurants have treated vaping like cigarettes. They have not allowed it.”

Definitely a difference from before, especially for restaurants that also had bars. No guarantees, but that will help the ordinance get passed.

City Council redistricting is on the dock

Here’s a schedule of events related to redistricting for Houston City Council. Some of this has already happened. Last week, unless it got tagged in which case it will come up again at the next Council meeting, Council should have adopted a “Resolution containing Redistricting Criteria for establishing single-member Council districts and Redistricting Guidelines for proposed plans from the public”. As we know, Council districts need to be approximately the same size, with a bit of wiggle room on either end, and as of the 2020 Census there are some significant differences that will need to be ironed out.

Normally, and unlike ten years ago when two new districts needed to be added as a result of a lawsuit settlement from years before, this is no big deal. Move a few precincts around to get everyone within constitutionally acceptable ranges, and move on. There are some other items that will surely come up, including the elimination of At Large seats and the separation of Clear Lake and Kingwood into their own districts. Those are optional, and much less likely to happen, though there will be voices calling for them. There will be community input town halls in April and May, a draft plan produced in June, public hearings in July, a revised plan based on feedback from those town halls in August, and if all goes well, an adopted plan in September. I’m sure there will be plenty to talk about at each step of the way.

Houston to get federal freeze recovery funds

Good.

Houston is slated to get about $30 million in disaster recovery money to help address lasting needs from the February 2021 winter storm — the largest such grant in Texas, federal officials announced Tuesday.

Marcia L. Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Biden administration, announced about $3 billion in new recovery allocations for disasters in 2020 and 2021 across the country at a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Included are Houston’s $30.3 million grant, $26.4 million for the state of Texas, $24.4 million for Dallas, and $16.6 million for Fort Worth, all relating to the February 2021 freeze that nearly brought down Texas’ electric grid. The storm left more than 240 people across the state dead, cities scrambling to deliver water to customers, and millions of dollars in damages from burst pipes and water mains.

“Today’s HUD announcement ensures that Houston and our vulnerable communities have not been forgotten following the historic 2021 winter freeze,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “After the devastating freeze, we estimated 50,000 homes and 400 apartment complexes had busted water pipes. Several people died from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. Local governments are on the frontlines of disaster response and recovery.”

[…]

In allocating the grants directly to the city, the feds are allowing Houston officials to bypass the approval of state leaders, with whom they often have clashed about recovery money. HUD has done direct allocations in the past with smaller disasters. Typically, the money flows through the state General Land Office.

“Houston is getting, out of this announcement today, the city itself is getting more than $30 million,” Fudge said.

Turner said the direct grant will “speed recovery” by avoiding state delays.

I’m sure you can guess how I feel about that last bit. This isn’t a huge amount of money, and the city still has to develop and get public comment on an action plan to submit to HUD before the funds arrive. But at least they won’t get reallocated to some tiny town in a rural area for no good reason.

Meet the new judge of County Civil Court at Law #4

So far, this is the only public announcement I have seen:

There was an item (#281 if you search) on the March 8 Commissioners Court agenda to discuss and possibly take action on this vacancy, which had stretched on for awhile. While the County Civil Court at Law #4 website still showed Lesley Briones as Judge as of the weekend, I assume that will be updated soon. This appointment is for the rest of the year only, as the position will be filled for the next four years in the November election. As noted before, Manpreet Monica Singh and Treasea Treviño are in the runoff to be the nominee for that bench. For now, congrats to Judge Ayala, who I’m sure will do an excellent job in the interim. And I’m glad Commissioners Court finally got around to this.

And we’re back to yellow again

Let’s hope it lasts.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signaling a controlled level of cases following the decline of the omicron wave.

The yellow level means COVID poses a “moderate threat” to the public and urges residents to continue to stay vigilant unless fully vaccinated.

Under the yellow or moderate level, unvaccinated residents are encouraged to continue masking and social distancing, while vaccinated residents are encouraged to do the same where required by law.

“My hope is that we are at a permanent turning point of this pandemic,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “But we’ve yet to have a wave where our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, so we need to tread with caution before we declare victory over this virus.”

As noted, we dropped to the orange level two weeks ago. We were last in yellow in November, for less than a month before omicron moved in. I’m still wearing a mask for the grocery store and other indoor places with lots of people – I mean, I haven’t had a cold in over two years now, so why wouldn’t I? You do you, as long as that means getting vaxxed and/or boosted if you haven’t yet.

Longoria to resign as Election Administrator

Ultimately for the best.

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria submitted her resignation Tuesday, about an hour and half after Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she intended to replace her following last week’s bungled primary contests.

Longoria said her resignation would take effect July 1.

“I think this date ensures that there’s a presiding officer during the May and June elections, and allows the election commission the time they need to find a replacement,” Longoria said.

She said she took responsibility for last Tuesday’s miscues, including the discovery Saturday of more than 10,000 ballots that had not been included in the final, unofficial count. Her office also had been faulted for a slow count that took 30 hours to tally.

Hidalgo said some mistakes were due to new rules under SB1, the voting law the Legislature passed last year, while others were simply unforced errors by Longoria and her staff.

[…]

Election judges who spoke at Commissioners Court on Tuesday described numerous problems during the primary voting period, including inadequate supplies, malfunctioning machines and a lack of support from elections office staff.

Art Pronin, president of Meyerland Area Democrats, was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but applauded Longoria’s resignation, saying he has been inundated with texts and calls from demoralized and angry precinct chairs and election workers since last week.

“This feeling comes from a lack of support on Election Day,” he said. “They told me of issues from their training session, lacking enough paper at the polling sites and being left on hold up to an hour when calling in for help with machines.”

He added, “I urge the hiring of a highly qualified individual who has a history running elections with the machines we now use here, along with robust voter education on machine and mail ballot usage, and more support for our precinct chairs and judges.”

See here and here for some background. I feel bad about this – I like Isabel, I thought she was a perfectly fine choice for the job when she was appointed, but it just didn’t work out. I’ve seen some similar comments to those made by Art Pronin among activist Dems on Facebook, and it’s just not possible to continue in a job like that when you’ve lost people’s confidence. I wish Isabel all the best, I hope we can learn from this experience to make the May and especially November elections run more smoothly, and I absolutely hope we make a solid choice for the next administrator.

Also last night a bit after I wrote this, the updated primary totals were posted. As I expected and wrote about, none of the races were changed by the additional mail ballots. I’ve been annoyed by some of the coverage of the uncounted absentee ballots, mostly because the mention that some races “could” be affected completely fails to address the fact that the leaders in the closest races were almost always also the leaders (often by a lot) of the counted mail ballots. Indeed, Joe Jaworski went from having a 4,129 to 1,658 advantage in mail ballots over Lee Merritt to a 6,572 to 2,643 lead, a net gain of 1,458 votes. Harold Dutton netted 80 votes as well. It’s not that these or other races couldn’t have been affected – theoretically, it was possible – but leaving out that context was really misleading. It could have happened, but it was very unlikely based on the information we had, that’s all I’m saying. I’ll keep my eye on the results and will post when they appear to be finalized. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, final turnout for the Dems was 165,983, or about a thousand less than 2018. For Republicans it was 187,651, a gain of about 30K.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

Orange is the new threat level

New again, anyway.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant” Thursday, signaling the city is emerging from the worst of the omicron wave as infection rates plummet.

Harris County has met all four metrics needed to lower its threat level from red, its highest level indicating “severe risk,” to orange, the second-highest possible threat level. Under orange, officials still recommend that residents minimize all unnecessary contact and avoid large gatherings to stem the spread of the virus.

“The omicron wave hit Harris County very, very hard,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In fact, only now have our hospitalization rates dropped to levels that don’t immediately threaten the capacity of our healthcare system.”

[…]

The two other metrics that were keeping the county in red — ICU capacity and new cases per 100,000 — have improved in recent days, leading to the downgrade Thursday. The overall percentage of COVID patients in the ICU fell to the county’s threshold of 15 percent, and the seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 people declined to 83, well below the county’s goal of 100.

Hidalgo encouraged residents to get vaccinated to avoid another “dangerous” COVID spike.

“While we’re moving in the right direction, there are no guarantees we won’t see another wave in the future,” Hidalgo said.

We were last at orange in December, on the way to red a couple of weeks later. At this rate, we’ll likely be back to yellow soon, and after that who knows. The good news is that between our vaccination level and the sheer number of people who contracted omicron, our overall immunity level for the short term is as good as it’s ever been. The bad news is that our vax level is still way too low, far too few kids have been vaxxed, and the waning omicron wave is causing fewer people to get vaxxed now because the threat is receding. It really is just a matter of time before we’re back in a crisis situation again. If we’re lucky, and we make a strong effort to get a lot more people vaccinated in countries that have not had nearly enough vaccine supply, then maybe that next wave is farther off. If not, well, I probably don’t have to tell you what that means. Stace has more.

Houston’s preparations for the next freeze

We learned from the experience, which I hope will serve us well for the next time.

The grid’s near collapse last February had drastic consequences for local governments, none more acute than the challenge water systems confronted in trying to keep taps flowing without power. In Houston, the outages and difficulties with back-up generators resulted in a four-day boil-water notice. In Texas, providers to nearly two-thirds of the population were unable to send clean water to customers.

Public Works has done test runs, called “black starts,” for years at its main water plants, but now has expanded the practice to eight other critical facilities. The department also has provided CenterPoint with an updated list of critical infrastructure, hired new contractors for generator maintenance at pump stations, pursued an $8 million grant for wastewater plant generators, stocked up on chemicals to treat water and roadways and drafted protocols to distribute bottled water.

“We are more prepared than a year ago, but still not as prepared as we want to be and need to be,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has managed responses to seven federally declared disasters in his six-year tenure. “It’s a constant work in progress.”

During the freeze, workers scrambled to fix generators, maintain pressure in the system, and account for chlorine shortages and spare supplies of bottled water.

The prolonged power outages proved more daunting than those in Hurricane Harvey or any other event of the last 15 years, said Drew Molly, who leads drinking water operations for Public Works.

“This one took the prize. This was a bad situation,” Molly said. “As rough as it was, I think there’s some things … that are going to make Houston more resilient going forward.”

The most substantial generator failure in the city’s network occurred at the northeast plant, where machines tripped offline during the switch to back-up power and led to an hours-long outage. Molly said Public Works is working on a procedure to proactively switch to generators before the power goes out to avoid that scenario in future storms, though it may require state approval.

[…]

John C. Tracy, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M, said those kinds of common-sense adjustments often are the most prudent system upgrades after severe events.

“You cannot prevent this from happening, all you can do is prepare and respond,” Tracy said.

Texas should include the risk of weather events like hurricanes and winter storms in its water plan, drafted every five years to address the state’s water needs. Currently, it only accounts for droughts, Tracy said. The change could help make billions of dollars available to cities and water authorities for a broader array of projects through what is called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which provides low-cost financing to help communities develop water infrastructure.

You can read the rest to see more about what the city is doing – Harris County has a more limited role since the county doesn’t manage a water system – and overall it seems like they’re doing sensible things. You don’t really know until you’re actually tested, but doing good prep and some regular drills and simulations should help.

Of greater interest to me is the bit in that last paragraph about the use of SWIFT funds. The House passed a bill last spring that would have done exactly that, made $2 billion available from that fund for weatherization projects. That sounds like a decent idea, but the bill (and an accompanying joint resolution for a constitutional amendment, which I presume was necessary because SWIFT was established via amendment) was never taken up in the Senate. You remember all that talk from Greg Abbott about how everything is now peachy with the electric grid? This is exactly the sort of thing that could have been done to improve things, but it wasn’t. You tell me why this didn’t happen, or better yet have Dan Patrick tell me, because this died without a peep in the Senate, and that’s his fiefdom.

By the way, the last I’d heard of SWIFT since the 2013 referendum vote was in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, when there was briefly some talk about tapping into SWIFT funds for flood mitigation projects. Far as I can tell, that went nowhere as well, though it’s possible that federal relief funds obviated the need for it. I don’t know enough to say one way or the other. What I do know is that I have no idea how SWIFT has been used since it was set up in 2013, which sure seems less than optimal to me. Some dashboards and a searchable database, that’s all I’m asking here.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

Does Houston get its fair share from Harris County?

It’s complicated.

Do property taxpayers inside the City of Houston subsidize Harris County services? It’s a question that comes up a lot, given the fact that city residents—like their counterparts in the county—pay separate property taxes to the county, but the county provides many services only to the unincorporated areas.

The answer to that question appears to be yes: property taxes paid to the county by those inside the city do subsidize services out in the county—at least so far as general county services are concerned. (On the hospital front, city residents appear to receive more in services than they pay in taxes to the county.)

The overall picture might look different; for example, residents outside the city make many purchases inside the city, and the resulting sales tax goes to the city, not the county. But at least according to a new analysis from the Kinder Institute, with the assistance of the fiscal analysis firm TischlerBise, the county gets more in property tax revenue from city taxpayers than it provides in services.

[…]

Although much of the unincorporated area is served by municipal utility districts, the county government is responsible for providing many services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, that are typically provided by cities. For this reason, the question of whether city taxpayers subsidize services outside the city has long been debated. At the same time, it should be noted that the county provides many services, such as justice administration and hospital care, to all residents of the county no matter where they live.

The Harris County government collects and spends about $2 billion per year in property tax revenue. The Harris County Hospital District collects and spends about $700 million per year in property tax revenue. A little more than half of the county’s property tax comes from inside the city.

But the amount of money that the county spends on services to city residents varies. For example, we estimate that almost 60% of all county flood control expenditures benefit the city. At the same time, however, almost 90% of county road and bridges expenditures occur outside the city limits.

I have definitely complained in this space about all of the roadbuilding in empty parts of the county as the primary development planning strategy. It’s worked in that the county’s population has boomed, but it has also led to the paving over of a lot of prairie land that had been a key component of flood control, and it has had the feel of leaving the inner core behind to fend for itself. I have felt that a little less in recent years, as the county has kicked in on various city road and bike projects, as well as contributing to Metro for bus shelters and other repairs. I give Commissioner Rodney Ellis a lot of the credit for that. I’d still like to see more done, but at least the disparity is not as glaring.

As this article points out, there are county services that provide a lot of benefit to Houston, and services that are widely used by everyone, so the picture is more nuanced than I might have given it credit in the past. The city also benefits from sales taxes from people who work in the city or travel into the city for business and entertainment. The cited study did not go into that aspect of the finances, though they say more study will be forthcoming. I’m just glad to see this issue get some attention.

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

Here’s one argument for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB8 lawsuit moves to SCOTx

Like I said, the fix was always in.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday sent the legal challenge to Texas’ restrictive abortion law to the state’s Supreme Court, a move that is expected to significantly delay the case and that abortion opponents had hoped would occur.

“This decision now keeps the case in limbo — and abortion after 6 weeks in the nation’s second-largest state — a dead-letter, indefinitely,” wrote Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, on Twitter.

The U.S. Supreme Court has largely declined to intervene in the Texas case three times, most recently in December when justices kept the ban in effect while allowing a legal challenge to move through a lower state court.

[…]

A divided Supreme Court found that most challenges against the Texas law should be dismissed, except for one filed against medical licensing officials. That case was sent that to the 5th Circuit, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, rather than a federal district court as abortion providers and supporters had hoped.

The three-judge federal panel, based in New Orleans, wrote in their 2-1 decision Monday that the Texas Supreme Court must certify the case and decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in allowing a challenge to proceed against the licensing officials. Circuit Judges Edith H. Jones and Stuart Kyle Duncan, both appointed by Republicans, said the state’s highest court should determine whether the Texas attorney general, the Texas Medical Board and other licensing officials can enforce the law if it is violated.

Judge Stephen A. Higginson, a Democratic appointee, argued the U.S. Supreme Court had already decided that matter.

“This further, second-guessing redundancy, without time limit, deepens my concern that justice delayed is justice denied, here impeding relief ordered by the Supreme Court,” he wrote in his dissent.

State supreme courts do not have to take up cases that are sent to them by federal courts, but it’s likely Texas will this time. Lawyers said it’s unusual to ask the Texas Supreme Court to make this decision after the U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in.

See here, here, and here for the background. I still don’t have anything to say that I haven’t said before. I’m fresh out of invective. The following is part of a longer thread, but these two tweets sum it up nicely:

SCOTUS doesn’t even care about the insult to their authority, because in the end it serves their larger goal. Burn it all down. The Chron has more.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

HCC seeks a new Board member

There’s a vacancy to fill now.

The Board of Trustees publicly and formally invites qualified members of the public to apply to be considered for appointment to the position of HCC Trustee District II. The Texas Education Code requires that the position for HCC Trustee, District II be up for election at the next regular trustee election in November 2023 for the unexpired term. The current term for HCC Trustee District II will expire on December 31, 2025.

​The proposed process the Board will undertake to fill the vacancy for the position of HCC Trustee District II is as follows:

An announcement regarding the position will be posted on the HCC website from Wednesday, January 12, 2022 through 12:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Interested, qualified applicants should apply by submitting a cover letter and resume to [email protected] no later than 12:00 p.m. on January 18, 2022. The Board may interview applicants and make a final selection at a Board meeting on Friday, January 21, 2022. Notice of the meeting to include the date, time, and location will be posted 72 hours prior to the scheduled meeting in accordance to the Open Meetings Act.

To be qualified, the applicant must meet the following criteria:

  1. Must be a U.S. citizen.
  2. Must be 18 years of age or older on the first day of the term to be filled on the date of appointment.
  3. Must not have been adjudged by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be totally mentally incapacitated or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote.
  4. ​Must not have been finally convicted of a felony without a pardon or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.
  5. Must have resided in HCC District II for at least six months and in the state of Texas for at least 12 months immediately preceding the appointment by the Board.
  6. Must be a registered voter on date the appointment is made and be registered to vote in HCC District II.

See here for the background. I’m told there’s a somewhat obscure provision in state law that would have allowed the Board to not name a replacement within 30 days of the vacancy and thus force a special election on the next uniform election date. That would have meant a May election in Harris County, and would have been the only thing on the ballot in Harris County at that time. (Yes, there will be primary runoffs in May, but those don’t happen on the May uniform election date and aren’t set up to accommodate a concurrent general election. It would have been messy and needlessly confusing.) It also might have meant that Rhonda Skillern-Jones would have continued to be Trustee for at least some period of time longer, even though she had resigned in December. The Board made the right choice here. Get your resume in if you qualify and are interested.

Back to Code Red

Hopefully not for too long.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday moved the county again to its highest COVID-19 threat level, her office said.

The announcement should be old hat for Hidalgo, who has moved to Level Red each of the past three calendar years.

“Unfortunately, today we find ourselves crossing a threshold we don’t want to cross,” Hidalgo said at Booker Elementary School in Spring ISD. “We are in the midst of another COVID-10 tsunami.”

She cited an explosion of new COVID-19 cases. She expounded on the dangers of the new Omicron variant. She pointed out that virus hospitalizations are increasing at a higher rate than ever.

Twenty-one months into the pandemic, a question looms: How many people are still listening?

Schools are back in session. Restaurants, bars, theatres and sports arenas are open to capacity. There are no county- or state-wide mask rules. Moving to Level Red does not change any of that; instead, it urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. The decree is not enforceable.

[…]

Hidalgo has made warning the public about COVID-19 central to her messaging since the pandemic reached Texas in March 2020. For more than a year, she and county public health officials have cajoled, implored, exhorted, implored, advised, recommended, begged and even bribed residents to get vaccinated.

Hidalgo tried to remain optimistic, reasoning that getting more residents inoculated is the way to retreat from Level Red and never return.

“We can break that habit,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t want this always to be bad news.”

Growth of the county’s rate of vaccinated residents has slowed significantly. It now stands at 59.8 percent, up just 3.3 percent since before Thanksgiving. At this rate, 70 percent county of county residents would not be vaccinated until July.

See here for the previous time the threat level was raised. It’s a fair question whether anyone is still listening. I never really stopped wearing masks for indoor things like grocery shopping and ordering at restaurants – I eat outside if at all possible – but now I’m wearing KN95s instead of cloth masks. In my observation, we’re nowhere close to the levels of mask wearing we had a year ago, and few places are doing much about it. I guess we’re going to got for a low-rent version of herd immunity, at least for the short term. Better hope that the “milder” part of this strain holds up. More here from the Chron.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

What Harris County could maybe do to counter SB8

From last week. I have my doubts much of it will happen, though.

Three months after Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court sought advice on how to counter Texas’ new abortion ban, policy analysts for the court on Tuesday advised County Judge Lina Hidalgo the county could spend public money to support groups that aid those seeking abortions — and perhaps even to directly fund abortion care.

The memo to Hidalgo and her top aides detailing the county’s options came in response to a resolution passed by Commissioners Court in September, two weeks after the abortion law took effect, that directed their policy analysis office to investigate how the county could “support individuals impacted by” the ban or “otherwise mitigate the law’s negative effects.”

The county is free, the analysts wrote, to send local and federal funds to groups that provide support services — including transportation, lodging and child care — to those seeking abortions outside the state. Austin officials have approved funding for similar usage, the memo noted, to get around a 2019 state law that bars local governments from sending taxpayer funds to abortion providers — a move that has withstood legal opposition.

The policy analysts said that while the 2019 law, known as Senate Bill 22, prevents Harris County from spending local taxpayer funds on abortion services, the county’s expected $915 million allotment of federal COVID-19 relief money may be eligible for that purpose.

[…]

Hidalgo, who is running for re-election next year and has drawn more than a dozen challengers, has been fiercely critical of the abortion law, known as Senate Bill 8, since lawmakers approved the measure this spring. One of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion policies, it bans the procedure in almost all cases once cardiac activity is detected — often around six weeks into a pregnancy, when most women do not know they are pregnant.

Hidalgo has been especially critical of the law’s enforcement mechanism: lawsuits filed by private citizens, who can collect $10,000 cash and recoup their legal fees if the challenge is successful. Hidalgo on Tuesday said the provision — which is aimed at shielding the law from court challenges — “creates a culture of vigilantism in the community.”

Facing criticism during Tuesday’s meeting, however, Hidalgo noted the memo had appeared on court agenda merely to be “transmitted” to the court from the Harris County Commissioners Court’s Analyst’s Office, which prepared the document. County departments routinely use the process to formally communicate with the court, which did not vote on any of the “policy considerations” outlined in the memo.

“It is not a proposal that is in front of Commissioners Court,” Hidalgo said. “I know some folks have been saying that. And with campaign season, these kind of accusations, misleading statements are only the first of many.”

I support any reasonable measures that Harris County can take to abet reproductive health care. I also have no doubt that anything the county does will spark a huge outcry from the forced birthers, and unless there is a change in state government from the 2022 election, there will be legislative reprisals in 2023, just as Harris County’s efforts to make it easier to vote were targeted in the voter suppression law. Doesn’t mean we should shy away from the fight, just that we should be clear about what we hope to accomplish, what we are potentially risking and who might be directly affected by it, and which fights are the best to pick. It’s good to have the discussion and know what our options are. Now let’s choose well.

Back to threat level orange

Thanks, omicron.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant” Monday, as the number of infections rise sharply, sparked by the spread of the omicron variant.

“Level 2: Orange,” is the second-highest threat level in the county. While it falls short of suggesting that residents stay home under all circumstances, Threat Level 2 recommends that people minimize all uneccessary contacts in order to stem the flow of the virus.

“Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has arrived in Harris County in full force,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “These trends are understandably frustrating — especially as we close out the year with friends and family. But we can still blunt the force of this latest wave if we take action.”

New cases in the area have nearly tripled in the last week, with the Texas Medical Center reporting about 2,094 cases per day compared to about 721 the week before.

The COVID-19 testing positivity rate has jumped from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent in that span, and hospitalizations at the medical center have grown from about 68 people per day to about 110.

As noted, it was less than one month ago that the threat level had been lowered to yellow. Those were the days, huh? And now we’re back to this.

Jayne Johnston broke the bad news on Saturday to her 6-year-old daughter: Theater Under the Stars’ production of “The Little Mermaid” was canceled.

“She was crushed because she was so excited,” Johnston says. “I made this big deal about her getting vaccinated. I’d told her, ‘You’ll get to go inside places again, but you’ll still have to wear a mask.’”

The mother-daughter duo had planned to see the 2 p.m. performance at the Hobby Center. At the time, another show was also scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but it was canceled, too.

“While we had hoped to resume performances on Sunday, we have confirmed a positive COVID case among our performing company,” said TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges in a statement. “Our paramount concerns are for the health and safety of our artists and audiences. It does, regrettably, put us in the position of making hard decisions and cancelling performances this weekend. Performances will resume on Tuesday, December 21.”

The spread of the omicron COVID variant and the recent spike in cases is beginning to affect live theater, sports and other public gatherings in Houston.

[…]

Similar to TUTS, Alley Theatre’s guest services team alerted patrons on Saturday a person working on ‘A Christmas Carol’ tested positive for coronavirus. Ticket-holders can requests seats to a future show date through Dec. 29, or any future Alley production. Refunds are available, too.

“It’s disappointing because we’ve done so well this whole run of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” says Dean R. Gladden, Alley Theatre Managing Director. “We’ve done a lot to prepare, but the biggest thing you can’t prepare for is when it happens to you — you just have to deal with it.”

Gladden explains that his actors are already kept separate in respective bubbles. When someone tests positive for COVID, everyone — including production — has to provide negative results. That didn’t happen in time for Sunday’s performance. “A Christmas Carol” is expected to return to the stage on Tuesday.

“Patrons have been so understanding to know that it’s nobody’s fault. This is a very active variant,” he says. “We’re seeing this across the country. Performing arts are taking a hit, sports are taking a hit.”.

On Sunday, Rice University postponed a men’s basketball home game against University of St. Thomas due to COVID-related issues within the Owl’s program according to a statement. The women’s basketball team canceled Sunday’s game at Texas A&M University due to COVID issues, as well.

“With contract tracing, we didn’t have enough players to play the games. Basketball is a smaller team,” says Chuck Pool, Sports Information Director at Rice. There’s a slim chance both games could be rescheduled if the dates work out. “I can’t really speculate. These would’ve been our last games before Christmas.”

Not just colleges, and of course not just live theater:

Yesterday, a little after noon, the Dandelion Cafe posted a notice to its Facebook page. It echoed the sign newly posted on the door of this Bellaire breakfast staple: “Due to a rise in COVID cases, including several among our staff, we feel it is in the best interest of our staff, customers and everyone’s families to close until everyone can work and be in a safe and healthy environment.”

This unwelcome news was the leading edge of what is likely to be a spate of restaurant and bar closures over the holidays and into January, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID begins traveling through Houston on top of our current Delta wave.

COVID “seems to be picking up in the industry again,” bartender and diner-about-town Chris Frankel posted on Dandelion Cafe’s Facebook page today. “I’ve recently noticed a number of responsible, vaccinated colleagues testing positive and being stuck in quarantine.” Omicron’s ability to break through vaccine defenses is complicating the situation.

It sucks, but this is where we are now.

Houston doctors worry omicron could sweep the city just as families gather for the holidays. Omicron accounted for 82 percent of new symptomatic Houston Methodist COVID cases as of earlier this week, hospital officials said, and is on track to overtake delta as the dominant strain.

“This virus is better able to evade better the immune response we have developed through vaccination and natural immunity,” said Dr. Pedro A. Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

Piedra estimates omicron will replace delta in the months to come. He is not alone in predicting an omicron wave, even as its severity remains a question mark.

Three weeks ago, Houston’s rate of transmission for coronavirus — a key indicator health officials use to gauge community spread — was 0.67, according to the Texas Medical Center. That means each person with the virus was likely to spread it to 0.67 people – nonviral, essentially. That rate has more than doubled as of last week, with a 1.58 rate of transmission.

The number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Houston has quadrupled since last week. Hospitalizations among children have doubled in four days.

The reason for omicron’s rapid ascent is written in its spike proteins, found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID. The variant contains a high number of previously unseen mutations that account for its ability to infect people faster and more efficiently than any previous iteration of the virus.

While scientists hurry to understand its properties, one thing is certain: its astonishing rise was months faster than that of delta.

“We have seen a rather dramatic shift,” said Dr. James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at the Texas Children’s Hospital.

You know the drill by now. Get your booster shot. Avoid large indoor crowds. Wear your mask – N95s are cheap and readily available now. Ventilate well. Use rapid tests and for God’s sake isolate if you’re positive. Minimize your risk and do what you can to protect others. We’re very much in a better place to avoid severe consequences, but we still have to be cautious. Yes, it sucks. The alternative is worse. Stace and the Press have more.