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Annise Parker

There will be no city elections this November

Here’s the early version of the story. I’ll add a link to the full story in the morning.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied plantiffs’ attempts to expedite their case challenging the [2015 term limits referendum] ballot language that lengthened city officials’ terms two years ago, making it unlikely the matter will be resolved before the state’s August 21 deadline to order a fall election.

Instead, the case is positioned to return to trial court for a hearing on whether the wording of the city’s proposition authorizing two four-year terms, instead of three two-year terms, was too obscure.

“There’s no way,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said. “I don’t see any way that they’re going to get any final order in time for the filing deadline.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Dick conceded the timing makes a November mayoral election “unlikely.”

“But I don’t think it’s impossible,” Dick added, saying he plans to ask the high court to reconsider its decision.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the court’s order, which actually came down on Monday. We were getting dangerously close to what I figured would be the functional deadline for a ruling on the mandamus, in order to ensure enough time for people to file for office if they needed to. This doesn’t mean that we won’t get another election until 2019 – I’ve heard many people speculate about a special election next May, which I suppose could happen – but barring anything unexpected at this point, the case will plod on through the appeals process, which suggests that the people who were elected in 2015 will get to serve out most if not all of that four-year term.

UPDATE: Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a fuller version of this story on the website, and there was nothing I could find in the print edition this morning. Maybe tomorrow.

Recycling deal gets a rough reception at Council

Feisty.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council members blasted a proposed 20-year recycling deal Tuesday, questioning the $48 million price tag, the process by which the winning bidder was chosen and Turner administration officials’ reluctance to share information about the deal.

The proposal on the council’s Wednesday agenda would have Houston send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle annually to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston by Spanish firm FCC Environmental.

In the city’s request for recycling proposals, documents repeatedly envisioned the contract term as running 10 years, with up to two five-year extensions. FCC, however, was the sole vendor allowed to submit a proposal using a 15-year initial term, with one five-year option; competing vendors said they would have submitted 15-year bids if they had known their proposals would not be rejected.

Some council members also questioned why FCC’s prices had been evaluated favorably when its per-ton fee for processing the city’s recyclables was the second-highest figure among the four responsive bidders. Those concerns were heightened when one of the losing bidders, Dean Gorby of Independent Texas Recyclers, said he had proposed a $63-per-ton fee and had no idea why the city had represented his bid as $76 per ton to the council.

“It just doesn’t smell right,” Councilman Dave Martin told administration officials at a Tuesday committee hearing. “If I were you, I’d go back to square one.”

See here for the background, and either this story or that post for more details about the deal. I’ll be honest, I can’t quite figure it out myself. I don’t understand the price structure or the reason why this one company is being offered something other than a ten-year deal, and I’d like to know more about the other companies’ complaints. I very much want to get a new deal done and it will be nice to be able to put glass out with the green bins again, but I want to be sure it’s a good deal.

Meanwhile, Gray Matters revisits the retreat into oblivion of the One Bin For All proposal, with a link to and commentary on this recent Press story on the matter. Mayor Turner basically had no interest in One Bin – indeed, none of the 2015 Mayoral candidates expressed any commitment to it, and I asked them all about it during interviews. You can read all I’ve had to say on One Bin here. After all this time, I still don’t know what to make of it. It sounded cool and it could have been cool, but the amount of contradictory information I got from its supporters and detractors made my head spin. At this point, I’d just like to see us take recycling more seriously.

UPDATE: The vote has been tagged for a week.

Firefighters’ lawsuit over pension reform law tossed

There it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Friday dismissed Houston firefighters’ lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s pension reform package, removing a potential barrier to the city’s efforts to solve a 16-year fiscal crisis.

State District Judge Patricia Kerrigan granted the city’s request to dismiss the case while denying firefighters’ motion to temporarily block the state law, known as SB2190, from going into effect Saturday.

[…]

Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund Chairman David Keller, meanwhile, said he was disappointed, adding that the board would discuss next steps with its legal team.

Kerrigan’s order gives the pension board the option to refile its lawsuit, which argued the reform law infringes on the fund’s exclusive right to select its own actuaries and choose the actuarial assumptions that will be used to determine contributions into the pension system.

See here for the background. I presume this will get appealed, but I kind of doubt it will get anywhere. One may wonder how it is that the relationship between the firefighters, who endorsed Turner for Mayor, and the Mayor has gotten so combative. I suspect it is more likely that the firefighters believed that despite Turner’s promises about pension reform he didn’t really mean to affect their pensions than it is that Turner was dishonest with them about what he intended to do. The firefighters, with some justification, have felt invulnerable for a long time. Having that come crashing down around them has got to be a tough thing to take. One also wonders how much previous Mayors, nearly all of whom have had tumultuous relationships with the firefighters, are getting a bit of grim satisfaction out of this. I mean, if the firefighters had ratified the contract agreement that their leadership agreed to with Mayor Parker in 2014, and if they had worked with Mayor Parker to pass a pension reform plan back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having any of this conversation now. Maybe they wouldn’t be any better off than they are now, but it’s hard to see how it would be any worse for them. I know, hindsight is 20-20, but surely some of this was foreseeable.

Mayors (still) against climate change

Someone’s gotta do it.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump officially announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, citing the deal’s failure “to serve American interests.”

Hours later, governors, mayors, and environmental groups all had a different message: We’ll take it from here.

“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said on a press call following Trump’s announcement. “California’s economy and America’s economy is boosted by following the Paris agreement.”

In the wake of the Trump administration’s sudden withdrawal from the international stage, local leaders — especially, though not limited to, those in progressive areas of the country — are recommitting to their work on climate policy. Brown, for instance, will reportedly discuss merging California’s existing carbon market — a cap and trade program started in 2012 — with China when he travels to Asia later this week. Canada has also reportedly been reaching out to U.S. governors to try and coordinate work on climate change.

Brown also joined with Govs. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) to create the United States Climate Alliance, a coalition that will include states committed to meeting emission reduction targets previously submitted to the Paris climate agreement regardless of what action the federal government takes. Together, California, Washington, and New York represent one-fifth of the United States’ GDP — creating an economy larger than most countries that are party to the Paris agreement. The states also account for at least 10 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

“I am proud to stand with other governors as we make sure that the inaction in D.C. is met by an equal force of action from the states,” Inslee said in a press statement announcing the creation of the alliance on Thursday. “Today’s announcement by the president leaves the full responsibility of climate action on states and cities throughout our nation. While the president’s actions are a shameful rebuke to the work needed to protect our planet for our children and grandchildren, states have been and will continue to step up.”

U.S. mayors also voiced their criticism of Trump’s decision, vowing to recommit to local efforts to curb climate change. Cities are responsible for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that even small changes in city-wide policies — retrofitting street lamps with LED bulbs, for instance, or deploying electric vehicles for city-owned cars — can make a big dent in the country’s overall emissions.

“Austin will not stop fighting climate change,” Steve Adler, mayor of Austin, Texas, said in a press statement following Trump’s announcement. “Worldwide, cities will lead in achieving climate treaty goals because so much of what’s required happens at the local level. Regardless of what happens around us, we’re still Austin, Texas.”

Houston is in on this as well; you can see his press statement here. This is nothing new for Houston – in fact, if you go to the Climate Mayors homepage, you’ll see that former Mayor Parker was one of the founders. (I noted it at the time.) It’s good to see, and it’s yet another reminder of the importance of local elections, as I have a much harder time imagining the runnerup in the 2015 Mayor’s race being out front on this.

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Houston officeholders

Normally, at this time I would be scanning through Houston candidate campaign finance reports, to see where incumbents stand at the start of the season. Of course, barring near-term court action there is no season for Houston municipal officeholders this year, and unlike past years they have been able to raise money during what had once been a blackout period. It’s still worth it to check in and see what everyone has, so let’s do that.


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Turner     681,972   177,867        0   1,312,028

Stardig *   39,361    24,088        0      79,980
Davis *      8,500    27,439        0     154,707
Cohen *      8,350    21,563        0      77,451
Boykins     26,400    23,820        0         186
Martin       4,250    17,469        0      95,896
Le          13,100    13,519   42,823       2,023
Travis           0    12,984   76,000      23,606
Cisneros     7,500    15,295      273       4,959
Gallegos    20,834    14,742        0      33,077
Laster *     3,000     6,292        0     145,071
Green *     10,000    52,652        0     107,248

Knox         6,275    20,061        0      16,737
Robinson    44,750    15,277        0      52,408
Kubosh      10,925    12,907  276,000      20,824
Edwards     42,401    18,379        0     110,660
Christie *   1,367    22,653        0      18,563

Brown       30,520    52,814        0      41,245


Parker           0    36,503        0     136,368
King             0        50  650,000           0

Asterisks indicate term-limited incumbents. I included Annise Parker and Bill King mostly out of curiosity. Parker can’t run for anything in Houston, but if she does eventually run for something else she can transfer what she has in this account to whatever other one she may need.

Clearly, Mayor Turner has been busy. Big hauls by incumbent Mayors are hardly unusual, it’s just that Turner had the benefit of more time to make that haul. A few Council members plus Controller Chris Brown were busy, though there was nothing that was truly eye-popping. I didn’t look at the individual forms beyond the totals page, so I can’t say what everyone spent their money on, but if I had to guess I’d say recurring fees for things like consultants and websites, plus the usual meals, travel, donations, and what have you. Loan amounts always fascinate me – you have to wonder if any of them will be paid back. Probably not.

It’s not too surprising that the term-limited members are among those with the largest cash on hand totals. They have had the longest to build it up, after all. I have to assume some of them – in particular, Jerry Davis, Mike Laster, and Larry Green – have a run for something else in their future. For what will be mostly a matter of opportunity. Of those who can run again in 2019, I’ll be very interested to see how their fortunes change between now and the next two Januaries. One way or another, 2019 ought to be a busy year.

Texas Dems look to 2018

I have a few things to say about this.

Just because

A tight-knit group of Texas Democratic leaders traveled to the state capital [in late January] to begin preliminary conversations about the 2018 midterm races.

According to over a dozen interviews with Texas Democratic insiders and national Democrats with ties to the state, the meeting included some of the party’s most well-known figures from Texas including former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas Democratic Party Finance Chairman Mike Collier, former state Sen. Wendy Davis, state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and state Reps. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

Their main agenda: mapping out a strategy for the 2018 midterm elections.

The expectations in the room were not soaring but were cautiously hopeful. That optimism was mostly rooted around one person: President Donald Trump.

“I think 2018 will be the most favorable environment Texas Democrats have had in a midterm election in well over a decade,” said Turner, who declined to comment on the meeting. “I think when you look at the actions of the Trump administration just three weeks in, you’re seeing a president with historically low approval ratings in what should be a honeymoon period, and no indication that’s going to change given his divisive actions.”

Trump’s presidency brings together a confluence of several factors that Democrats hope will get candidates over the line: a stronger-than-past Texas Democratic performance last November in urban centers, the traditional backlash against a sitting president in the midterms and an increasingly expected added drag that Trump will create for Republicans.

The Democratic calculation is that in this unpredictable and angry climate, a full 2018 slate could produce a surprising win or two statewide or down-ballot.

[…]

Sources say no decisions were made on whom should run in which slot, nor was that widely discussed. Instead, the emphasis was on ensuring that state leaders would work together to present the strongest slate possible.

And also unlike past cycles, the Democratic planning this term centers on the political climate, rather than on a singularly compelling personality running for governor.

That the meeting happened at the outset of the state’s legislative session was also no coincidence. Democrats sense an opportunity to win over some of the business community, particularly as the “bathroom bill” touted by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick continues to percolate at the state Capitol and as immigration, and particularly Trump’s proposals for a border wall and Mexican tariffs, roil national politics.

Parker did emphasize to the Tribune that the conversations about 2018 are happening throughout the state.

“It’s never going to be about what a small group of people said or do in a room,” she said. “It’s about what the people of Texas tell us what they need. Many of us have committed to going out and having those conversations.”

[…]

Since the Jan. 27 meeting, Julian Castro, the most-speculated Democratic contender to take on Gov. Greg Abbott, has made clear he is unlikely to run statewide in 2018. He all but closed the door on that possibility in an early morning tweet Thursday.

Instead, the most frequently floated gubernatorial candidate is Collier, a 2014 state comptroller candidate. Collier is relatively unknown statewide but impressed several Democrats in that previous run. He has also been suggested as a possible contender to run for lieutenant governor.

It’s the U.S. Senate race that is quickly becoming the center of the Democratic world, in part because of the incumbent, Cruz, and because of the two Democratic up-and-comers mulling runs: O’Rourke and Joaquin Castro.

Both men are in the same 2012 congressional class and are considered friendly with each other.

Democrats in the state and in Congress are closely watching how the two men maneuver around a possible primary race against each other, but the betting money is that O’Rourke is more likely to follow through with a run.

My thoughts:

– Optimism tempered with reality is the way to go. Dems basically have nothing to lose – HD107 was the only Dem-won seat that was remotely close – and plenty of targets that at least appear to be closer after last year. To be sure, there was reason for optimism going into 2014 as well, and we know how that turned out. The difference is who’s in the White House.

– The “tempered by reality” part is the recognition that all the seats we are trying to win were drawn to elect Republicans, and to put it mildly there’s no track record of good Democratic turnout in off years. You have to believe, as I do, that the national political climate is a big factor in how these elections play out, and that 2018 will be different than 2014 and 2010. Different doesn’t have to mean better, but all things considered it’s the more likely possibility.

– Dan Patrick has got to be a better statewide target than Greg Abbott. Abbott has good favorability numbers, and he’s not out there leading the charge for SB6. Mike Collier is the kind of credible-to-business candidate Dems could present as a viable alternative to Patrick to the business lobby. There are many reasons why those guys may stick with the devil they know even as he works against their interests, but at least there’s a chance they could be persuaded. There’s no chance they would abandon Abbott. If I were advising Mike Collier, I’d tell him to put Lite Guv first on my list. Sure, it would be nice to have a candidate with legislative experience running for that spot, but 1) the main thing you need to know as the guy who presides over the Senate is parliamentary procedure, and 2) have you even seen the guy Dan Patrick backed for President? Don’t come at me with this “experience matters” stuff.

– As long as we’re being optimistic, let’s assume Ken Paxton gets convicted between now and next November, and he does not get primaried out. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a decent candidate willing to take that bet. Just make sure that he or she has the resources needed to win the Dem primary in the event a Grady Yarbrough/Lloyd Oliver type decides to get in. The one thing we absolutely cannot do is accidentally nominate a joke to oppose Paxton.

– Having good candidates with sufficient resources to wage active campaigns in the legislative races will have a positive effect on turnout just as having a strong slate at the top of the ticket. This is not an either-or, it’s a both-and.

– Along those lines, the next best way to check Dan Patrick’s power is to reduce the number of Republicans in the Senate. Dallas County Democrats need to find a strong candidate to run against Don Huffines. Dallas County needs to be strong in 2018.

– The story talks about Democratic performance in the urban centers, and that’s important, but the suburbs matter as well. Opportunities exist in Fort Bend, Brazoria, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, and there are also a lot of votes in these places. Part of the strategy needs to be geared towards turning the tide in the suburbs. If nothing else, winning a seat in one of these places really changes the narrative, and serves as a concrete marker of progress.

– At some point, Democrats need to figure out how to translate the message that they have won on in big urban centers to smaller but still sizeable urban centers where they have not done as well. I’m talking about Lubbock, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, places like that. Burgeoning urban centers in suburban and exurban places, like Sugar Land, Pearland, Katy, New Braunfels, Plano, etc etc etc need to be on that list as well. Some of these places already have a Democratic presence on their City Councils and school boards. All of them could use more attention from the kind of people who gathered in Austin to talk about 2018. Who do we have in these places to even present the Democratic message? If such people exist among the local elected officials, support them and help raise their profile. If they don’t, bring in the shining faces we hope to be offering for larger roles and have them deliver it, then find opportunities to grow some local success stories there. I mean, this is what the Republicans were doing in the 70s and 80s. It’s always been a good strategy.

Basically, this was a good start. It’s the right way to think about 2018. Now let’s keep it going.

Emmett says he will run for re-election in 2018

Well, this was unexpected.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Thursday that he plans to seek re-election when his current term is up in 2018, ending speculation that he might step aside after more than a decade at the helm of the nation’s third most-populous county.

Emmett, a Republican known for his pragmatic, steady approach, said he made the decision Wednesday night after conferring with family and friends.

“I’m in kind of a unique position to bring people together at a time when it’s needed more than any other,” the 67-year-old Emmett said. “Harris County is a big, diverse place with lots of problems. Those problems don’t have simple answers.”

[…]

Emmett’s current term expires Dec. 31, 2018.

He said part of the reason he announced his intention to run Thursday was because the March 2018 primary is less than 18 months away and campaigns would likely get underway soon.

“I’ve got some money in the bank,” Emmett said. “But if I’m going to run, I need to make it clear so that those people who support me can get behind me.”

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Friday that she had been considering a bid for the judgeship, but would not do so given that Emmett is seeking re-election.

“If he’s not there,” Parker said, “I’m going to be first in line.”

As is the way of all things these days, Emmett made his intentions known via Twitter. Judge Emmett himself told me he was planning to retire after his current term was up. He said that to me after an interview I did with him, saying something to the effect of “there are things you can do in your 70s that you can’t easily do in your 80s”. That was a comment made in passing, not a carved-in-stone promise, and clearly his thinking has changed. Or maybe he just likes the job too much to want to quit. Whatever the case, barring anything unusual there will not be a vacancy in this office in two years.

That obviously complicates things for Democrats who are thinking about the next election, as can be seen by Annise Parker’s comment. Judge Emmett is well-regarded and probably the most popular politician in the county. He was the top vote-getter in 2010, he ran unopposed in 2014, and was re-elected easily in 2008 despite the strong Democratic wave that year. I suspect that despite all this someone will run against him in 2018 anyway, as there are legitimate policy matters that deserve debate, and only so many opportunities available for a person of ambition. We’ll see how it goes.

Checking in with Kim Ogg

That’s District Attorney-elect Kim Ogg now.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, still hoarse from shouting over the jubilant victory party crowd after winning her race for Harris County District Attorney, said Wednesday that her first order of business would be to evaluate and secure all of the evidence used in thousands of pending criminal cases.

Ogg, who will take over the largest district attorney’s office in Texas on Jan. 1, hopes to ward off the problems of unauthorized evidence destruction that emerged after it was discovered that deputies at the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office threw away evidence in hundreds of cases. Scores of cases that may have been affected have yet to be resolved.

“It’s so we know that cases that are pled or tried, after I take office, have the real evidence to back them up,” she said Wednesday.

[…]

“It’s a new day in Harris County,” [Tyler Flood, president of Harris County’s Criminal Lawyers Association,] said “I’m hoping Kim will bring transparency to a very secretive regime.”

Ogg sketched out broad agenda items Wednesday but said little about specific plans or possible command staff. She said she is putting together a transition team and was not ready to announce who would be helping her helm the agency, which employs about 600 people including 300 lawyers.

In addition to evaluating the security and veracity of evidence, Ogg said she would be reviewing the pending capital murder cases, including a handful of death penalty cases currently scheduled to go to trial in 2017.

Under her administration, she said, a team of prosecutors will look at the evidence, both damning and mitigating, before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

“It’s a grave responsibility to undertake taking somebody’s life,” she said. “And I want more minds, and hearts, looking at these cases than just mine. So we’ll have a team.”

Ogg had the second-biggest day in Harris County on Tuesday, winning with 696,054 votes. That’s about 8,000 behind Hillary Clinton, and it means that like Clinton she received a fair number of crossovers. Getting a big vote total like that is both a mandate and a higher expectation level, so there are going to be a lot of eyes on Kim Ogg and what she does.

Not just locally, either. The Harris County DA’s race had a national spotlight on it going into Tuesday. A lot of that attention had to do with the DA’s prosecution of marijuana cases; Ogg as we know has outlined broad reforms for how cases like those will be handled. If she is successful at implementing those policies, it will be a big change and will likely have the effect of reducing the county’s jail population. I for one am looking forward to seeing her get started on that.

Ogg will have a lot on her plate from day one. There was a lot of turnover at the DA’s office after Pat Lykos won in 2008, and I expect there will be a lot more – some voluntary, some not – now that Ogg has won. For some insight on that, I recommend you read what former ADA (now defense attorney) Murray Newman says, from before and after the election. Transitions like this are opportunities for some people to settle scores and get grievances off their chests. That will likely result in a story or two that will be unfavorable to both Anderson and Ogg. I hope we can all keep people’s possible motivations in mind when we read those stories. Be that as it may, there will be a lot of new faces and new procedures at the DA’s office come January, and there will inevitably be some bumps in the road. How well Ogg manages the transition will go a long way towards setting the tone and laying the groundwork for implementing the real changes she wants to make.

One more thing: We all know that Ogg is a lesbian. Devon Anderson got into some hot water late in the campaign for bringing that up during a podcast interview. It hadn’t come up in either campaign before, and the vast majority of people in Harris County don’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation. But a few people with loud voices care A LOT about this sort of thing, and with Annise Parker back in the private sector (for now, at least), Kim Ogg is now the most high-profile elected official in Texas who is also a member of the LGBT community. That means she is the latest monster under Steve Hotze‘s bed, and she will be a target for people like Hotze and the hateful crap he likes to spew. I don’t know how that will play out, which is to say I don’t know how many people outside of Hotze’s little fever swamp will hear or care about anything he says, but I do feel confident saying that at some point during Ogg’s first term in office, he or someone like him will say or do something sufficiently disgusting that the rest of us will be forced to take notice. Be ready for it, that’s all I’m saying. The Press has more.

Jared Woodfill never stops never stopping

Here we go again.

RedEquality

Fifteen months after the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, anti-LGBT groups in Texas are still fighting the decision.

Jonathan Saenz, president of the right-wing lobby group Texas Values, and Houston anti-LGBT activist Jared Woodfill announced Tuesday that they’re again asking the Texas Supreme Court to hear their lawsuit seeking to block the same-sex spouses of government workers from receiving health care and other benefits.

[…]

In their motion for a rehearing, Saenz and Woodfill argue that Obergefell should be interpreted narrowly because it violates states’ rights under the 10th Amendment, has no basis in the Constitution and threatens religious freedom.

“It is clear that the current Supreme Court will continue to use its power to advance the ideology of the sexual revolution until there is a change of membership,” Saenz and Woodfill wrote. “It is well known that the homosexual rights movement is not content with the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage in all 50 States; it is also seeking to coerce people of faith who oppose homosexual behavior into participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

Ken Upton, senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told theObserver that Saenz and Woodfill are “more to be pitied than censored.”

“Obergefell requires the government to treat all married couples the same,” Upton said. “Obergefell doesn’t say that a government employer has to offer any married couple spousal benefits, but if it chooses to do so it must offer the same benefits to all married couples not just the different-sex ones. The government does not get to privilege straight couples over gay couples.”

If the Texas Supreme Court were to take the case and rule in favor of Saenz and Woodfill, the city of Houston could appeal the decision directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, Upton said.

“But let’s be realistic,” he added. “The Texas Supreme Court is not going to grant rehearing. My take is that the Texas Supreme Court is done with marriage. I don’t think there’s much appetite to re-engage that discussion.”

See here for the background. Some things call for logic and reason, some for scorn and derision, and for some all one can do is stare in slack-jawed amazement. That’s all I’ve got on this one.

City loses in appeal against firefighters’ pension statute

Here’s a pension fund-related litigation update for you.

Houston can’t overhaul a state-governed firefighter pension system that the mayor claims is pushing the city towards insolvency, a Texas appeals court ruled.

Houston sued the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund in January 2014, seeking a declaration that a state law setting how the fund is operated, and giving the city no control over the amount of its contributions, is unconstitutional.

The city paid $350 million in pensions to firefighters, police and city workers in 2015, but its unfunded pension debt is $6 billion and growing.

A state judge sided with the fund in May 2014 and granted it summary judgment.

The city appealed, pressing its argument that the subject state law, passed in 1997, gives too much power to the pension fund’s board that is comprised of a majority of firefighters who are beneficiaries of the fund, and thus are inherently self-interested in maximizing firefighter pension benefits to the detriment of the city’s financial health.

The 10-member board is made up of six active or retired firefighter fund members who are elected by other firefighters, the mayor or an appointed representative of the mayor, the city treasurer and two citizens who are elected by the other trustees.

Houston claimed on appeal the state law violates the separation-of-powers principle in the Texas Constitution by delegating authority to a nonlegislative entity, the fund board.

The city cited Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Fund v. Lewellen. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that a foundation established by the Texas Legislature to exterminate boll weevils that were threatening to destroy the Texas cotton industry unconstitutionally gave too much authority to the foundation to tax private farmers to pay for weevil killing.

But the 14th Texas Court of Appeals decided Thursday that the boll weevil foundation is fundamentally different from the pension fund board because the board includes public employees.

“The purpose of that [boll weevil eradication] foundation may be construed as protecting a private industry from a blight, albeit with an indirect benefit to the public. In contrast, eight of the 10 trustees of the fund’s board are current or retired public employees…We would have difficulty classifying the board as a private entity when the mayor and city treasurer also serve as trustees in order to administer benefits to public employees,” Judge John Donovan wrote for a three-judge panel.

The panel also rebuffed Houston’s argument that the state law is unconstitutional because it only applies to incorporated municipalities with a population of at least 1.6 million and a fully paid fire department. Houston is the only Texas city that qualifies.

The city claims the special treatment violates the Texas Constitution’s ban on the Legislature meddling in local affairs.

But the appeals court agreed with the fund’s contentions that Houston is uniquely dangerous for firefighters compared to the other four big cities in Texas—Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso—so sweeter pension terms are necessary to attract and retain firefighters.

See here for the background, and here for the ruling. There have been multiple lawsuits related in one way or another to the firefighters’ pension fund; it’s hard to keep track of them all because they go multiple months without any news. The city could appeal this to the Supreme Court, but I don’t think they will, for two reasons. One is that I doubt they’ll get a different outcome, and two is that while this lawsuit was filed by the Parker administration, the Turner administration has a much less contentious relationship with the firefighters, and is working on a pension fund deal with them. It would be a show of good faith, if not a bargaining chip, for the city to quit pursuing this lawsuit, and seek to settle or drop any other ongoing litigation for which the HFRRF is an opponent. The Chron story says the city “continues to believe the state statute is unconstitutional because it allows the firefighters’ pension fund to determine contribution levels”, and that the city intends to “seek further review”. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Woke up this morning, and the following announcement was in my inbox: “Mayor Turner will unveil preliminary points of understanding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System and the Houston Employees Pension System. The proposed plan will form the basis for a package of pension reforms that will be submitted for approval to the governing boards of the pension systems, City Council and the state legislature.” That’s happening today at 2 PM. So maybe this won’t have any effect on the negotiations one way or the other.

State Supreme Court declines to hear lawsuit over city’s same-sex partner benefits

I had totally forgotten this was still a thing that was happening.

RedEquality

The Texas Supreme Court has declined to hear a case challenging Houston’s extension of health and life-insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of married employees, calling an apparent end to three years of legal battles over the policy change.

Houston began offering employment benefits to spouses of all married couples in November 2013, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Then-Mayor Annise Parker’s move prompted three lawsuits, two from conservatives who argued the policy violated Houston’s city charter, the Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas Constitution.

State District Judge Lisa Millard twice signed a temporary restraining order blocking the city from offering the benefits, most recently in November 2014.

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals lifted that injunction last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the case Obergefell v. Hodges.

Conservative activists Jared Woodfill and Jonathan Saenz later appealed that decision, arguing that “there is no ‘fundamental right’ to spousal employee benefits.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The federal lawsuit was officially dismissed on July 6, 2015, but there remained a state-court lawsuit. You can see its full history at the Supreme Court level here. According to the Chron story, Woodfill intends to ask for a rehearing. I have no idea what he thinks he can accomplish at this point, but no one ever said Jared Woodfill was a rational being, and as Mark Joseph Stern at Slate observed, there was at least one Supreme Court justice (John Devine, of course) who really pines for the day when all those icky gay people had to hide themselves in closets. People like that are thankfully part of a shrinking minority these days, but don’t kid yourself into thinking they’ll ever truly go away. The Press has more.

Looking again for a new justice complex

Got to do something about this sooner or later.

hall_of_justice

Mayor Sylvester Turner has formed a committee to study how to acquire a new police headquarters and courts complex for Houston.

Former mayor Annise Parker spent more than two years studying how to replace the city’s aging “justice complex” but ultimately abandoned it without having found a viable funding source or getting City Council support for identifying one.

[…]

“Timing is key for the formation of the Justice Complex Commission as the real estate market is experiencing changes due to the sustained slump in oil prices, which has dramatically impacted commercial real estate in downtown and other business districts around the city,” Turner said in a prepared statement. “The decline in energy prices, the extensive development of new commercial buildings and the downsizing of the private sector have created a perfect storm opportunity for the City to consider leasing or purchasing millions of square feet of office space for a project such as the Justice Complex.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. As with most things, this comes down to the price tag and how to pay for it. With this being a dicey time to be discussing capital projects, those questions are even thornier. They’re unlikely to get any less so the longer we wait, so here we are. Good luck with it.

Endorsement watch: Labor for Thompson, the Mayor for Miles

From the inbox:

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO today announced their support of Senfronia Thompson for State Senator District 13.

“Our unions screened two candidates for Senate District 13 — Representatives Senfronia Thompson and Borris Miles,” said Zeph Capo, President of the Area Labor Federation. “Both candidates have been steadfast allies in our efforts to give workers a voice on the job, raise wages for all, adequately fund public services, and defend civil rights. Ultimately, Thompson’s deep experience and long record as a champion for working families led us to back her.”

“Over her twenty-two terms of public service, Senfronia Thompson has been an energetic and consistent advocate of initiatives to help better the lives of working families,” said John Patrick, President of the Texas AFL-CIO. “She is one of the most reliable, influential, and effective leaders with whom I have ever worked. Her knowledge of how state government works is what sets her apart from the other candidates.”

“Representative Thompson has the integrity, the vision, and the will to advocate for all of SD 13’s constituents. Labor will work hard to get her elected to office and help her achieve that goal,” added Hany Khalil, Executive Director of the Area Labor Federation.

The release, which came out on Thursday, is here. It was followed on Friday by this:

Rep. Borris Miles

Rep. Borris Miles

Dear Fellow Democrat,

Please join me in supporting Borris Miles for State Senate, District 13.

With the departure of Senator Rodney Ellis to join Commissioners Court, we need to make sure that we have an energetic warrior for the people representing us in the State Senate. That’s my friend and former House colleague, Borris Miles.

I’ve worked with Borris for years and watched his commitment and skill in moving our Democratic priorities forward.

From giving misguided kids a second chance at a better life, to doubling fines for outsiders who dump their trash in our neighborhoods, to increasing access to health care and expanding educational opportunities for us all – Borris gets the job done.

Believe me, it’s tough getting things done as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature. But that’s exactly what our communities deserve.

I’m for Borris because Borris is a warrior for the people. That’s why I respectfully ask you to cast your vote for Borris as the Democratic Party’s nominee for State Senate, District 13.

Warm regards,

Mayor Sylvester Turner

But wait! There’s still more!

Thompson, who first was elected in 1972, has picked up a slew of endorsements from area Democratic congressmen and state legislators.

They include U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, as well as state Reps. Alma Allen, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez, Ron Reynolds, Hubert Vo, Armando Walle and Gene Wu.

Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation and the also have endorsed Thompson, among others.

[…]

Miles also touted Dutton’s support, in addition to that of former Mayor Annise Parker, state Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, among others.

Dutton could not immediately be reached for comment to clarify which candidate he has in fact backed.

Asked if he has received any endorsements, Green said he is focused on earning precinct chairs’ support.

I’m a little surprised at how active Mayor Turner has been in intra-Democratic elections so far. Mayor Parker was a lot more circumspect, and Mayor White basically recused himself from party politics for his six years in office. I guess I’m not that surprised – the Lege was his bailiwick for a long time – and while these family fights often get nasty, I’m sure he’s fully aware of the pros and cons of getting involved. Whatever the case, this race just got a lot more interesting.

Strategizing for the next HERO fight

Good move.

Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them.

Two such initiatives are being launched this week — evidence of how transgender rights has supplanted same-sex marriage as the most volatile, high-profile issue for the broader movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.

One initiative is a public education campaign called the Transgender Freedom Project that will share the personal stories of transgender people. The other, the Trans United Fund, is a political advocacy group that will engage in election campaigns at the federal and state level, pressing candidates to take stands on transgender rights.

“We welcome the support of our allies,” said Hayden Mora, a veteran transgender activist who’s director of Trans United. “But it’s crucial that trans people build our own political power and speak with our own voices.”

From a long-term perspective, there have been notable gains for transgender Americans in recent years — more support from major employers, better options for health care and sex-reassignment surgery, a growing number of municipalities which bar anti-transgender discrimination.

[…]

“All the people who lost the marriage equality fight, they’ve now decided that trans people are fair game,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “They’re going to claim trans people are sexual predators, but the public is quickly going to learn that’s just nonsense.”

The outcome in Houston prompted many post-mortems among LGBT activists — What went wrong? How should the bathroom-access argument be countered in the future?

“It’s been an alarming wake-up call since November,” said Dru Lavasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. “We need to prioritize bringing transgender people into the movement in leadership positions, with transgender voices leading the way.”

There has been widespread agreement that a key plank of future strategy should be enlisting more transgender people to share their personal experience — a tactic that was successful for gays and lesbians during the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

“In most parts of this country, people don’t know a trans person,” said Kasey Suffredini, a transgender attorney who’s director of the new Transgender Freedom Project. “The work in front of us is to put a face on who the trans community is. That’s the way that we win.”

The project, undertaken by an advocacy group called Freedom for All Americans, has a first-year budget of about $1 million, with plans to expand thereafter.

Nationwide success “will not happen overnight,” said Suffredini, suggesting a 10-year timeframe was plausible.

“What happened in North Carolina, as terrible as it was, has really galvanized people,” he added.

Part of the problem in last year’s HERO fight was that we were caught off guard – after winning the petition lawsuit in district court, we didn’t expect to have this issue on the ballot in the fall. The bad guys were way ahead of us in organizing and spreading lies. This is an attempt to counter that as the fight has shifted mostly to state legislatures. This can’t be all that there is, but it’s a good start.

And since we know that the fight is coming to our legislature, too, it’s vital to be out in front of it here as well. Thankfully, that is happening.

That’s in part why Lou Weaver is encouraging transgender Texans like himself to become more vocal and visible as the legislature approaches the 2017 session. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of Americans know an out gay or lesbian person now, and that’s led to a dramatically different discussion on issues like same-sex marriage,” Weaver told the Press. Surveys show only about 10 percent of Americans know an out transgender person, Weaver said.

Last week Weaver, transgender programs coordinator with Equality Texas, helped launch what the organization is calling its “Transvisible” project. The idea, Weaver says, is to reduce violence and prejudice against transgender people by introducing Houstonians to their transgender neighbors. “If you don’t know trans folks, it’s easy to be mystified and to believe the lies and stories that are spread about us,” Weaver said. “It’s much harder to do that when you realize we’re your neighbors, your co-workers, just everyday Houstonians.”

I agree completely. It’s a lot easier to fear or hate a faceless bogeyman than a neighbor or co-worker. Again, this is just a first step, but it’s a necessary one. I’m glad to see it.

I should note, this post started out as a discussion of this good report from the post-HERO referendum community forum on what happened and what happens next.

HoustonUnites

LGBT advocates plan to eventually launch a petition drive to get the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance back on the ballot.

First, however, they intend to draft a strategic plan, set up a citizens advisory committee, and conduct a robust public education campaign about the need for an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said those were among the recommendations that emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour community debriefing on HERO that drew around 200 people on January 12. “We agree that whatever happens next has to be citizen-led, not council-led,” said Burke, who chaired the meeting. “But everybody is in agreement—both the organizing groups and the public at large—that we can’t even think about that until we figure out how to overcome the bathroom argument. We need a multi-pronged public education campaign that’s aimed at transgender prejudice reduction.”

Houston voters overwhelmingly repealed HERO on November 3, based largely on opponents’ false, fear-mongering ads suggesting the ordinance would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms and preying on young girls.

“The truth is, nobody knows how to combat the bathroom message,” Burke said. “We don’t in Houston, and they don’t anywhere else in the country. All the great minds in the country are trying to figure out how to respond to it. We have to come up with our six-word response to No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

That was from February. You can see why I’m glad that there’s some action on this, because at that time we really weren’t sure what to do. My response to this story was simple, only needing four words: They’re Lying To You. I know it’s more complicated than that, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Because these guys are shameless liars, if we do manage to come up with a perfect response to “no men in women’s bathrooms”, they’ll just invent some other lie to tell. I mean, they used to claim that it was the gays that were the depraved perverts and child molesters that threatened us all. The fact that people no longer believe that didn’t slow them down. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to debunk one piece of bullshit, because as soon as we do there’s plenty more where that came from, and now you’re fighting the last war. We have to attack their credibility so that people will be disinclined to believe them whatever they say. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how I would approach the question.

That’s what I wrote in February, and I still believe it. But I’m more than happy to see another approach. As for what the future holds:

Burke said it’s unlikely any petition drive would be completed in time for HERO to appear on the November 2016 ballot. HERO supporters would need to gather 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the city’s charter. But reviving HERO through a petition would take the political onus off of council members, who’ve said they’re in no rush to revisit the ordinance given that the public vote was so decisive.

Incoming mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported HERO, told OutSmart that his top priorities are addressing the city’s infrastructure needs and financial challenges—issues that have “universal agreement” among voters.

If he can first conquer potholes and pensions, Turner expects voters will give him permission to tackle other issues, including possibly HERO. “I think anything that’s a distraction from dealing with the infrastructure and the financial challenges really does a disservice to those particular areas,” Turner said. “So whether we’re talking about nondiscrimination, whether we’re talking about income inequality or educational initiatives, all of those things are important, but until we have met the challenges that are being presented by the infrastructure, and the financial challenges, I really don’t think at this point in time that Houstonians have an appetite for too much more than that.”

Turner is talking about building up some political capital before tackling a controversial topic like HERO, and I completely agree with his approach. That suggests to me that we’re unlikely to see any action on this until Mayor Turner’s presumed second term. Just a guess, but I do think letting some time pass is a smart idea. Not so great for the people who would benefit from HERO, unfortunately. I wish I had a better answer for that. ProjectQ Houston has more.

City wins first round of term limits ballot language lawsuit

It’s round one, of course, but it’s still a win.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The ballot language Houston voters used to change term limits for elected officials was “inartful” but not “invalid,” a state district judge ruled Wednesday, a move that nonetheless left the plaintiffs claiming victory ahead of an expected appellate battle.

[…]

Much of the debate before Judge Randy Clapp, a Wharton County jurist appointed to hear the case, focused on procedural matters: Whether Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick.

Clapp acknowledged higher courts would not be bound to his view of whether the ballot language was misleading or omitted key facts, the tests under the law.

Still, he ruled in the city’s favor, having described his thoughts in an exchange with Taylor.

“My personal feeling at this point is, the omission part is pretty weak,” he said, noting case law says ballot items need not be comprehensive. “But the misleading part is, I think, the stronger allegation you make because of the choice of words involved.”

That Clapp ultimately did not find the ballot language unlawful was less important than his decision to rule on all motions before him on Wednesday, Taylor said, because the case will move to the appellate courts all at once. That will limit the city’s ability to, as Taylor views it, “run out the shot clock” by relying on procedural delays to push the case past November 2017, when the next city election would be held if the terms reverted to two years.

“The thing that was the most important here was that we get a ruling from the trial court so that we can go up to the appellate court where this is ultimately going to be decided,” Taylor said. “We’re confident the appellate courts will rule that this ballot language was both deceptive and misleading.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You have to admire Andy Taylor’s ability to declare that a loss is a win. Clearly, he missed his calling as the coach of a sports team. Anyway, as far as the timing goes, for Taylor and Dick to actually get a win, I think you’d need to have a final ruling by no later than a year from now, probably more like by next February. I mean, the filing deadline for a November of 2017 election would be around Labor Day, so in theory you could go as late as mid-July or so for a filing period, but that doesn’t leave people much time to fundraise. If someone wanted to run for Mayor, for example, or even for an At Large Council seat, they’d want to get started a lot sooner than that. Is next April enough time for an appeals court and the Supreme Court to rule? I guess we’ll find out.

UPDATE: KUHF has more.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

Prepping for the city budget

Mayor Turner gives a brief preview of what is to come.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday that he expects to lay off 40 city employees and eliminate 54 vacant positions as he seeks to close a budget shortfall of as much as $160 million, his first public estimate of the personnel reductions required to balance Houston’s books.

Turner did not specify which departments would bear the brunt of the cuts, but said he would not lay off police officers or civilians working in the Houston Police Department. He added that he would be resistant to trimming the parks or library departments.

The mayor emphasized that if City Council members alter his proposed budget, more layoffs are likely.

“Until this budget is voted on and approved by the members of City Council, it is very, very preliminary,” Turner said. “If there are any changes that reduce the shared sacrifice that is embedded within my budget that I will propose, the layoffs will exponentially increase.”

Turner said he intends to submit an executive summary of the budget to council members no later than April 15, with the goal of approving the budget in early May. The city must finalize its budget by July.

Houston’s financial shortfall had been projected to be $126 million, but Turner has revised that figure to as much as $160 million.

I’m very curious to see what the executive summary will look like. As the story notes, Mayor Parker wound up cutting a lot more jobs back in 2010. I’m not sure what Mayor Turner has in mind that will allow fewer jobs to be lost – maybe more of them are higher-paying jobs, who knows – but I can’t wait to see. Perhaps the “shared sacrifice” aspect of this includes some use of TIRZ funds, or concessions on how much the city pays into pension funds. Any guesses out there?

RIP, One Bin For All

It had a good run, but at the very least the timing was all wrong.

The One Bin For All program would let Houstonians throw all trash in the same bin, to be separated for recycling later. The hope was to push up Houston’s low recycling rate. But now the city could end up with no recycling at all.

The city council on Wednesday delayed a vote on a new contract with Waste Management, which would cost the city about $3 million more per year because commodity prices for recyclables are low.

Several council members are calling for suspending recycling until that changes.

The One Bin program was not mentioned at all in the discussion.

It turns out Mayor Sylvester Turner is not a fan.

“I’ve looked at and read the paper that’s been presented from what was done,” he said. “I’m not convinced that that is something I want to move forward with right now, if at any time, but it’s not a part of this conversation.”

See here for the last update. Mayor Turner had spoken in generalities about One Bin before now – I’d have to go back and re-listen to the interview I did with him for the 2015 election, but that’s how I remember him speaking about it then as well – so this is a rhetorical shift for him. It’s not exactly a policy shift in the sense that he had never committed to doing anything with One Bin, so think of it more as a door being closed.

As for the Council action, the Chron story from Wednesday before the meeting suggested some pushback on continuing the recycling contract with Waste Management, but nothing more than that.

Until now, Waste Management would resell the recyclables, deduct a $65-per-ton processing fee and give 70 percent of the remaining revenue to the city. If the firm’s costs exceeded the fee the city paid, Waste Management ate the difference. Those terms meant the city could make $25 per ton two years ago, when recyclables were bringing $100 per ton.

Now, with commodities prices at lows not seen since the 2009 recession, Waste Management has been dropping or renegotiating its contracts with Houston and many other cities.

If City Council approves the new deal, the city next month will begin paying a $95-per-ton processing fee. With commodities now earning $48 a ton, that means each ton of material recycled will cost Houston almost $50, at least in the near term.

That’s nearly double what it would cost to truck the recycled items to the landfill, where the tipping fee is $27 per ton.

And, with Mayor Sylvester Turner warning that layoffs will be needed to close a projected $126 million budget gap by July, some council members are inclined to quit recycling until the market improves.

“As much as we are for recycling, I’m also against cutting people that are actually doing city services,” said Councilman Michael Kubosh. “It’s going to hurt to lay people off and then to tell them we laid them off because, ‘Well, we want to recycle.’ We’ve got to think it through.”

Councilman Jerry Davis, whose District B is home to landfill facilities, disagreed, citing studies showing negative health outcomes for those near dump sites.

“If we stop recycling, we’re going to have more crap taken to landfills in District B,” Davis said. “With the rate we’re growing, we have to find a way to get rid of our waste in an efficient manner. What are we going to do when all our landfills are full? I understand commodities are down, but it’s a cycle. I don’t think we need to steer away from sustainability because the market is somewhat volatile.”

See here for the background. The single-stream recycling program has been pretty popular, so I kind of doubt it’s in any danger, but I’m not surprised that there was some grumbling about possibly having to pay for something we used to make money off of. And if the words “garbage fee” are forming on your lips, you may want to bite your tongue.

If you were concerned Mayor Sylvester Turner could consider pushing a new garbage fee to cover that cost, however, think again.

As Turner put it, when asked at today’s post-City Council meeting press conference:

“No. I have never contemplated a garbage fee. When it’s come up, I’ve said to members of my own staff I’m not going to advocate a garbage fee and I’m not going to support a garbage fee. So, absolutely not, no.”

I don’t agree with that – at the very least, I think we ought to keep the option open – but that doesn’t appear to be the case. We’ll see what Council does with this next week.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

Term limits lawsuit against city could be dismissed

This was unexpected.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Last November, Houston voters approved an amendment to the City Charter that changed the length and maximum number of terms elected officials can serve.

The lawsuit by Phillip Paul Bryant alleges the language on the ballot tricked voters into thinking they were voting for limiting terms, when they actually extended them.

But the city says the suit should be dismissed because the plaintiff missed the deadline to deliver the citation by one day.

“It sounds like the city has a good argument,” Matthew Festa, professor at the South Texas College of Law, says. “And as much as we don’t want important issues to be resolved by technicalities, those are the rules of the game.”

Kevin Fulton, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff, says they are looking at the city’s argument and possible case law in their favor.

See here for the background. This is the only story on this that I have seen, and it’s not exactly clear on what deadline was missed, when the judge may consider this argument by the city, and any other details that may be relevant. As such, I’m a wee bit hesitant to put much emphasis on what may turn out to be a minor technicality that quickly gets smoothed over. If there is something to it, we’ll find out soon enough.

All that said, I’m ambivalent at best about this change to term limits – as you know, I voted No and I have stated several times since then that I think the effect of this change will be way more extensive than we currently know – but I’m also generally opposed to lawsuits that challenge the result of elections like this, especially when the argument is that the voters were too stupid to know what they were voting on. If this lawsuit winds up getting tossed because the attorneys for the plaintiffs were too incompetent to follow the rules in submitting their paperwork, it’ll be pretty damn funny.

HPD Chief McClelland to retire

From the inbox:

Chief McClelland

Mayor Sylvester Turner today announced that he has accepted the retirement of Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, effective February 26, 2016. McClelland was sworn in as a police officer in September 1977. He rose through the ranks at HPD and was sworn in by former Mayor Annise Parker as police chief on April 14, 2010.

“I want to thank Chief McClelland for his 39 years of service to the City,” said Mayor Turner. “He is a respected figure in the community who has served this city well and has many accomplishments of which to be proud. The city’s crime rate during his tenure is lower than it was for the previous six years and citizen complaints filed against our officers are at a record low.”

Chief McClelland managed the fifth largest police agency in the nation with a budget of more than $825 million and a staff of 5200 sworn officers and 1200 civilian employees. Whether it is creating new programs aimed at encouraging positive interaction with Houston’s youth, organizing a town hall where residents have the opportunity to ask questions or simply sharing a cup of coffee with residents, Chief McClelland made it a point to focus on taking HPD to the community it serves.

When asked what he considers his proudest accomplishments, he cites the lower crime rate, HPD’s stewardship of its financial resources and improved community relations. He is also very personally proud of having been able to convince former Mayor Parker and City Council to name HPD headquarters after Officer Edward A. Thomas, one of HPD’s first African American officers and the department’s longest serving officer.

This is a decision that was reached after much personal thought and consultation with my family,” said McClelland. “It was not an easy decision, but I know it is the right decision for me personally. I am leaving HPD in a better place than it was six years ago.”

Mayor Turner has not yet selected an interim chief. That decision will be made in the coming days.

And then will follow the search for a full-time Chief, which will take longer, and which will have a significant effect on Mayor Turner’s ability to push through reforms in how HPD operates. It will be interesting to see whether the Mayor prioritizes looking for a successor from within or without, and what kind of input he gets from Council. My best wishes to Chief McClelland as he prepares to begin the next chapter of his life. The Chron and the Press have more.

So what happened to One Bin for All?

KUHF asks the question.

It has been almost three years since the city won a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for the One Bin For All concept, which would let Houstonians throw all their waste in one bin, to be separated for recycling later.

Former Mayor Annise Parker tried to start the project, but it never took off under her watch.

On Dec. 31, Parker’s last work day, the city released a 10-page progress report.

It only says that contract negotiations for a sorting facility are ongoing and that there is currently a proposal on the table that would be privately financed. The city is not saying who that contractor is.

“You’ve got to wonder whether this is a project that the city is really committed to – why they would wait until the very last minute to release that report,” said Melanie Scruggs, Houston program director of Texas Campaign for the Environment.

[…]

At this point at least, Mayor Sylvester Turner is not trying to move the project along.

“I am almost singly focused on two things,” Turner said when asked about One Bin. “And that’s infrastructure in relation to this pothole problem and then getting our arms around our financial challenges.”

See here for some background. A copy of the report is embedded in the story. I also asked Mayor Parker about this in my exit interview with her. She said at the time that there was a report that was about to come out on the status of One Bin; this is the first media mention of that report I’ve seen. She said in the interview that she believes the technology is there, but acknowledged that right now the economics are not. At this point I will be surprised if this goes anywhere. There’s no champion for it, and even if you agree that the technology is feasible now, the gloom in the recycling market will be a huge obstacle. Given all that, I expect the debate to eventually turn to topics that will be more amenable to folks like the TCE and other One Bin opponents, namely expanding recycling for apartments and maybe some form of dedicated composting. Note that I said “eventually” – if anything happens before 2017, maybe 2018, I’ll be surprised. The one thing that could change this is if a garbage fee gets put into the mix for dealing with those financial challenges. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but it’s not out of the question. Beyond that, my guess is that this is the last we will hear of One Bin. Something like it may come up again under another name, but One Bin as we know it is likely no more.

City-county relations should continue to be good

Glad to hear it.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Prospects for increased city-county cooperation are looking up, Houston Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett say, forecasting further thawing of the historically contentious relationship between the jurisdictions.

Turner spoke with Emmett and Harris County’s four commissioners just days after his narrow mayoral victory over Bill King, seeking to discuss a series of common objectives, which included potential partnerships on forensic sciences, mental health, traffic management and reviving the beleaguered Astrodome.

“It’s in both of our respective interests, and, quite frankly, the whole region, for the city of Houston to be working in collaboration with the county and our regional partners,” Turner said in a recent interview with the Chronicle, echoing a common debate talking point.

He and King repeatedly called for a joint crime lab throughout the campaign, agreeing that Houston should scrap its independent operation and join forces with the county.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said he has high expectations for his relationship with Turner, a 26-year Democratic state representative.

“When you’re talking about transportation or flood control or crime labs or traffic management, there’s nothing partisan about those things. He understands that, and I understand that,” Emmett said, pointing to their common legislative background. “So, I think we’ll engage on a regular basis.”

[…]

Under outgoing Mayor Annise Parker, the city and county worked more closely than they had in decades, jointly supporting a 2012 Metro referendum on mobility funding, teaming up to fund a new pauper’s cemetery and creating a joint radio shop to program, maintain and repair radios for first responders. October’s ground-breaking on a joint city-county inmate processing center is seen as a cooperative milestone.

I talked about the city’s improved relationship with the county in my interview with Mayor Parker. It was a remarkable change, and something for which she and Commissioners Court deserve a lot of credit. It helps that when the city and county get together on things, it really is a win-win: Stuff gets done, and money gets saved, which means there’s something for everyone. It doesn’t always work out that nicely, and there will be times when the city and the county have differing goals, but there should be more opportunities for this over the next few years. It’s encouraging to see Mayor-elect Turner and Commissioners Court singing from the same hymnal.

Interview with Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

We are in the last few days of the administration of Mayor Annise Parker. Having served three terms each as Council member and Controller, she is finishing up eighteen years as an elected official in the city of Houston. I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to her one last time before she heads out into the private sector about her tenure as Mayor. What is she most proud of, what does she regret, what would she have done differently, what would her agenda be if she were still in office? There was much to talk about.

I hadn’t done one of these “exit interviews” before. I might have with then-Mayor Bill White, but by this time in his last term he was already a candidate for Governor and busy with a contested primary (for which I interviewed him) so there wasn’t much point. I’ll note here that Mayor Parker’s eighteen years in office is easily a record for the term limits era. With the change to two four-year terms, someone could beat her record by equaling her achievement of being elected to Council, Controller, and Mayor, and a Council member currently in his second term (e.g., Michael Kubosh or David Robinson) who could wind up with ten years on Council could match her by being elected either Controller or Mayor afterwards. I suspect it will be awhile before we see anything like that again, however.

The Chron did an exit interview chat with Mayor Parker, and there is some overlap with the questions she fielded there. She was able to give longer and more detailed answers in this interview, however:

Next week I will begin publishing interviews and judicial Q&As for contested Democratic primaries. You can see the races that are in scope on my 2016 Election page.

Looking back and looking ahead for Mayor-elect Turner

Here’s a Q&A with our new Mayor that looks back on the campaign that just wrapped up.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Q: Economically, electorally, this is a divided city. You campaigned on a platform of bringing people together. How do you overcome that split now that you’ve been elected mayor?

A: When I woke up this morning, the campaign was over. So it doesn’t matter how people voted or who voted where, for whom. The point is, as I look forward to January, I’m the mayor for the city of Houston. And for me, it doesn’t matter whether it was 75/25 margin, 51/49. People want better streets. People want a safe city. Those things are kind of universal. People want a city where you’re operating within your means. And that’s neither Democrat nor Republican, rich or poor. At this point in time, I don’t see division.

Q: You won City Council districts B, D, H, I and K, all of which are majority-minority and largely economically disadvantaged. In the context of trying to bring people together, which was a pillar of your campaign, is that a concern?

A: No, not at all. It was a campaign. Oftentimes people make their decision based on a multiplicity of factors. I respect people’s right to make their decisions. It doesn’t matter that in a competitive political race when there’s so much political spin being put out there that people will gravitate to those candidates that they most identify with. I got that. I understand that. I’ve been in this business for a while. But now, if I govern with that in mind, I make a serious mistake. But if I wipe the slate clean, and the question is, ‘Sylvester, can I wipe the slate clean? Do I not see the numbers or where people voted, and govern with the best interest of the city of Houston in mind?’ If I can’t do it, I make a mistake and the division continues. If I can do it, then those who may have voted for someone else will end up being supportive.

Q: You have about three weeks before you take office. What’s on your agenda between now and then?

A: To assemble a pretty good transition team. There are lot of smart, talented individuals in the city who can help in making the transition from one administration to another, and I’m in the process of doing that right now. It may take a few days to a week to fully put that together.

Q: What are your first steps once you do take office? Roads and pensions were big components of the campaign, among other concerns. What’s top of the agenda?

A: What’s important is to make sure, for example, that people in Houston when they turn on the light switch, the lights come on, the buses run on time, you’re operating within your financial means. Infrastructure, streets, roads, making sure that we have a balanced budget at the end of June, public safety. Those are the fundamentals. We get the fundamentals right, then I think in large part people will give me a high mark.

Just a reminder, those divisions would still be there if the vote had gone the other way. Elections are like that. Putting that aside, I’ll be very interested in seeing who is on Mayor-elect Turner’s transition team. I suspect this transition will be a bit smoother than the other one we could have had would have been.

The Chron would also like to remind us that the road ahead will be bumpy.

Houston’s new mayor, Sylvester Turner, will have plenty of opportunities to leave his mark on the city. It just won’t be easy, and it certainly will not be immediate.

The city’s new chief executive will face crumbling roads, shaky finances and a shorthanded police department, with no quick fix, and some of those problems will require help from the Texas Legislature or a two-year wait to amend the city charter. With those policy problems looming, the next mayor will have to acclimate to the culture of City Hall, learning to lead a City Council with at least four rookie members and still respond to day-to-day demands from residents.

“A new mayor is going to arrive in office wanting to have a positive effect,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “But instead of providing services, they may need to cut spending on police and other services. Even the status quo is going to be difficult to maintain in the current budget climate.”

Houston faces deficits as far as the projections reach, starting with a $126 million gap between revenues and expenses that must be closed in the budget to be adopted in June. A slump in oil prices and falling sales tax revenues won’t help that.

Cut hours at the library, quit mowing the park or close the pool in the wrong civic leader’s neighborhood, and the new boss barely will have figured out how to work the council chamber microphone before making potentially lasting enemies.

I’m sure you know the drill by now. We went through something like it six years ago. Whatever one’s opinion of the new term limits law is, not having to run again until 2019 gives Turner more room to get things going the way he wants them to go – and to hope for the local economy to turn around – than Mayor Parker had. She might well have been in trouble if she’d faced a serious challenger in 2011. Sylvester Turner may or may not face a serious challenger in his next race, but at least he has four years to prepare for it, not just two.

More HERO public information requests

The bullying continues.

He’s a bully!

Does President Barack Obama regularly drop a line to Houston City Council members?

Probably not, but we could soon find out, thanks to a public records request that opponents of the city’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, filed this week. It’s a response to a public records request that a nonprofit filed earlier this month seeking correspondence between members that voted down the city’s equal rights ordinance and national anti-LGBT groups.

At the time, Councilman Michael Kubosh called a press conference to denounce the request, saying he was particularly upset that just the six council members that voted against the law, not the full council, were subject to the request. He called it “bullying.”

A week later, however, HERO opponents have taken the same approach. In a request filed Wednesday, conservative lawyer Jared Woodfill sought all communication between pro-HERO council members and a slew of local and national figures and groups, most pro-LGBT.

Fourth on the list, sandwiched between Mayor Annise Parker and the Human Rights Campaign, is Obama. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders along with mayor-elect Sylvester Turner are also included.

See here for the background. I’m sure CMs Kubosh and Martin will be holding a press conference to denounce this bit of bullying any minute now. Or maybe we’ve all managed to get a grip and recognize that this is just normal politics and nothing to get upset about. Regardless, I expect this request to have about the same effect as the other one, which is to say, not much. But at least everyone will have gotten it out of their system.

Turner’s Council

So what kind of City Council will Mayor-elect Sylvester Turner have to work with?

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

In addition to Turner replacing term-limited Mayor Annise Parker, the council also will gain five new faces, four thanks to term limits and one who defeated an incumbent. Political analysts, however, sensed little ideological shift among the 16-member body.

How city government will function or fail to do so, observers say, thus circles back to Turner. With a looming $126 million budget deficit to close by June, the 26-year Texas House veteran will be tested quickly.

“Having a career legislator lead the council is likely to have a significant change in how the city operates,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston political consultant. “He’s likely to lean on his experience and run the council as a legislative chamber versus, in the past, other mayors saw it as an executive office and the council may have been a nuisance.”

[…]

If the political tilt of the council shifted with Saturday’s results, analysts said, it may have been slightly to the right. Conservative former policeman Mike Knox will replace moderate Steve Costello in the At-Large 1 seat; physician Steve Le, who opposed the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, ousted District F incumbent Richard Nguyen, who voted for it. As a counterbalance, the analysts said, municipal finance lawyer Amanda Edwards’ replacement of C.O. Bradford in the At-Large 4 race is a shift to the left.

In conservative District G, where lawyer Greg Travis replaces Oliver Pennington, and in progressive-leaning District H, where educator Karla Cisneros replaces Ed Gonzalez, observers saw little ideological change.

Observers guessed the general split to be roughly 10 to 11 progressive votes and six to seven conservative ones, depending on the issue, though council members are known to invoke the adage that there is no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.

The new council will have four years to work out the kinks, thanks to voters, who approved a move from a maximum of three two-year terms of office to two four-year terms on Nov. 3.

That change, coupled with the loss of rules banning campaign fundraising during certain months – known as a blackout period – will bring the biggest changes to City Hall, Tameez said.

Let me start by saying I completely agree with Tameez here. I believe the change to four-year terms is going to have a big effect on how our municipal government operates and how our elections are conducted. I have no idea what those changes will look like, and neither does anyone else. It’s just going to be different, and we won’t begin to understand how until four years from now.

As for the makeup of Council, again I basically agree with what’s being said here. Mike Knox is to the right of Steve Costello, but I’d argue Amanda Edwards is to the left of C.O. Bradford. Losing Richard Nguyen hurts, but District F has always operated as a Republican-friendly district. Nguyen only declared himself to be a Democrat in 2014 – he was a political enigma when he was elected. It’s a loss, but we were playing with house money.

And to a large extent, none of that matters very much anyway. The Mayor still sets the agenda, and as long as the Mayor can get nine votes for whatever is on that agenda, it gets enacted. It will be interesting to see if Turner, a master of dealmaking and getting things done in a hostile environment, adopts a collaborative Lege-like approach to Mayoring (*), as that would be a great departure from every other Mayor in my memory, or if he exercises the power of the office like all his predecessors have done. Usually there’s at least one Council member who acts as a foil to the Mayor; of the holdover Members, Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin were the main antagonists to Mayor Parker. Will one or both of them maintain that role with Mayor Turner, or will someone else pick up the baton? The next budget gets adopted in June, so we ought to have some idea soon enough. Feel free to speculate on these topics in the comments.

(*) If “Presidenting” can be a word, then so can “Mayoring”.

Council members complain about open records requests

Oh, please.

CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin on Tuesday blasted a records request from a D.C.-based nonprofit to those council members who voted against the Houston equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, last year.

The Campaign for Accountability’s request seeks communication between prominent local anti-HERO activists as well as anti-LGBT groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, and the six council members who voted against the law. Kubosh and Martin were joined by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and councilmen Jack Christie, Dwight Boykins and Oliver Pennington in opposing the law in May 2014.

[…]

At a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday, Kubosh said council members were being “harassed and intimated” by the request. He called on the mayor to condemn the request, and said the six council members were unfairly targeted.

“I felt like when we received this open records request for over tens of thousands of emails and 51 names of individuals and organizations that we’re going to have to search through, this is a type of bullying,” Kubosh said.

The Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group that files records requests all over the country, responded in a written statement that the move was not meant to intimidate council members. The group called Kubosh’s charge an “outlandish allegation that seems contrived more to attract press attention than to express a serious concern.”

In an interview, deputy director Daniel Stevens also denied Kubosh’s allegation that Mayor Annise Parker, a proponent of the law, was behind the request. Kubosh called it a “lump of coal” from the mayor.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans responded to Kubosh’s comments in a written statement, saying his charge that the mayor is connected to the request is “totally unsubstantiated.”

“There are hundreds of people who have made political contributions to the mayor during her 18 years in office. Receiving open records requests is very common. We tend to get one or more a day here in the mayor’s office and they often come from people who disagree with something the mayor has done or a position she has taken on an issue. They can be overwhelming and time consuming to process but it is part of being an elected officeholder. If this is the first time the council member has received one, he should count himself lucky.”

Indeed. Of course some of these requests are going to be annoying, politically motivated, and/or time-consuming. That’s part of the job. You want to complain about people who don’t like you demanding to poke through your emails, go have a drink at the bar with Hillary Clinton. I’m sure she’d have a sympathetic ear to lend. Beyond that, I say suck it up.

If you think I’m being a bit harsh here, I admit that I am. But ask yourself a simple question: What would the reaction have been like from the folks at this little event if it had been Mayor Parker calling a press conference to decry the “bullying” open records requests of a political opponent? My guess is that sympathy would not have been the first order of the day. Sometimes the best course of action is to just get over yourself and show these people that you have nothing to hide and they’re the ones who are wasting their time. Assuming that’s how you feel about it, of course.

One more thing:

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also attended the event in support of Kubosh and Martin. Bettencourt is already planning to convene the Senate Intergovernmental Relations committee to look into why the city has been rebuffed by the Texas Supreme Court on ballot language issues, including one pertaining to HERO. He added Tuesday that he would seek to discuss a law that would “limit out-of-state access to this type of punitive open records request.”

Seriously? I’m going to outsource my reply to one of the commenters on the Chron story, who is not at all aligned with me politically:

Note to “Uncle Paul” — all your anti-transparency bill would do was (sic) lead the out of state organizations to get a member or supporter from Texas to file the request. It is done more frequently than you think, anyway.

So unless you’re proposing to do away with open records requests altogether, such legislation would do exactly nothing. But thanks for playing. The Press has more.

An app to help the homeless

This is a great idea.

A shower. A meal. A place to sleep. Those basic needs come to mind when most think of the homeless.

Our Calling, a Dallas nonprofit, has given the homeless an iPhone app. The faith-based nonprofit is using technology to help people who live under bridges, near crack houses and in encampments.

The Our Calling app can be used by the homeless to find shelters, food pantries, free meals and job training. Others can use it to snap a photo to direct staff and volunteers to the GPS location where a homeless person may be in need.

Wayne Walker, executive director of Our Calling, learned about the power of technology while working as a software developer during college and seminary.

He discovered that many homeless people didn’t know where to turn for food or shelter — and they sometimes got bad phone numbers or directions. He started a website, helpimhomeless.com, with a list of local resources. Later, he created a booklet of resources printed in a large font with ink that won’t smear in the rain.

The booklet is now used by police, Dallas residents, homeless people and Our Calling’s “search and rescue” teams. The volunteer teams visit camps, wooded areas and other sites to bring water, food and clothes. They encourage the homeless to move into shelters and direct them to support services, such as drug treatment and counseling.

Almost every day, Walker said, he answers calls from homeless people who live across the country and find the group’s website.

Our Calling also uses a robust mobile database. Staff and volunteers use iPads to record interactions with each person, who is listed by name, photo and personal history. The database has helped flag women who may be victims of domestic abuse or keep track of a person’s medications. It can help staff remember the name of someone’s spouse or a prayer request.

The Our Calling app is currently for iPhone only, but an Android version is coming in January. Other cities have other apps, but this one sounds like the most robust. If we don’t have this or something like it for Houston, we should. Mayor Parker did a lot to reduce homelessness during her term. A lot of that was a matter of connecting the people who had the need with the resources that could help them. This can be a project for the next Mayor to take that further.

Mayor will seek texting-while-driving ban

One more agenda item before it’s all over.

It’s not the first time Houston officials have broached the issue; Mayor Annise Parker has long lobbied to impose a Texaswide texting-while-driving ban. But months after another legislative session with no action, term-limited Parker said she would ask council members to consider a local ban before she leaves office at the end of the year.

The danger of using cell phones while driving is well documented, increasing crash risks by more than 23 percent, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. In 46 states and the District of Columbia, texting while driving is already banned. Though Texas is one of the few states without such a law, 40 cities including San Antonio and Austin have already opted to enact a local ban.

The city’s public safety committee considered those statistics and two proposed laws Thursday: the first a citywide ban on texting while driving and the second an effort to enforce the existing state ban on texting and cellular phone use in school zones by posting signs. Parker has faced some criticism in recent months because the city has not installed school zone signs, citing costs, and had issued no citations as of September.

“We ought to ban it citywide, that would certainly be my preference,” Parker said earlier this fall. “But I don’t know where the council is on this, and it is certainly a big policy initiative. I think we should have banned it statewide, so of course I’m supporting it here.”

Posting citywide signage is also significantly cheaper than doing so in school zones, according to Jeffrey Weatherford, deputy public works director. There are nearly 8,000 school-zone entry points, costing between $1 million and $1.4 million to appropriately alert drivers. State law prohibits handheld cell phone use in school zones, but the city has not installed the warning signs to enforce that ban.

But if the city were to opt for a Houstonwide ban, they would need to mark just 44 entry points with two signs, costing about $55,000.

While the Parker administration directed the public works department to study the cost of a texting ban, Weatherford said he would recommend City Council take up a prohibition that covers all cellular phone use while driving.

See here for more on the school zone issue. This is not the first time the subject of texting while driving has come up in Houston. There are questions about how effective such bans are, how they can be reasonably enforced, and whether they just provide another pretext for police officers to pull people over, but no one doubts that texting while driving is a dumb and dangerous thing to do. My thinking is that there are people who will do a given thing when it is legal but who will stop doing it if it becomes illegal, so passing the law against it will reduce the number of people who do it even if enforcement is next to impossible. As such, I support texting-while-driving bans. I suspect the votes will be there on Council to do it, so we’ll see what the recommended ordinance looks like.

Lawsuit filed over term limits referendum

As if on cue, the following hit my inbox on Wednesday afternoon, from Eric Dick:

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Phillip Paul Bryant is filing a lawsuit to invalidate Proposition 2 because the ballot language misled Houston voters.

Annise Parker and the City of Houston have a history with misleading voters when it comes to ballot language. Indeed in 2015 alone, Texas Supreme Court has found that Annise Parker and the City of Houston have used inappropriate ballot language at least twice.[1][2]

On November 3, 2015, registered voters of the City of Houston were asked to vote on several propositions, including a proposition extending term limits. (“Proposition 2”). The ballot language for Proposition 2 reads as follows:

“(Relating to Term Limits for City Elective Office) Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to reduce the number of terms of elective offices to no more than two terms in the same office and limit the length for all terms of elective office to four years, beginning in January 2016; and provide for transition?”

The voters of the City of Houston passed Proposition 2 on November 3, 2015.

The language of Proposition 2 was misleading in one of more of the following ways:

  • The ballot language suggested that it would “limit” term length instead of expanding them from two-year terms to four-year terms;
  • The ballot language suggested that the “limit the length for all terms” to be four years instead of allowing elected municipal officials to serve a total of up to eight or ten years;
  • As admitted by Annise D. Parker in an interview with Houston Public Media, voters thought they were limiting the amount of time for municipal elected officials to serve in office.

See here for the background. Phillip Paul Bryant was a candidate for District B in 2011, and was engaged in the opposition to HERO. A copy of the petition is here; as always, I welcome feedback from the lawyers out there. On the one hand, I voted against the term limits change and feel that two-year terms are the better idea. On the other hand, I’m not particularly awed by Eric Dick’s legal prowess. On the other other hand, Lord only knows what the Supreme Court will do; the two footnotes in that press release refer to the decisions on Renew Houston and the wording of the HERO referendum. So who knows? If history is any guide, we won’t know for several years. The Chron and KUHF have more.

Council approves body camera contract

Moving forward.

City Council approved a $3.4 million contract Wednesday to equip Houston Police Department officers with body-worn cameras despite some lingering concerns that key pieces of the city’s policy for the equipment have not been finalized.

Councilmen Mike Laster, C.O. Bradford and Michael Kubosh along with councilwoman Brenda Stardig voted against the contract with the selected company, Watchguard. Officials hope the cameras will provide transparency and evidence in resident-officer interactions, particularly when force is used.

The four council members who voted against the contract said they supported outfitting officers with the cameras, but that they were either concerned that community groups had not been included in the broader body camera discussion or were frustrated that the city’s policy for storing the video data had not yet been finalized.

Mayor Annise Parker said the plan was to split the body camera program up into three parts: the equipment, the protocol for using the equipment and a storage plan. But she said the camera procurement was sound and the best price for the city.

“My only concern about this whole process is the police department being the police department was, ‘We’re the police experts, we’re going to …’ They don’t always think about the fact – and the chief acknowledged it – that this is a highly sensitized issue right now and a lot of scrutiny,” Parker said. “They could have done a little more up-front public information, although I’ll point out there were some council members today who … collective amnesia.”

A committee meeting on Thursday will tackle the question of whether footage from the cameras should be stored in-house or with a third party, a more costly option but one that proponents say would alleviate concerns about video being tampered with or edited.

There are more questions than that that need to be answered. I’m sure there’s time to get those questions answered before the body cameras are fully deployed, and if this was the deal that was on offer, then it needed to be completed. This process does need to move along, but let’s remember that it is a process, and it’s an ongoing one.

Meanwhile on a related note, this interview with Chief McClelland about the need for criminal justice reform is well worth reading. A sample:

How have previous policing policies affected Houston and how might this new response change that?

There are many who believe the criminal justice system is broken. I’m certainly not one to believe it’s broken – it’s producing the results it’s designed to produce. If we want different results, that’s why the system must be reformed. Because it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. When we have mandatory sentencing laws [for] minor crime offenses, drug offenses, for people who are really not the greatest threat to community safety, and who are using massive amounts of law enforcement resources, there has to be a better way.

And criminal justice reform and what we’re speaking about in our group… to reduce crime and incarceration – we believe we can do both – if we put more resources into substance abuse treatment, treatment of folks suffering from some form of mental illness and also to reduce the homeless population. Because if you think about it – some of people we arrest on a regular and routine, and very frequent, basis for minor crimes – We are sentencing these people to life sentences – but they’re serving just 3-4 days at a time. Those suffering from intoxication, mental illness, homelessness – they commit a minor crime [and] they only stay in jail 2-3 days at a time, but they are being arrested quite frequently. And over a lifetime, we’re sentencing them to a life sentence – they’re just serving it 2-3 days at a time.

It just doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem or the issue the person is suffering from.

Now let me make this very clear – people who pose the greatest threats to our neighborhoods and our communities, especially those who are violent – and repeat violent offenders, we need to lock those people up for long periods of time, and some of those individuals need to be locked up for the rest of their natural lives. But that’s a very, very small portion of folks who make up the criminal justice system, because an overwhelming number – 90 percent of folks who go to prison get released at some point in time.

But if a person has nothing to be released to – no family structure – no opportunity for legitimate employment – no education, no job skills – the system is almost guaranteeing you’re going to get involved in some illegal activity and go back to prison.

Also, the empirical data clearly has shown that the earlier one contacts the criminal justice system, such as a juvenile, the chances increase two- and three-fold you will go to jail or prison.

So if we can prevent the initial contact from occurring, we reduce the likelihood a great deal that you’ll ever be arrested and put into the system.

Lots there for us all, including the next Mayor and police chief, to think about. Go take a look and see what you think.

Endorsement watch: Bell for King

As the headline notes, this came as a surprise to many.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Former Congressman Chris Bell publicly backed fiscal conservative Bill King in the Houston mayoral runoff Tuesday, a move that could bolster King’s efforts to make inroads with progressive voters.

Bell’s endorsement came as a surprise to many political insiders expecting the progressive former mayoral candidate to support King’s rival, Democrat Sylvester Turner.

Bell cited King’s focus on pension reform, public safety, road repair and flooding as reasons for his endorsement, as well as the businessman’s thoughtful approach to policy issues.

“It might come as a surprise to some because of my political persuasion, but it really shouldn’t,” Bell said alongside King in Meyerland. “Truth be told, we agree much more than we disagree. As far as the major principles of his campaign, we’re in complete agreement.”

If you say so, Chris. From my perspective, the main area of overlap between the two campaigns was an enthusiasm for bashing Adrian Garcia. On a number of issues I can think of, from HERO to the revenue cap to ReBuild Houston to (yes) pensions, there seemed to be little in common. It’s easier for me to see agreement between Steve Costello and Sylvester Turner than it is for me to see concurrence between Bell and King. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder, I don’t know. But really, on a broader level, it’s that Bell positioned himself quite purposefully to Sylvester Turner’s left, with his greater purity on LGBT equality being a main point of differentiation. Though he missed out on getting the Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ endorsement – amid a fair amount of grumbling about Turner buying the recommendation via a slew of last-minute memberships – Bell had a lot of support in the LGBT community; a couple of his fervent supporters courted my vote at the West Gray Multi-Service Center by reminding me of an old Turner legislative vote against same sex foster parenting. This is why it’s hard to believe his claims about there being so much in common between him and King, and why this announcement was met with such an explosion of outrage and cries of betrayal. It’s not a partisan matter so much as it is a strong suspicion that either the prior assertions about being the real champion of equality were lies or that this endorsement had to come with a prize. If Chris Bell honestly believes that Bill King will be the best Mayor, that’s his right and his choice. But no one should be surprised by the reaction to it.

Does this help King? Well, he needs to get some Anglo Dem support to win, and that was Bell’s base. Of course, speaking as someone in that demographic, I’ve seen very little evidence that any of his erstwhile supporters were impressed by this. Quite the reverse, as noted above. I guess it can’t hurt, I just wouldn’t expect it to do much.

In the meantime, various organizations have been issuing new and updated endorsements for the runoffs. A few highlights:

– As previously noted, the HCDP endorsed all Democratic candidates with Republican opponents. That means Sylvester Turner for Mayor, Chris Brown for Controller, Georgia Provost, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards, Sharon Moses, Richard Nguyen, and Mike Laster for Council, and Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jose Leal for HISD Trustee.

– The Houston GLBT Political Caucus added Georgia Provost and Karla Cisneros to their list of endorsed candidates. Turner, Brown, Edwards, and the incumbents were already on there. They did not take action on Moses and Leal.

– The Meyerland Democrats made their first endorsements in a city election: Turner, Brown, Provost, Robinson, Edwards, Nguyen, and Laster.

– Controller candidate Chris Brown sent out another email touting endorsements, this time from five previous Controllers – Ronald Green, Annise Parker, Sylvia Garcia, George Greanias, and Kathy Whitmire. As you know, I’m glad to see Green support him.

– As noted here, the Harris County GOP Executive Committee endorsed Willie Davis in AL2, though it wasn’t exactly unanimous.

– The Log Cabin Republicans transferred their endorsements to Bill King and Mike Knox, and reiterated their support for David Robinson, Jack Christie, and Steve Le. Guess being staunchly anti-HERO has its drawbacks.

– A group called the Texas Conservative View endorsed the candidates you’d expect them to – King, Frazer, Knox, Davis, Roy Morales, Christie, Steve Le, Jim Bigham – and one I didn’t, Jason Cisneroz. All of them were repeats from November except for Morales; they had previously endorsed Jonathan Hansen.

– Finally, the Houston Association of Realtors gave Bill King an endorsement that does mean something and makes sense, along with Amanda Edwards.

I think that catches me up. I’m sure there will be more to come – in particular, the Chron has a few races to revisit. They need to pick a finalist between Brown and Frazer, and make a new choice in AL1 and AL5. I’ll let you know when they do.

UPDATE: The line I deleted above about “being staunchly anti-HERO” was a reference to Willie Davis not getting the LCR endorsement in At Large #2. It made sense in my head when I wrote it, but I can see now that I didn’t make that clear at all. And given that the LCRs endorsed David Robinson in November, it doesn’t make sense even when I clarify who I intended that to be about. So, I take it back. Sorry for the confusion.

A new HERO will be up to the next Mayor

As it should be, whether we like it or not.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who championed the city’s ill-fated equal rights ordinance, HERO, said she no longer plans to try to revive it before leaving office at the end of the year.

In the aftermath of HERO’s resounding defeat at the polls November 3, Parker had indicated the current City Council could consider an amended non-discrimination ordinance before her term expires.

But during an appearance Saturday at a major LGBT fundraiser in Dallas, Parker said she now believes it’s too late.

“The problem is, I’m running out of runway,” Parker told the Observer before the annual Black Tie Dinner gala. “I have only so many council meetings left, and so it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to do anything with it. The council members who supported it still support it, and I do hope the the next mayor of Houston will pick it back up again.”

[…]

Parker told the Observer she’d be announcing her endorsement of [Sylvester] Turner “in the very near future.”

You know how I feel about this. I don’t have anything to add to that. The task for now is to elect Sylvester Turner and enough decent Council members to be able to take up a revised HERO at some point in the future, and go from there. Everything follows from that. The Mayor’s official statement on this is here.