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Commissioners Court

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Community meetings about the Harris County bond referenda

Ask your questions, get some answers.

Harris County voters will decide in November whether to approve a bond package totaling $1.2 billion, with the vast majority aimed at road construction. On Monday, the county [began] a series of 24 community engagement meetings to share information and gather input about where the money will go if the bond propositions pass.

Voters will see three bond propositions on the ballot:

  • Proposition A: Up to $100 million for public safety, which could include law enforcement facilities, courtrooms, technology and improved data systems for court management and crime prevention.
  • Proposition B: Up to $900 million for transportation, including road rehabilitation and added capacity; roadway and neighborhood drainage improvements; walking, biking, and mass transit access; and safety projects to reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries.
  • Proposition C: Up to $200 million for parks and trails, including construction and maintenance of parks facilities and trails, including floodable parks, trail projects, and inclusive parks for people with disabilities.

If all are approved, at least $220 million would be spent in each of the county’s four precincts, while the $100 million in public safety investments would be countywide.

The county will hold community meetings through Oct.. 20, including 16 in-person meetings divided evenly among the four precincts and eight virtual meetings. Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese interpreters will be available.

[…]

The dates and locations of the meetings are subject to change. Residents can check the latest schedule or submit their comments online at harriscounty2022bond.org.

See here for the background. The schedule as known at the time of publication is in the Chron story, but it is subject to change so check out that Harris County 2022 Bond page before heading out.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Clifford Tatum

Harris County’s new Elections Administrator has a chat with the Chron’s Jen Rice about his new job and the fact that early voting starts in less than seven weeks.

Why did you start working in elections and why do you continue doing it?

I started out with the Georgia Secretary of State as a securities enforcement attorney. And after a couple of years, enforcing the securities law, the elections division needed a staff attorney. So I became the assistant director of legal affairs for the state elections division, which then worked with the Georgia Secretary of State on a number of issues related to the state election board, election law enforcement, election code enforcement. And I guess you could say that … I kind of got bit by the public service bug, and that foray into the elections division in 2002 has turned into a lifetime of public service. I enjoy the fact that I’m supporting democracy and helping voters express their voice.

When election-related topics come up at Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, two of the commissioners typically raise the argument that elections should be run by elected officials, not an appointed election administrator, which was the model used in Harris County until 2020. Do you have a response to that criticism?

If we talk about the the county clerk who was running the election side of the process, they were responsible for the election side, but they had to get the information to actually conduct the election from the tax assessor. The tax assessor was responsible for the voter registration side. At the end of the day, you’re looking to two separate entities for accountability. And that gap allows for there to be this flux of, what really happened here? So, combining the two offices, you avoid that. It now becomes a single unit that’s responsible for the entire operation. And you actually have a greater level of accountability because both operations are now under the same unit and the information flows much better because there’s not a go-between.

The mail ballot rejection rate is an ongoing issue in Harris County. What is your plan for getting the mail ballot rejection rate down and to what extent are you expecting to be able to address that for this election?

The good news is that the team here has now experienced the new mail ballot requirements for now, I think, three elections. We’ve made a lot of internal strides on how to assist voters in making sure they provide the correct information to allow their ballot not to be rejected. And then if they, for whatever reasons, fail to include that information, we’ve identified internal procedures to immediately respond back to the voter, highlighting what needs to be corrected in order for that ballot to be resolved and counted. The unfortunate aspect about all of that is time. If a voter waits too late, then there’s a likelihood that the voter can’t cure an issue if they didn’t provide the correct information.

I’m fairly optimistic that we’ll have a good experience this fall. Some of the factors on which Tatum will be judged are how well the equipment works and how easily equipment errors are overcome, how long the lines are, how many mail ballots are rejected, and how long it takes to see results and updates on Election Night. My hope is that he and his office will communicate quickly and effectively when there are any issues – it’s a big county, probably over a million people will be voting, there will be issues – so that at least everyone will have a chance to be informed and make adjustments. I intend to do an interview with him myself at some point, but that can wait until after this election.

All interviews and judicial Q&As with nominees so far

Back in February, right before the primary, I posted a list of all of the candidate interviews and judicial Q&As I had done. A couple more Q&A responses came in after that, and I did some further interviews for the primary runoffs, so that post is out of date and also now contains people who will not be on the November ballot. So with that in mind, here’s a full updated list as I prepare to bring you more of these for November. Enjoy!

Interviews

Duncan Klussman, CD38

Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner
Janet Dudding, Comptroller

Staci Childs, SBOE4

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15

Jolanda Jones, HD147

Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)

Judicial Q&As

Cheri Thomas, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Gemayel Haynes, 183rd Criminal District Court
Katherine Thomas, 184th Criminal District Court
Andrea Beall, 185th Criminal District Court
Beverly Armstrong, 208th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Dedra Davis, 270th Civil District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Judge Leah Shapiro, 313th Family District Court
Veronica Monique Nelson, 482nd Criminal District Court

Manpreet Monica Singh, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8

Steve Duble, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Dolores Lozano, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

As before, you can see a full list of my interviews and a whole lot more info about the Democratic candidates on the Erik Manning spreadsheet. Look for many more to come starting tomorrow.

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

Good.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Tell it to the judge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

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

CC4 poll: Briones 44, Cagle 42

From the inbox:

Lesley Briones

Lesley Briones, candidate for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4, released the results of a new poll today that shows her in the lead: Briones 44% / Cagle 42%.

The poll was conducted August 9-13 by the national firm, Lake Research Partners, and surveyed 400 likely 2022 general election voters in Precinct 4.

Click here to read a summary memo prepared by the polling firm.

Among the key findings:

• Briones leads Cagle by a margin of 44% to 42%

• After positive information about both candidates was provided, Briones’ lead grew to 47% to 42%

• The new Precinct 4 has a 7-point Democratic advantage: 41% Democrats / 34% Republicans / 15% Independents

It’s an internal poll, so adjust your expectations accordingly. The only other Harris County data we have so far was that UH/Hobby poll that had Judge Hidalgo up by a point over Alexandra Mealer. We’re in a new Commissioners Court map, and Judge Hidalgo was an atypical candidate in 2018, with a lot of Dems crossing over to vote for then-Judge Ed Emmett, so I have no sense of the correlation between the two races at this time. Maybe one can win if the other loses, maybe not, I just don’t know. I will say I found this bit from the memo heartwarming:

Cagle is uniquely vulnerable to attacks on abortion and birth control. Of all the tested negatives against Cagle, his anti-choice views and extreme actions to deny women health care in the past generate the most serious doubts about him (39% serious doubts, 47% total doubts). Meanwhile, 41% of voters are very convinced, and 57% are convinced overall, to support Briones due to her commitment to fight to protect abortion access.

You know how I feel about this. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, come on:

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court approves its bond package

But not without some bitching and griping.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Thursday to put a $1.2 billion package on the November ballot this year, with the vast majority aimed at road construction.

Tensions flared when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cut off questions and moved forward with a vote over the protests of the two Republican commissioners, who were in the midst of arguing the bond measure lacked transparency and the plan for distributing the funds was unclear.

The debate grew heated after Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey raised his voice demanding transparency, earning loud applause from members of the public in attendance.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle insisted Hidalgo explain how the county would decide where the money goes, and what it meant for the county to prioritize areas deemed most in need: “What is ‘worst first’? What is the definition?”

“I am voting for this because I believe your precinct needs this money,” Hidalgo shot back, arguing the money would benefit all precincts.

When Hidalgo abruptly moved ahead with the vote, leaving Cagle uncertain about whether he had missed the opportunity to oppose the measure, the commissioner asked, “Do I not even get to vote on calling this?”

Faced with Ramsey and Cagle’s rising frustration, Hidalgo insisted members of the court “have had hours of discussion on this” at previous meetings.

The two Republicans criticized Hidalgo for cutting off further debate to take the vote.

“When those who are elected with the responsibility of delving into questions to be asked aren’t even allowed to debate those issues at the table, that’s wrong,” Cagle said.

The decision to place the debt issue before voters required the court to vote on three separate bond issues. Each was approved along party lines with the three Democrats voting in favor and the two Republicans opposed.

Likewise, the November ballot will include three separate bond requests: $900 million earmarked for roads; $200 million for parks; $100 million for public safety bonds.

See here for the background. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I don’t give Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle’s complaints much weight. I don’t trust them to be acting in good faith. What I hear in their words is a demand for reassurance that their needs will be given priority, as this had been the way of the world for however many decades of bond issuances before now. Any indication otherwise, that more neglected areas will come first, or that people will be given equal or greater value than property values, is unacceptable. They may have some legitimate objections in there. That’s not what I’m hearing from them.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

Who audits the auditors?

A novel idea. Not sure it will get anywhere, but it does send a message.

Harris County Commissioners Court, by a 3-2 partisan vote, agreed to explore legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to challenge the results of a random drawing by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that means another round of election scrutiny for Texas’ largest county.

“It ought to be the state of Texas that is audited,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the lawsuit. “This place has gone back to the bad old days.”

Harris County learned last week it was one of two large counties chosen for an election audit by state officials, under new procedures lawmakers approved for election scrutiny. It is the second audit of Harris County, after another approved weeks following the 2020 general election.

[…]

Harris and Cameron counties were the two large ones chosen in a drawing from a bucket, the Secretary of State’s office announced; Eastland and Guadalupe counties were the two small counties selected.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, questioned the authenticity of the drawing, saying the broadcast of the drawing “looks like a video out of a sketch comedy show.”

“The camera does not show the slips going into the bucket,” Menefee said, noting various aspects of the drawing that are not filmed. “They don’t even show the slips to the camera.”

See here for the background. Just as a reminder, while there have been issues in other elections in Harris County, the November 2020 election ran incredibly smoothly. And the SOS has already done an “audit” of that election, even if they never bothered to release a report on their “audit”.

My guess is that this doesn’t go anywhere, because I can’t see what grounds there are to sue. (Remember: I Am Not A Lawyer. There is an excellent chance that I am full of beans here.) One could argue that Harris County should have been exempted from this year’s drawing, as the law states that counties cannot be subjected to this audit in consecutive cycles. But the previous audit was not done under the auspices of that law, so the legal response to that would be some form of “tough luck”. Again, I don’t know what the actual attorneys who will be looking into the legal possibilities may find here, so take all this with an appropriate amount of skepticism. But if you were to bet me a dollar right now that 1) Harris County would file a suit as threatened, and 2) it would result in a temporary restraining order, I would take that bet.

If on the other hand the point of this is to denigrate the audit process, which was created in response to Big Lie mania, I’m fine with that. If the idea is to suggest that the state can’t be trusted to conduct a fair random drawing, let alone a fair audit process, that works for me. Judge Hidalgo spoke about the need to combat Big Lie hysteria, which is doing immense damage to the election process and a whole lot more, in the story. That’s a worthwhile mission. If it turns out there really is more to it than that, I’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: Harris County

Happy Mid-Year Campaign Finance Reporting Day to all who celebrate. Today we’ll be looking at the races of interest in Harris County, which thankfully for me has a lot fewer candidates to review than the last time we did this in January, before the primaries. I also did this roundup in July 2021 if you want to go that far back. You know the drill here, so let’s get to it.

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Alexandra Mealer, County Judge

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Jack Morman, County Commissioner, Precinct 2

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Jack Cagle (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, County Commissioner, Precinct 4

Teneshia Hudspeth, County Clerk
Stan Stanart, County Clerk

Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk
Chris Daniel (SPAC), District Clerk

Carla Wyatt, County Treasurer
Eric Dick, County Treasurer
Kyle Scott, County Treasurer


Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
======================================================
Hidalgo       1,150,804    569,065    1,400  1,983,697
Mealer          764,544    404,802    6,000    455,927

Ellis           543,900    241,714        0  3,805,232

Garcia, A       787,949    675,976        0  1,897,179
Morman           63,144     19,585        0     69,638

Ramsey           34,869     69,290        0    549,707

Cagle           388,332    209,368        0  1,231,540
Briones         126,038     98,547        0     90,720

Hudspeth         18,265     18,145        0     13,952
Stanart           3,407      5,583        0      6,729
Burgess          16,070     15,864    5,207     15,049
Daniel           20,600      9,619   25,000     12,144
Wyatt             2,085      6,082        0      1,092
Scott             2,309      5,340   23,000        719

With the much-smaller field of candidates now that we are fully past the primaries, everyone who is on the November ballot in these races has a current finance report online. Note that for some candidates, the report covers the period from February 20 through June 30 – these are the candidates who won their March primaries outright – and for some it covers the period from May 15 through June 30. These are the candidates who had to win in their runoff, a list that includes Alexandra Mealer, Jack Morman, and Lesley Briones. Mealer’s amount raised total is a lot more competitive with Judge Lina Hidalgo’s given the smaller amount of time that her report covers, but as John Coby points out, she got more than half of that total from four donors who each gave her $100K.

It’s interesting to me that Morman, who was a County Commissioner for eight years before Commissioner Garcia nipped him in 2018, has had such anemic fundraising. I’m not sure what that says, other than maybe not enough people think he can win. Lesley Briones still has a significant cash deficit against Commissioner Jack Cagle, but she’s been considerably more proficient at fundraising. She is unlikely to catch up to him in that department, but she’ll be more competitive.

Not much else to say, as the other offices tend to have little fundraising capacity, and these reports present no surprises. Eric Dick also filed a report for his current office of HCDE Trustee, in which he again reported zeroes across the board. Given Dick’s past propensities, I wouldn’t take any of that as gospel, but it is what he reported.

UPDATE: My bad, I had the wrong Republican candidate for Treasurer.

Some ideas for improving elections in Harris County

Put it on the new guy’s to do list.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court takes some action on access to contraception

From last week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a new Election Administrator

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no new Election Administrator

C’mon, y’all.

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County implements a burn ban

Surely this is a thing we can all comply with.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday enacted a countywide burn ban due to drought conditions and an increased threat of wildfires across unincorporated Harris County, but fireworks will remain legal in the unincorporated part of the county.

The ban will be in effect until either the Texas Forest Service determines drought conditions no longer exist within Harris County, or 90 days after the start of the ban. The decision to implement the ban was driven by current data metrics, projected weather patterns and trend analysis, according to the county.

“Although we have seen some rain, it’s not enough to lower the drought index levels across the county,” said Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen. “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security with rain in parts of Harris County — the vegetation fuels are high due to drought conditions in not only open areas but, residential properties and roadways adjacent to grass and brush.”

No outdoor burning is allowed except in certain instances, such as backyard cook-outs in approved containers, according to the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office. Violation of the ban is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The burn ban will not impact the sale of fireworks this Fourth of July season. It is illegal to discharge fireworks inside Houston limits.

Maybe I’m just too much of a city boy, but I do not understand why people burn leaves or whatever else is it that people burn. Whatever the case, it’s really dry out there and that’s a major wildfire hazard, so please don’t. And if you do, whether that sparks a larger blaze or not, I hope you get caught.

No new election admin yet

Hope this delay is brief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

We have finalists for the Election Administrator job

Good.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Radack drops his redistricting lawsuit

From the inbox:

Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit he filed against Harris County Commissioners Court alleging Commissioners Court violated the Open Meetings Act during county redistricting.

Below is a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on the lawsuit:

“I’m glad this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed. The County ran a transparent, thorough redistricting process. My office will continue working with each of the Commissioners to ensure the transition process is as seamless as possible.”

The suit sought to have the new Commissioners Court map invalidated and alleged court members violated state law by not making the map public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting at which that map was approved.

As you may recall, first there was a lawsuit filed by Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey along with a couple of voters, which claimed that redrawing of Commissioners Court precincts was a voting rights violation because people who would have voted for Commissioner in 2022 would have to wait until 2024. It was dismissed by a Harris County civil district court judge on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have jurisdiction to sue. A subsequent writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court was denied mostly on procedural grounds, as there would be no time to take any action as the primaries had already begun. The initial lawsuit is as I understand it pending an appeal to the First Court of Appeals, and SCOTx did not rule on the merits of the litigation so we could see a ruling against the county at some point in the future.

The Radack lawsuit was filed on December 31, shortly after the first lawsuit was dismissed by the district court. It claimed that commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting. As far as I know, this suit never had a hearing in court. I checked with the County Attorney’s office and the pending appeal to the First Court is the only active litigation over county redistricting at this time. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about it.

Another look at how Galveston County disenfranchised its voters of color

The Trib takes a deep dive.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Carver Park in Texas City, created during segregation, is considered the first African American county park in the state. It sits on land donated by descendants of freedmen who survived slavery and pioneered one of Texas’ oldest Black settlements, the footprint of which sits just a few blocks away.

Until last year, the park sat at the heart of Galveston County’s Precinct 3 — the most diverse of the four precincts that choose the commissioners court, which governs the county along with the county judge. Precinct 3 was the lone seat in which Black and Hispanic voters, who make up about 38% of the county’s population, made up the majority of the electorate.

The precinct sliced the middle of coastal Galveston County, stretching from the small city of Dickinson on the county’s northern end through residential areas of Texas City and down to the eastern end of Galveston Island. Its residents included medical professionals and staff drawn in by The University of Texas Medical Branch, petrochemical workers that operate a large cluster of refineries and commuter employees of the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center.

The area stood as an exemplar of Black political power and progress. For 30 years, Black voters — with support from Hispanics — had amassed enough political clout to decide the county commissioner for Precinct 3, propelling Black leaders onto a majority white county commissioners court. They worked to gain stronger footholds in local governments, elevating Black people into city halls across the precinct. Two years ago, they reached a milestone, electing Texas City’s first Black mayor and a city commission on which people of color are the majority.

But the white Republican majority on the Galveston County’s commissioners court decided last November to dismantle Precinct 3. Capitalizing on its first opportunity to redraw commissioner precincts without federal oversight, the court splintered Black and Hispanic communities into majority-white districts.

Under the final map, which will be used for this year’s election and possibly for a decade, white voters make up at least 62% of the electorate in each precinct, though the county’s total population is only about 55% white. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Hispanic voters, the map will effectively quash the electoral power of voters of color.

The new map was so egregious to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice that it prompted the department to file its only federal lawsuit at the county level in the entire nation challenging a redistricting plan as discriminatory.

Black residents here have often needed federal intervention to help them pursue equality and fairness. Without it, it’s possible the white power structure will never voluntarily grant them them political equity and would continue threatening the gains they’ve achieved over the last few decades.

“With the district, people feel that they have a voice and a choice. Without it, no voice, no choice,” said Lucille McGaskey, a longtime Galveston County resident whose community in the city of La Marque was drawn out of Precinct 3. “It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out.”

See here for a bit of background. The piece goes into Galveston’s racial and political history, and recaps how the soon-to-be-all-Republican Commissioners Court rammed through this new map with no real alternatives and with basically zero public input on the last day to adopt a new map. There are two federal lawsuits that have been filed over this new map, which was able to be adopted because preclearance was killed in 2013, but you know how I feel about the likelihood of any justice that way. Indeed, the story notes that Galveston County has “asked for a postponement in the case until possibly 2023 while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge out of Alabama that could further contract the Voting Rights Act’s protections from discrimination in redistricting”. The writing is on the wall here. The only way forward is more voting, at a time when the powers that be have made it as difficult as possible to vote, and to have your vote make a meaningful difference. I don’t know what else to say.

Runoff results: Harris County

As with the statewide roundup, here are the results from Harris County. As of 10 PM, 99 of 260 voting centers had reported, so while these results aren’t final, it seems likely to me that not much will change.

Congressional Dem

CD38 – Diana Martinez Alexander vs. Duncan Klussman. Klussman had a 67-33 lead after early voting (65-35 as of 10 PM) and looked to be an easy winner.

SBOE Dem

SBOE4 – Coretta Mallet-Fontenot vs Staci Childs. Childs was up 56.5 to 43.5, and was leading big in early in person voting (62%) and Tuesday voting (65%), which helped her overcome a 1,200 vote deficit in mail ballots. Given that trend, I’d say she’s on her way to winning.

State House Dems

HD147 – Jolanda Jones vs Danielle Bess. Jones was up 55-45, and unlike the special election led in mail ballots (by 300 votes) and early in person voting (by 200 votes), while running nearly even on Tuesday (the tally was 520-508 for Bess as of 10 PM). She seems likely to hold on.

Harris County Dems

185th Criminal District Court – Andrea Beall vs Judge Jason Luong. Beall led 54-46 and had the advantage in all three forms of voting.

208th Criminal District Court – Beverly Armstrong vs Kim McTorry. Armstrong had a big lead in mail ballots, while McTorry had small margins in in-person voting, but it doesn’t look like it will be enough as Armstrong was up 52-48.

312th Family District Court – Teresa Waldrop vs Judge Chip Wells.
County Civil Court at Law #4 – Manpreet Monica Singh vs Treasea Treviño.

Waldrop (63%) and Singh (65%) were in command from the beginning. I believe Manpreet Singh will be the first Sikh on the bench if she wins in November.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones vs Ben Chou. Briones led 55-45, with similar margins across all three voting types.

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 2 – Sonia Lopez vs Steve Duble. Duble also led 55-45, using a 59-41 advantage in early in person ballots to overcome a modest deficit with mail votes.

Republicans

Alexandra Mealer cruised to victory for the County Judge nomination, while Jack Morman got his rematch in Precinct 2. The HD133 race was too close to call, with less than 100 votes separating Mano DeAyala and Shelley Barineau. Check on that one in the morning.

UPDATE: All of the Dems that were leading last night won. Mano DeAyala won in HD133 51-49.

Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

Endorsement watch: Reruns

The Chron re-endorses Lesley Briones for Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in the Democratic primary runoff.

Lesley Briones

The crowded Democratic race for Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner has narrowed, but the runoff remains competitive. Because of new precinct boundary lines, which include most of western Harris County before reaching into the West University area and curving back up and around Interstate 10, Republican and incumbent Jack Cagle will face the Democratic runoff winner with perhaps less of an edge than usual for incumbents.

Our pick for the spot, Lesley Briones, secured 34 percent of the vote, impressive in a field with three other candidates that got vote shares in the double digits. She will face challenger Ben Chou, who got 25 percent of the vote. At least one internal poll now shows him neck and neck with Briones in the lead-up to the runoff.

We wrote in February that the choice before voters was a tough one. That hasn’t changed. Neither has our endorsement.

Yes, I can confirm that the Chron endorsed Briones for March. That’s fine, and it’s fine if they want to remind us of who they have already recommended as we approach early voting for the primary runoffs – as I noted before, all of their March endorsees who were in Democratic races that went to runoff made it to that runoff, so they have no races on our side to revisit. They had at least one on the Republican side and made a new choice for County Judge. All I’m asking is that in addition to however many ICYMI pieces they go back and revisit the three judicial races that they ignored in March and make a choice now. I swear, it is not too much to ask.

BTW, my interview with Lesley Briones from the primary is here and my interview with Ben Chou is here. All my interviews from March plus judicial Q&As can be found here, and you can add the interviews with Janet Dudding for Comptroller, and Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot for SBOE4, plus a judicial Q&A with Beverly Armstrong for the 208th Criminal District Court.

Actually, May Election Day vote reporting was basically fine

This headline is correct, but it leaves out some relevant details.

Even with help from constable’s offices, Harris County again was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting Saturday’s election results, turning its final tally to the Texas Secretary of State’s office after 9:30 Sunday morning.

In a move touted by the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office, constable deputies picked up ballot boxes from the 465 polling locations on Election Day and delivered them to the county’s central counting station. Typically, that responsibility has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Even with deputies taking over delivery duties, results from Harris County slowly trickled in hours after other big Texas counties had reported their tallies.

Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, while Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 am on Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.

Outgoing Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria announced her resignation following a botched March primary election. The county took 30 hours to finish counting and then two days later announced it found 10,000 ballots that had not been included in its final vote count. Longoria took the blame for the miscues and resigned days later. Her resignation takes effect July 1.

The Harris County Election Board — consisting of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and the heads of the county Democratic and Republican parties — voted last month to hire a national search firm to find Longoria’s replacement.

Deputy constables have picked up and delivered ballot boxes during early voting in previous elections, but this time they delivered ballot boxes on Election Day, as well. Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Elections Administrator’s Office, said the constables also will assist with the primary runoff election set for May 24.

The county’s elections office boosted its staff on Election Day by bringing in employees from most constable’s offices, along with Harris County employees across several divisions who were available to help, Hakim said. The process, she said, went smoothly.

Asked why the county was the last to report results, Hakim noted Harris County still was within the 24-hour deadline for reporting results to the state, and said there was no issue. Harris County is the third largest county in the country, she added.

Here’s the thing: The Elections Office was updating its results every hour on the hour Saturday night. I know this because I get an email from that office every time there are new results, and I have an email from them with those updated results every hour from 7 PM when the EV totals were posted up until 3 AM, when 95% of the results were in. Maybe that’s slower than you want – as of the midnight report, only about a third of the votes had been counted – but as someone who has spent many an hour by the computer hitting Refresh on the browser, it’s the lack of updates, and the unpredictability of when the next one will arrive, that truly drives us up the wall. This might have felt drawn out, but at least you knew when to check again.

Can we do better than this? I think we can certainly try, and I would hope that whoever the Election Board hires in July will have some solid ideas for how to achieve that. Until then, getting updates on a regular schedule will help most of us keep our blood pressure under control.

Where are the endorsements?

As you know, early voting has begun for the May 7 election, which includes two Constitutional amendments and the special election for HCC District 2. As of last night when I drafted this, I see no endorsements in any of these elections on the Chron’s opinion page. Are these elections not worth it to them, or have they just not gotten around to them yet? I sure hope it’s the latter, and that they will rectify that quickly. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

Seventeen days after that election will be the primary runoffs. A quick check of the Erik Manning spreadsheet confirms for me that in all of the Democratic primary runoffs for which the Chron issued a March endorsement, their preferred candidate is still running. In ballot order:

CD38 – Duncan Klussman
Lt. Governor – Mike Collier
Attorney General – Joe Jaworski
Comptroller – Janet Dudding
Land Commissioner – Jay Kleberg
SBOE4 – Staci Childs
HD147 – Danielle Bess
185th Criminal Court – Judge Jason Luong
208th Criminal Court – Kim McTorry
Commissioners Court Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones

You may or may not agree with these, but those are who the Chron picked. They have no races to revisit among them. They do, however, have three more races to consider, which were among those they skipped in Round One:

312th Family Court – Judge Chip Wells vs Teresa Waldrop
County Civil Court at Law #4 – MK Singh vs Treasea Treviño
Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2 – Steve Duble vs Sonia Lopez

The links are to my judicial Q&As for those who submitted responses. You can find all the Q&A and interview links from the primary here. More recently I interviewed Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot in SBOE4; I will have an interview with Janet Dudding on Monday. There’s no need to rush if the Chron wants to circle back to these races they ignored originally – they can wait till after the May 7 election, but not too long since early voting there will begin on May 16. It’s only three runoff races (*), plus those two Constitutional amendments and that one HCC race. C’mon, Chron editorial board, you can do this.

(*) There may be some Republican runoffs for them to revisit as well. I didn’t check and am obviously not as interested. I doubt most Republican runoff voters are either, so whatever. The HD147 special election is between the same two candidates as in the primary runoff, so we can assume the endorsement for one carries over to the other.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will have a new elections administrator on July 1

Let’s get the best we can.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.