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Harris County

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

Hey look! Some info about mail ballots in the May election!

It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the second time in less than two weeks, Texans are heading back to the polls to decide on a host of statewide and local elections.

Voters are deciding who should come out on top in primary runoff elections. However, issues with election counting in Harris County have led to some frustration, but some widespread issues of the past may be corrected during this primary runoff.

“So far it’s been a really busy day, we’re really pleased with the turnout,” Nadia Hakim, Deputy Director of Communication and Voter outreach for Harris County elections said.

[…]

Those voting by mail are reminded by officials to complete the identification fields to avoid the ballot being rejected.

“So what we saw during March 1st was a high rate of rejection for mail ballots. Of course, it was our first large election with SB1 put into place and unfortunately, we saw a similar trend for the May 7th election. It was about a 20 percent rejection rate again,” Hakim said.

Voters are urged to contact the Harris County election office with any questions regarding issues they may face at 713-755-6965.

Disappointing, but not surprising. I have mentioned speaking with the elections office a couple of times, and this was something I inquired about as well. At a closer look, the rejection rate for the May 7 election was closer to 15% than 20% as cited in the story, but still too high and almost as high as it had been in March. As we’ve discussed, the people who voted in the May election likely included a lot of people who hadn’t voted in March, so this was their first experience with the new voter suppression law. The statewide rate of mail ballot rejection from March was about 12-13%, and it was about 19% in Harris County. I still want to know what the statewide rate was for the May election, and of course I care a lot about what it will be for the runoff, where there should be a greater percentage of voters who now do know what to do.

I will have more questions about this for after the runoff, but in the meantime I came across this story from Bexar County, which is my nominee for the cutting edge leader in doing this right.

After a rocky first election under new requirements for voting by mail, Bexar County Elections officials are celebrating a sharp decline in rejection of mail ballots.

Though more Bexar County voters voted by mail in the May 7 election than had in the Mar. 1 primary, the preliminary mail ballot rejection rate of 3% was far lower than the 21.7% that left thousands of ballots uncounted two months earlier.

[…]

“Those [March] numbers – it was a tragedy. It was personal. It was personal to us. Everything is personal to us,” said Elena Guajardo, a mail clerk for the Bexar County Elections Department.

Trying to avoid a repeat of the issues in the primary, Bexar County Elections officials highlighted the new requirement on the elections department website ahead of the May 7 election.

They also included an informational insert in every mail ballot, alerting voters to the new ID requirement and recommended writing both numbers, in case one of them wasn’t linked to their voter registration.

Their efforts appear to have paid off.

“We had a success story in this election,” said Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen, who previously said a typical election would “probably” have a 2% to 3% rejection rate.

That story was from May 13, before the official canvass and the deadline for curing deficient ballots, so the numbers may have changed a bit. Regardless, this is damned impressive. Some of it was just learning from the initial experience and being able to be prepped from day one, which was not the case in March due to slowness in providing information by the Secretary of State, and part of it is clearly this strategy of pointing the voters in the right direction up front. Bexar County was talking about this at the time, and now that we can see how well it worked, every other county should look to emulate them. It’s a pain that they have to do this, but it is what it is. Kudos to Bexar County for showing the way.

Tomorrow is Primary Runoff Day

You know the drill, this is your last chance to vote in the primary runoffs. We will finally have the 2022 lineup set for November and can concentrate all of our attention and attacks on the other guys. The map of Tuesday voting locations in Harris County is here – there will be 263 locations, you can vote at any of them, but remember that this map only shows 50 at a time, so if you don’t see something close to you either go to the next 50 or search by your address. An alphabetized list of all locations is here.

I continue to be obsessed by mail ballots and their rejection rates, which was a huge story in March and (very annoyingly) has largely dropped off the radar since. I have some info about mail ballot rejections in the May election in the next post, and in the same search for news that I did on Sunday I found this story from El Paso about their primary runoff experience so far.

More than one of every seven mail ballots cast in El Paso for the primary runoff elections were rejected, mostly because of failure to comply with new steps required this year, the county’s election administrator said.

That rejection rate is much higher than in previous years, when fewer than 10% of mail ballots were thrown out, but down from the 45% rejection rate in the first week of early voting for the March 1 primary.

[…]

Through Wednesday, 562 mail-in ballots — or about 15% of the more than 3,800 cast — had been returned to voters, most because they did not include a driver’s license number or last four digits of their Social Security number on the ballot envelope, El Paso County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise said.

Wise said 165 of the returned ballots had been “cured” as of Wednesday, meaning voters had fixed the error. The 397 remaining rejected mail-in ballots — and any others that might be rejected before Tuesday’s runoff elections — can only be counted if they’re cured by next week.

[…]

Wise said the elections office has been proactive in trying to reduce the number of rejected ballots.

“This election, we began highlighting the carrier envelope from the beginning, alerting voters to the required information. That happened about halfway through with the primary election,” she said. “I believe that is helping with the percentage (of rejected ballots), and many of these voters are getting a second look at the new requirements as well.”

In the March primary, more than 1,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in the first week of early voting. Many voters were able to cure their ballots, but more than 700 mail-in ballots in El Paso County were discarded after election officials found non-compliance with state law and the voters failed to fix the problem. An El Paso Matters analysis found that the vast majority of rejected ballots were from regular voters, many of whom had been registered to vote in the county for decades.

That last sentence is why I’ve been beating the drum about this, and emphasizing that the Democratic Party and its candidates, groups, clubs, and volunteers need to be leading the effort to educate their voters. (The rejection rate in Harris County was at about twelve percent, better than March but still too high.) Some county election offices have been doing a good job of this, but we can’t count on that. This is fixable, but people have to know what they need to do. And if you have received a mail ballot but for whatever the reason decide you want to vote in person, bring the mail ballot with you and turn it in when you go to vote in person.

Debtors’ court, part 2

Also not good.

One day last September, while trying to pay for groceries, Leslie Alvarez got the shock of her life. All the money in her bank account had disappeared.

The Houston single mother called her bank. An employee told Alvarez that her accounts had been placed on a legal hold. A person she did not know had been authorized to remove money from her accounts.

“I had to tell my kids they had to wait awhile so I could go make money to get what they needed,” she said.

Alvarez was forced to pay up on a $1,500 cash loan as part of a debt judgment issued against her in a Harris County civil court.

Texas doesn’t allow people’s wages to be garnished to pay off debts unless it is to collect child support. By law, however, courts can designate special officers, known as turnover receivers, to force payments by freezing or seizing bank accounts. The legal process became popular in Harris County but has been used all over the state more commonly in recent years, officials say.

“This is the only real way a debt collector can hurt you,” said Craig Noack, a creditor’s attorney in San Antonio who also serves as a court-appointed receiver in Texas.

At issue, though, is whether courts have adequate oversight to ensure a fair process.

Each year, tens of thousands of Texans are subject to a bank seizure as a result of a default judgment that was declared against them because they didn’t show up in court to fight a lawsuit over a debt.

But here’s the dilemma: Most debtors don’t know that they can have their bank accounts cleaned when a debt collector wins a default judgment against them unless they claim exemptions for certain sources of funds, such as child support, Social Security, unemployment benefits and retirement funds. Alvarez had child support payments in her accounts when they were seized.

Just this month, the Supreme Court of Texas took its first steps to establish parameters that would ensure that debtors are informed of their rights to claim exemptions. Under new rules, which took effect May 1, debt collectors must provide at least 17 days for debtors to inform courts that they have funds or property that is exempt from seizure.

“The purpose of these rules and forms is to try to help even out a little bit the playing field so that the debtors get more information,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said.

[…]

In the Houston region and other large Texas counties, default judgments rose by 86 percent between 2012 and last year, data show.

“As long as people don’t respond, debt collectors can get a default judgment,” said Ann Baddour, director of the fair financial services project at Texas Appleseed, a consumer advocacy group in Austin. “There’s just this motivation to move forward and sue.”

Even the Texas Creditors Bar Association, a statewide organization of attorneys that engages in debt collections, says it wants to make sure debt collectors don’t take money that is protected by law.

They support the notifications, said Noack, who represented the Texas Creditors Bar Association in discussions before the Supreme Court Advisory Committee about the new rules.

“You’re not going to find a creditor’s attorney out there who wants to take somebody’s Social Security,” he said.

Yet, among the many concerns consumer advocates say still must be addressed is the lack of oversight in Texas courts regarding the appointment of the court officers or turnover receivers.

Texas courts have no way to prevent abuses — or even mistakes — because judges are not required to track their appointments or keep periodic reports on the status of seizures, Houston consumer attorney Benjamin Sanchez said.

“You have these receivers who are doing things but not necessarily reporting back to the court,” Sanchez said.

See here for the previous entry. I hope we can all agree that no one should have their bank account drained as the result of a default judgment where they hadn’t known they needed to appear in court. There needs to be a lot more oversight here, and that’s first a job for the Legislature and then a job for the court system. One possible aspect to a solution might be a public defender system for civil litigation, modeled on the same system for criminal defendants. This is an idea I’ve seen advocated by others, and it makes sense on the principle that everyone should have the right to a lawyer to represent them in court. I’m no expert, I’m just throwing out an idea here. Whatever the case, there’s a real need for reform.

So what did happen with the HD147 special election?

I was alerted by a comment on an earlier post to this.

Danielle Bess

Things are getting heated in the race to replace State Representative Garnet Coleman in District 147.

Jolanda Jones narrowly won the race in Saturday’s special election with 202 more votes than Danielle Keys Bess, according to Harris County.

But Bess is calling for an audit of Saturday’s special election results with a focus on mail-in ballots.

In an open letter to the Harris County Elections Board Administrator Thursday, Bess questioned the number of mail-in ballots counted.

She said the there were twice as many mail ballots Saturday compared to the March primary. But the early voting and election day turnout numbers were much lower Saturday than during the primary.

Jones responded by accusing Bess of “taking a page straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook.”

“Just like Donald Trump, and with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, my opponent is trying to overturn the results of a valid election with a bogus audit of mail ballots,” Jones said in a statement. “I expect she will next announce the hiring of Rudy Giuliani to lead the effort and organize a riot at Commissioners Court on the day the valid election results are certified.”

You can see the open letter on Instagram. I know what an election contest is, and I know what a recount is, but this was new to me. So I asked the elections office, and I was told that this was a reference to the post-election audit, also known as the Partial Manual Count. This audit is required for all elections that have paper ballots. It’s not something a candidate can request or specify a race for. The SOS selects a number of precincts and races to review, and the elections office has to hand count the paper ballots to ensure they match the digital records. Local election officials do not have any control over what is asked to be audited or what precincts are chosen for the audit.

I am told that the SOS selected ten precincts from the State Proposition 2 election for the Partial Manual Count. The deadline for the results of the PMC to be reported is May 28.

I also called Danielle Bess and asked her if she was requesting a recount or filing an election contest, and she said not at this time. Unless that changes, this is the end of the story for the HD147 special election.

Is there something unusual about the mail ballot totals in the HD147 special election? Bess’ open letter talks about how much greater a portion of the final vote total mail ballots were in the May special election than they were in the March primary. In the May special election, HD147 mail ballots were 29.4% of all ballots cast. But mail ballots were 26.0% of all ballots cast in Harris County in the May election (31,157 mail ballots cast in May out of 119,721 total). If that had been the proportion in HD147 there would have been 1,273 mail ballots instead of 1,440, a difference of 177. Jolanda Jones won by 205 votes, so you can’t make up the difference this way.

Mail ballots in HD147 in March were 9.58% of the total. Mail ballots overall in Harris County in the Democratic primary were 10.59% of the total. So mail ballots were proportionally a larger share of the total in HD147 in May than in March, but not by enough to raise my eyebrows. These were different elections, and Team Jolanda clearly had an incentive to push mail ballots, since she did so well with them in March. As I said before, this looks like the successful execution of a strategy to me. Mail ballots are clearly a big part of the vote in the primary runoff right now, but that can change as there’s still Runoff Day to be had, and there will surely be a push by all candidates to get people out to vote on Tuesday. I’ll check and see what those numbers look like afterwards.

2022 primary runoff Day Five EV report: Yes, I have some info about mail ballots

Early voting has concluded for the primary runoffs. Here’s the final EV report, and here are the final totals:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    16,767  25,294   42,061
GOP    13,187  50,498   63,685

You can compare to Day Three. As is always the case, the last day was the busiest for in person voting. Republicans have already exceeded their runoff turnout from 2018, but they only had four races then, and only one of them was countywide, for a District Court position. The runoff in CD02 generated more than half of their total votes. Dems had a runoff for Governor, for all of the countywide executive positions, and for CD07. We will end up with more votes in this runoff than in 2018, though given the different nature of each, for each party, I don’t know how much it matters. I’ll put it to you this way: Dems had 35K turnout in the 2006 primary runoff, which was almost the same amount as the 2006 primary. Republicans drew all of 10K for their runoff, which consisted of one appellate court position and the open seat in HD133. You have to look past the topline numbers, because the races themselves matter.

Anyway. At a wild guess, I’d say Dems end up with 60-70K, Republicans with 85-100K. I’m told (because I asked) that mail ballot rejections were running at around 12% and trending slightly down after the initial batch. Still way too high, but at least it’s down from where we were in March. I’ll be on the lookout for totals from around the state. Have you voted yet?

On reporting election night results faster

Not sure about this.

Ahead of next week’s primary runoff elections, Harris County officials are recruiting county staffers to help speed up the results by picking up ballots at polling locations and driving them to the county’s central count location. Harris County was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting ballots in an election held earlier this month, even with assistance from law enforcement officers who took on delivery duties.

In the past, the responsibility of delivering the ballots has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Starting with the May 7 election, law enforcement officers with the Harris County Constables offices and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office picked up the ballots and made the delivery instead. The change didn’t do much to cut down on reporting time. While Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 a.m. Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

This week, Harris County officials plan to train and deputize full-time county staffers from various departments to take on those delivery duties, as well. An email sent to county staffers on Tuesday from Harris County Administrator Dave Berry and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria requested volunteers to help expedite the process.

“What’s required? Drive to a single polling location and pick up two sets of voting equipment, from both the Democratic and Republican sides, for the May 24th Primary Runoff Election. Return the equipment to NRG and be greeted with snacks, water, and a big THANK YOU for your service,” officials wrote in the email.

Each participating law enforcement officer or county employee will be assigned on average two polling locations, which will cut down by half the total number of cars lined up at central count at the end of the night, according to a spokesperson with the Election Administrator’s office.

While all Texas counties must comply with the state election code regulations — which were modified significantly when Senate Bill 1 went into effect last year — the Election Day ballot counting process varies considerably depending on the county.

At a May 11 hearing with the House Elections Committee, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers his county speeds up results by using multiple dropoff spots on Election Night, instead of one central count location.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional dropoff locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Rep. Mike Schofield, a Harris County Republican, told Longoria and committee members he was alarmed by Harris County’s plans to deputize county staffers to make deliveries.

“I would be very, very troubled to find out in November that we were just deputizing whoever the elections office thought it wanted to deputize to go touch my election results and bring them to the central counting station,” he said. “So let’s make sure that we know what the law is and that we’re following it because that’s not kosher. Or at least doesn’t seem kosher.”

According to the story, Keith Ingram of the SOS office said he disagreed with Harris County’s interpretation of the law in question. He’s not a lawyer and that’s not an official pronouncement, but that sounds to me like it’s maybe not the best plan to pursue, as there could be unwanted consequences from it. I will say, it’s not clear to me why this would be illegal. I can’t think of any reason why trained county staff would be any less reliable or trustworthy than election judges, who had to be trained by the same election office people to do the same thing. Maybe this is just a quirk of the law if in fact it is not in compliance with it, maybe there was some nutball conspiracy theory reason for county election workers to be not on the sanctioned list of vote-equipment-deliverers, or maybe there’s a legitimate reason that I’m not aware of. All I can say is that at first glance it’s not clear to me why it should be off limits.

That said, rather than risk a confrontation over this, maybe the multiple dropoff points plan is better, as that seems to be how other counties do it. I will confess total ignorance here about why that might not work for Harris County. Maybe it’s just not a thing we’ve done before and so we don’t have a workable plan in place. I’d say one of the first questions we should be asking the next Election Administrator is what they think about this.

There’s also this:

The Harris County GOP is urging Republican election judges to break with Harris County’s election night plan for next week’s primary runoff, arguing the county’s ballot delivery protocol violates the law. Earlier this week, Harris County officials sent an email to county staffers asking for volunteer drivers to help expedite the ballot counting process for the upcoming primary runoff. 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.

In hopes of speeding up election results, the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office also used this plan earlier this month in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s sole central counting station. However, the Harris County GOP is pushing back on that plan and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots to central count themselves.

While the Harris County GOP is opposing the county’s ballot delivery plan, in an email to the Chronicle, party chair Cindy Siegel outlined strategies they would support in order to speed up election results. Those included better tracking of equipment and improved training for staffers receiving ballots.

Their key recommendation: “Include multiple drop off locations around the county with livestream video of the drop off process.”

At the May 11 hearing, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers that’s the system they use to speed up results.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional drop-off locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Under the tenure of former Republican County Clerk Stan Stanart, Harris County used four drop-off locations to count ballots. Stanart reassured voters the system of transmitting ballot counts was secure.

When the county clerk’s office flipped to Democratic control in 2018, the new County Clerk Diane Trautman intended to use multiple locations, as well, but scrapped the plan after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said the county would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet. Trautman told Commissioners Court in November 2019 she believed her system to relay results was legal, but rather than risk a lawsuit, Harris County would begin to count votes at a single location.

In this year’s primary election on March 1, Harris County used four drop-off locations to shorten the drive time for election judges, according to the Elections Administrator’s office spokesperson Leah Shah. She said they’ve returned to one drop-off location while trying to implement a program to reduce the need for multiple locations.

In response to the Harris County GOP urging judges to transport ballots themselves, Shah said the Elections Administrator’s office has sent out an email to GOP election judges notifying them that they can “opt in” to the county’s plan if they don’t want to drive the ballots themselves. Thirty-one GOP judges have opted in so far, according to Shah.

Someone is going to need to explain to me what Tarrant County is doing differently than what Harris County would have done under Diane Trautman’s plan. Having multiple dropoff locations makes sense to me, so let’s figure out what needs to happen from there and go forward with it. Make that a top priority for the next elections administrator. And again, election night reporting for the earlier May election was fine. If we have a similar experience on Tuesday night, that too will be fine.

2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Lots of optimism in here.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s final survey of the Houston area leaves him with hope. Yes, residents are concerned about the economy and crime, and their mental health has not improved even as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to wane, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to the 2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey released Tuesday.

Shifting attitudes toward public education, diversity and Houston’s place in America’s growth, in particular, give Klineberg reason for optimism — and if there’s anyone here who can claim to be an expert on Houston’s population, it’s the man who has annually written the most comprehensive report on the city’s residents since the survey’s inception in 1981.

“It’s hard to be pessimistic over the long haul in Houston because there’s just so many things happening in Houston. Whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you care about, there’s wonderful things happening in the city, and a population that really cares about Houston and wants it to succeed,” Klineberg said.

Still, there’s no denying that Houstonians have real concerns about the state of the city. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s 1,958 randomly selected respondents said that the economy was their biggest concern, and crime closely followed with 25 percent.

The pandemic also left lasting scars on residents’ mental health. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that their stress and anxiety have increased, and 57 percent reported feeling increasingly lonely and isolated since the pandemic started over two years ago.

[…]

Nearly two-thirds of Houston-area residents said they support a person’s right to an abortion for any reason, and more than 90 percent said they support it if the person’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.

Klineberg was glad to see, for the first time since the survey began, that a majority of non-Hispanic white people, 51 percent, agree that people of color don’t have the same opportunities as them — a 15 percent rise since 2020. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic people now agree with that statement, and 17 percent of Black people.

“For the first time over the years of the surveys, majorities in all three of Houston’s largest ethnic communities now agree in acknowledging the racial inequities in access to economic opportunity in American society today,” the report states.

The survey later adds that “area residents of all ethnicities have been giving increasingly positive evaluations to relations among the ethnic communities, and they are more likely than ever before to say that they have close personal friends across the ethnic divides.”

That’s especially important in Houston, says Klineberg, because U.S. census projections show that the rest of the country will mirror Harris County’s racially diverse demographic in the coming decades, according to the report.

“Houston is called upon to be a model for the rest of the nation, to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society, comprising virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered here, in this one remarkable place,” the report states.

Among its most notable finds, for Klineberg, was a big jump in the percentage of people who support “significantly more money” for public schools, up to 67 percent from 55 percent in 2020. In 1995, that number was just 41 percent.

The steady rise in support for education funding signals to Klineberg that Houstonians may be moving away from the industrial mindset during the oil and gas boom of the 1960s and 1970s — when loose regulations, free enterprise and low taxes helped wealthy businessmen flourish, but left many others behind.

“Area residents, who have traditionally been opposed to government intervention of almost any sort, appear to be rethinking their basic assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty in America,” the report states.

See here for what I had on the 2020 Survey. I must have missed the 2021 Survey but I’ve blogged about several others in the past: 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. The Kinder HAS page is here, and I recommend you peruse it when you get a minute. As the story notes, Dr. Stephen Klineberg is retiring from Rice after doing this survey work for 40 years, which has been a huge boon for all of us. There’s a nice retrospective of his work here. Enjoy!

2022 primary runoff Day Three EV report: Not quite as many mail ballots

Let’s get right to it. Here is the Day Three EV report for the primary runoffs. Here are the vote totals through Wednesday:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    15,675  10,993   26,668
GOP    12,735  26,794   39,527

And as a reminder, here they were for Day One:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    20,357   3,050   23,407
GOP    20,735   8,049   28,782

You may be wondering, as was Campos and as was I, what happened with the mail ballot totals? I called the Election Office to ask. The short answer is that they accidentally combined the Dem and GOP mail ballot totals in putting together the Monday report. They realized the error Tuesday morning, found where they had gone wrong, and fixed it for the Tuesday evening report. If you compare the numbers in the daily report to those in the unofficial ballot by mail report, the totals will match – I checked that on Wednesday before the Day Three report came out, and both it and the early voting roster numbers synched up. That’s all there was to it.

As for turnout so far, obviously the Republicans have more. The AG race is probably the main driver, but runoffs are funny, with a shorter timeframe for voting and fewer races of interest. In 2018, Dems went from 167,982 in the primary to 57,590 in the runoff. Republicans went from 156,387 in their primary to 50,959 in their runoff. I expect both to be exceeded this time around. Beyond that, not much to say. I’ll be voting today. Have you voted yet?

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

2022 primary runoff Day One EV report: Lots of mail ballots

No news story yet as I write this, so let’s just jump right in. Here is the Day One EV report for the primary runoffs. Note that there are only five days of early voting in the runoff – as of this morning, there are now four days left – so I won’t be doing any comparisons with March, and since every runoff is its own little universe I won’t compare with previous years. You can see the final EV report for March here, though do note that several thousand more mail ballots arrived between the Friday and the following Tuesday – in total, there were about 29K total mail ballots returned as of the final results. Just over 50K mail ballots were sent out to the primary voters – we know what happened to a bunch of them, but however you want to think about it a bit less than sixty percent of all mail ballots were successfully returned.

Here are the totals so far after the first day of early voting for the runoffs:


Party    Mail   Early    Total
==============================
Dem    20,357   3,050   23,407
GOP    20,733   8,049   28,782

That’s 41K mail ballots returned, with just under 55K ballots being sent out, for a successful return rate close to 80% so far, and that will go up as more ballots come in. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a sign that the problems of March have been at least somewhat ameliorated. To be sure, these are people who almost certainly voted in March and thus have learned their own lessons from that experience. This is why I was so keen to see numbers from the May election, because that had to include a lot more first-timers. This is still an encouraging sign, even if it’s for a smaller population.

This also means that the main thing to watch for going forward is the in person voting population, as there aren’t that many mail ballots left to return and there won’t be any more sent out. I don’t feel like trawling through the past to see what the pattern for these five-day EV periods looks like, but I’d bet a dollar that Friday will be the busiest day. It’s probably not too busy now, so take advantage of the shorter lines while you can.

Primary checkup

Let me start this post off by once again noting that I cannot find any reporting, like at all, about how many mail ballots were rejected for the May elections. Just nothing. It’s as if interest in the subject by anyone but me disappeared after all of the March stories. Maybe that will change with the primary runoffs, I don’t know. But man, am I discouraged by the lack of curiosity about this.

In searching for such stories, I came across this instead.

Texas lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to examine the reasons for election result delays and the effectiveness of new requirements for poll watchers.

When Texans took to the polls on March 1 for the first primary of the 2022 midterm elections, it was the first time statewide voting had taken place under a controversial new law that made several changes to the state’s voting system. Senate Bill 1 was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last September, after months of Democrats rallying and using procedural measures to block any action from being taken on it.

The Texas House Elections Committee began Wednesday’s meeting by asking state and county election officials why election results were delayed for the March primary election.

Speaking first before the committee was Isabell Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, the state’s largest county and home to Houston. Longoria said that many challenges larger counties face in reporting election results quickly are caused by the state’s new paper ballot system and rigid requirements on when to report results.

“This paper ballot system that we are moving to, I think has some, let us call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas Election Code,” Longoria told the lawmakers.

The challenges she cites include issues keeping track of and recording ballots that could be up to two pages long. In Texas, a person’s ballot is first inserted into a machine that records the choices made and prints them out on a physical copy. After that, the ballot is inserted into another machine where the votes are recorded and the paper ballot is stored before being transported to a central counting facility.

When asked by Representative John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, what else could be done to alleviate challenges for election workers, Longoria responded that defining what timely reporting means would be helpful. She pointed to the time needed to ensure every voter in line by 7 p.m. has an opportunity to vote, the time it takes to transport ballots through traffic and the time required to correct human errors. All of these factors lead to delays, Longoria said, stressing that the best solution could be to give larger counties more leeway, so they are not held to a strict time requirement.

The Chron also covered this. I get the concern, and I agree that Harris is an outlier, though the other big urban counties are also geographically large and have bad traffic, too. As I said, I thought Harris County’s reporting on the May election was basically fine, with the posting of regular updates going a long way towards alleviating anxiety about how it was going. Final results were available by the time most people would have been getting ready to begin their day on Sunday. I don’t see why anyone should freak out about that.

Which again isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. I strongly suspect Harris County could crib a bit from other counties’ processes. If there is some change that could be made to SB1 to make it easier on them, that should be considered as well – if we all care about getting results in a timely fashion, that should be an easy sell. But we should also note that in some states, like the ones that actually promote and widely use mail ballots, sometimes final results are not known for a few days. I don’t remember there being much discussion about the effect that adding paper ballots might have on election reporting as SB1 was being passed. Harris is also one of the newcomers to using printed ballots along with their electronic voting machines. There have been a lot of changes – maybe we just need to let things work themselves out a bit.

This story did at least mention the topic that now obsesses me:

Notably absent from the committee’s agenda was the increased number of rejected mail-in ballots as a result of a new Identification requirement in SB 1. The law requires voters who fill out a mail-in ballot to provide their driver’s license or Social Security number, depending on which was used to register to vote in the state.

Of the over 3 million ballots cast in the March primary, 24,636 mail-in ballots were not counted due to the new requirements. In many instances, voters failed to include the identification number on their ballot and others put a number that did not match the form of identification they used to register to vote, leading to their ballot being rejected.

[James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project] said that the issues discussed during the committee hearing should not have been their primary focus.

“The most important issue facing our elections right now is the catastrophic rate of vote-by-mail rejections that SB 1 caused,” said Slattery. “The committee is not facing this crisis of democracy that they caused.”

The absence of this issue was also noted by Representative Bucy before the meeting came to a close.

“We have 24,000 vote-by-mail ballots thrown out this last primary, did you say we will have a hearing to address that?” Bucy asked committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “I just think that is a crisis and I want to make sure this committee is on top of it.”

“Yes,” Cain responded. “The chair intends to do so.”

Cain said that after the May 24 runoff election, the committee will have more information to better examine the issue, leaving the impact of SB 1 still under the watchful eye of lawmakers, election officials and voters.

I mean, there’s still no reason why reporters at the newspapers can’t ask their local election admins about this. Surely there are some numbers out there to be had.

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

Early voting for the May 24 primary runoffs starts tomorrow

You know the drill. Primary runoffs are on, with early voting going on this week, Monday to Friday May 16 to May 20. Because it’s a runoff, you only get those five days. Voting happens from 7 AM to 7 PM each day, and you can find your EV locations here with the PDF here. As with the May special election it’s a smaller list of EV locations – it looks to me like there’s a handful more, but definitely fewer than it was for March and will be for November. Look to see if your favorite place is in use before you head out.

I’ve talked about the Chron’s lack of endorsements in the three judicial races they skipped for March till I’m blue in the face, for all the good it did me. The Chron chose instead to just re-run their original endorsements instead of considering the other races, which is not what I would have had them do. You can find all the judicial Q&As and interviews I did for the primary here, plus the ones I did for Janet Dudding, Staci Childs, and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot. The Erik Manning spreadsheet is still there, too.

We still have no idea how mail ballots went in the May election. Maybe if we’re good and we eat all our vegetables someone will report on that for this election. If you are a mail voter or know someone who is, please let us know if the experience was any different this time around versus in March. These were our chances to get it (more) right. It sure would be nice to know if that was successful. In the meantime, go vote.

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.

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

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.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Oh yeah, Hotze knew all about the Aguirre attack

Who could have ever guessed that a lifelong lying lair was lying to us?

Two days before a private investigator looking into a voter fraud conspiracy theory smashed into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on him, far-right activist Steven Hotze called then-U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and told him about the plans to have “a wreck,” court documents show.

Hotze, who funded the investigation and now faces felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, asked Patrick whether he could send federal marshals to help his private investigator. The investigator, former Houston Police Department captain Mark Aguirre, faces the same charges.

Hotze’s attorneys long have claimed Hotze was unaware of the encounter between Aguirre and the repairman until he saw it on the news after the episode. The transcript suggests otherwise.

“We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights and still my, my, Mark Aguirre, he said he wants to capture them when they bring (the ballots) out and leave tonight to deliver them but he needs a federal marshal with him,” Hotze says in the Oct. 17 call, according to a transcript submitted in Hotze’s criminal case by the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Hotze added later in the call: “In fact, (Aguirre) told me last night, hell, I’m gonna have, the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest.”

Two days later, Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into the back of the air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on the man around 5:30 a.m.. He expected to find thousands of ballots in the man’s truck, but there only were repair tools.

In addition to the criminal case, the repairman has sued Hotze in a civil case.

The transcript says Patrick recorded the call. It is unclear what Patrick did with the information or the recording after talking with Hotze.

[…]

According to the transcript, Patrick rejected Hotze’s request, telling him that as U.S. attorney he did not have marshals that report to him or investigative staff. Even if he did, Patrick said, he would need probable cause and approval from the Department of Justice to assist.

“I can’t just send marshals. That’s not, the marshals don’t work for me,” Patrick said. “I don’t have any, there are no federal agents that work for me. I don’t have officers, I don’t have investigators, like a DA’s office. I don’t have any peace officers or federal agents that work for me.”

Both Hotze and Aguirre have denied wrongdoing.

A former Harris County prosecutor called the recording “extremely significant,” because the district attorney’s office will have to use the “law of parties” principle — which can hold people criminally responsible for the actions of someone else — in their case against Hotze.

“Having a conversation ahead of time, whether recorded or with a reputable individual such as Ryan Patrick, that there was a plan to have an accident — that certainly shows he was involved in this conspiracy,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former prosecutor who worked at the district attorney’s office from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s basically what you would need to prosecute this case,” he said.

[…]

Previous court documents said Aguirre had called the attorney general’s office days before the alleged assault and asked it to conduct a traffic stop of the repairman.

In the new transcript, Hotze tells Patrick the attorney general’s office “is just AWOL” and he cannot try enlisting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, “obviously because they’re Democrats.” Hotze suggests he may try to find a constable who would assist Aguirre.

Hotze also said Aguirre planned to have an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement there, in hopes of threatening to deport the man to coerce a confession. Hotze said the people “running the ring are all illegals.”

About six minutes into the call, Patrick tells Hotze he has received the information but he has to go. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then was serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There’s a ton of backstory here, but this is a good place to start. I have some sympathy for Ryan Patrick, who I can picture with a pained expression on his face as he’s trying to disconnect from this raving lunatic on his phone. In retrospect, maybe he could have tried to warn someone about what Hotze was up to, but it’s not clear to me who he could have tipped off, and what could have been done about it by whoever he informed. The fact that he declined to get involved in the seditious insanity is sufficient, with a lot of bonus points for recording the call. He did not disgrace himself or his office, and honestly that’s all I really want from most Republicans these days.

Anyway, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill, who has as strained a relationship with truth and reality as Hotze does, claims in the story that this recording will actually bolster Hotze’s defense and prove that he’s innocent, and yeah, no. Given how this has gone so far, and the depraved character of the main players, it won’t shock me if more evidence along these lines surfaces. I’m sure the attorneys for David Lopez, the AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked who is suing Hotze for hopefully every last penny he has, are busy taking notes right about now. In the meantime and in conclusion, lock him up. The streets are not safe as long as Steven Hotze is free to walk them.

Two judges sanctioned by Judicial Conduct Commission

Not a good look, and really bad timing for one of them.

A pair of Harris County civil court judges have been sanctioned for behavior in their courtrooms, with one judge allowing the shackling of attorneys and another erupting into fits of rage during a trial.

The reprimand applies to Judge Barbara Stalder in the 280th Family Protective Order Court for holding an attorney in contempt during a February 2020 hearing and then ordering the bailiff to shackle him to a chair in the jury box, according to State Commission on Judicial Conduct documents. A week later, the judge did the same with another attorney.

The commission also ordered that Judge Clinton “Chip” Wells in the 312th Family District Court be admonished and undergo two hours of education on how to appropriately conduct himself for courtroom outbursts of anger aimed at lawyer Teresa Waldrop during an April 2019 divorce trial.

Stalder could not be reached Friday as the commission’s ruling from April 20 was made public. Wells acknowledged that his actions were wrong.

“I made a mistake and I’m not hiding from that,” said Wells, who is facing Waldrop in the Democratic runoff election. “My behavior was not acceptable.”

You can read on for the details – as I said, it’s not a good look for either of them. Stalder was defeated in the March primary, so her situation is short-term no matter how you look at it. Wells is in the May primary runoff, and as it happens Waldrop is his opponent. I know from previous correspondence that she has pursued this matter for some time – the precipitating event was in April of 2019, so you can do the math.

I received judicial Q&A responses from Wells and Waldrop, so consult those if you still need to know more. I know these procedures take time, and I know that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct tends to release their orders in groups on a regular rather than ad hoc basis, but it would have been nice to have known all this before we voted in March, especially given the Chron’s grievous lack of endorsements in non-criminal court races. You don’t have to hold this against either Judge Wells or Judge Stalder if you don’t want to – it would be perfectly defensible to conclude that their merits outweighed these incidents, or that they were still better than their opponents, or that this was just one bad day on the job, or whatever. Obviously, fair minds may disagree on that. All I’m saying is that I’d have preferred to have had as full a picture as possible before I voted. Given that Stalder lost her primary and that Waldrop led Wells 46-28 in March, perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference. It still would have been nice.

May 7 election results

Very briefly…

The two constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly. I began writing this post at around 8 PM when all we had were early voting results, but statewide in early voting both propositions were over 85%. They were at 86% and 83% in Harris County.

Jolanda Jones had the early voting edge in HD147, leading by about eleven points. That was a gap of about 300 votes out of 2800 cast, so it’s possible it could get closer, but even without seeing the election day returns, I’d say Jones is the winner.

In the HCC special election, Charlene Ward Johnson (40%) and Kathy Lynch Gunter (36%) were the clear leaders and should be the candidates in the runoff. Maybe the Chron will pay attention to this race and (heaven help us) make an endorsement for it. No, I’m never going to stop being salty about that.

I’ll see what happens in the other races in a later post. Maybe we’ll finally learn something about how many mail ballots were rejected, too.

UPDATE: John Coby reports on the CCISD results.

Tomorrow is May Election Day

Vote if you haven’t, then get ready to vote again in the primary runoffs.

Texas’ constitutional amendment election will take place on Saturday, May 7.

There are local propositions on the ballot, too, which vary by region. But at the statewide level, Texans will decide on two measures aiming to cut property taxes.

Proposition 1 would approve the tax cuts for elderly and disabled homeowners beginning in 2023, while a second measure seeks to raise the state’s homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, lowering school property taxes by about $176 a year, on average.

Find your polling place here.

Polls will be open from 7 AM to 7 PM as usual. In Harris County you have the interactive map of polling locations and the PDF listing, which has them all in alphabetical order. I strongly suspect you will not have much of a line wherever you go.

I remain terribly disappointed with the Chronicle’s lack of coverage of these races. I can understand skimping on the HD147 special election, as the stakes there are low, but not paying any attention to the HCC special election is a travesty. As before, you can at least listen to the interviews I’ve done with the candidates and make up your own mind based on them. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

I’m disappointed that the Chron never endorsed in that latter race or in the Constitutional amendment races. I’m comfortable saying that a Yes vote on the two propositions is fine, but go read the resources in this post, or watch this video I did with Diana Martinez Alexander and Michelle Palmer. It covers more than just the amendments on the ballot, and I’m mostly cribbing from the League of Women Voters info, but if you’d rather hear me say it than read about it, there you go. I’ll have results on Sunday, and we’ll shift gears to the primary runoffs after that. Early voting for those begins on May 16, which is to say a week from Monday, and because it’s a runoff it only lasts five days. You will definitely run into longer lines for that one.

May 2022 special election Day Nine EV report: I still have no idea what’s happening with mail ballots

Yesterday was the last day for early voting in the May 7 special statewide election and other races. This Chron story rather belatedly gives an overview of the various contests on the ballot. You know what it doesn’t even mention in passing? How many mail ballots have been rejected this time around. I did a similar search for news stories as before about mail ballots this time around and found nothing. Problem solved, I guess. Insert massive shrug emoji here.

It’s true that there are some consequential and contentious school board races out there, with plenty of frothing at the mouth about “critical race theory” and banning books. I’m glad the Chron has devoted some coverage to that, though I’d argue that there should have been more and there definitely should have been at least one full article dedicated to the HCC special election. But here we are, so go educate yourself as best you can if you haven’t voted yet.

I should note, I did find this article about how the current wave of voter suppression laws has really made things harder for folks with disabilities, especially after all of the pandemic accommodations that were made and that helped them in 2020. Maybe someday SCOTUS will have a little more sympathy for the disability community than they have had for voters of color (which is an extremely low bar to clear), but that’s firmly in “I’ll believe it when I see it” territory.

Here is the final EV report for this election. At the end of early voting, there were 48,130 in person ballots, about 22K of which were cast Monday and Tuesday. It’s nice to know that even for a weird election like this, the usual pattern of early voting turnout still holds. There were 24,604 mail ballots, for a total of 72,734. I still don’t see any stories addressing, or even asking, the question of the rejection rate. Maybe that will come up again for the primary runoff. Until then, who knows.

May 2022 special election Day Seven EV report: Hey, this thing is almost over

As of today, there are just two days of early voting left for the May 2022 election, whether regular or special depending on who you are and what you may have to vote for. Election Day is on Saturday, so early voting ends on Tuesday, leaving the usual three days in between. I can just about guarantee you that if you show up to vote – you do have the two constitutional amendments on your ballot, no matter where you are – you will be in and out promptly. How do I know? This was my experience at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray on Saturday:

I was in and out in less than two minutes. Seriously, this will take you no time at all.

I expect these amendments to pass without any difficulty, so it’s not of vital importance what you do there. What is of greater importance for Harris County voters are the special elections, the school board and school bond elections. There’s the HD147 special election and the HCC special election, and I’ve seen diddly squat in terms of coverage for them. The Chron hasn’t even bothered to endorse in the HCC special election, which to me is a real dereliction of their duty. You can at least listen to the interviews I’ve done with the candidates and make up your own mind based on them. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

There will be a runoff for HCC, so at least there will be a second chance to get to know who’s running. But really, why wait?

Here’s the EV daily report through Saturday, which is Day Six despite what the title of this post says. I didn’t feel like waiting until the Sunday report came in last night to finish this post, so there you have it. As of Saturday, 47,503 people had voted in Harris County, with 24,482 of those being in person and 23,021 by mail. Saturday was the tipping point for more in person votes than mail votes. I still have no idea how many mail ballots have been rejected. I will continue to keep an eye out for that. Have you voted, and if not do you intend to?

Debtors’ court

This is not good.

In this court and others in Bexar County, debt collection lawsuits more than doubled from 2012 to 2020.

“I’m trying to manage this behemoth, but there are some guidelines I have to follow as well,” said Roger “Rogelio” Lopez Jr., justice of the peace for Bexar County Precinct 4, who operates out of the Loop 410 courthouse.

Similar scenes are playing out from Houston to Dallas to Fort Worth as debt collectors sue a skyrocketing number of Texans over claims of unpaid credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other debts, a Houston Chronicle examination has found.

Debt collection lawsuits filed statewide have exploded by 73 percent from 2012 to 2021, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the Texas Office of the Court Administration.

For the first time in history, the 374,000 debt lawsuits filed in the Lone Star State last year made up nearly half of all civil cases in Texas, which include traffic tickets, landlord evictions and small claims such as disputes between neighbors. The crush of debt cases raises concerns that overwhelmed Texas civil courts can’t adequately review each lawsuit and deliver justice while juggling higher-priority cases, consumer advocates say.

That means judges face pressure to move debt lawsuits quickly to keep their dockets manageable. With only minutes to review cases, judges can miss important details, consumer advocates say. The rapid-fire justice puts a sharp focus on whether defendants can get a fair shake, said Mary Spector, professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Any public perception that the courts are merely rubber-stamping for the creditors is bad for the system,’’ said Spector, who directs a law clinic that works on behalf of consumers in debt litigation.

Texas adopted key provisions that have spurred debt collectors to crank out more cases in recent years.

From 2012 to 2020, state lawmakers passed legislation that gave debt collectors more flexibility to file cases in justice of the peace courts, where filing costs are lower and it takes less time to move cases on the docket. The changes, which included actions by the Supreme Court of Texas to revamp the debt collection process in civil courts, ultimately made it cheaper and faster for debt collectors to win judgments, consumer advocates said.

The Supreme Court of Texas, which is responsible for adopting processes and rules to ensure that state courts are efficient and fair, has been alarmed by the rise in caseloads, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht told the Chronicle.

“You need to worry about it,” Hecht said. “This is where the public meets the justice system.”

To address those concerns, the Legislature ordered the state Supreme Court to publish new rules that will require debt collectors to provide additional notification to debtors of their rights, he said. The rules take effect May 1.

Big corporations have high-powered attorneys to manage their interests. When they have a problem, they can ask for help from the Supreme Court. Hecht said they also can lobby the Legislature to prompt changes in state law.

“But this is about the little guy,” he said. “What the justice system has to do is to provide justice for the people who come to it. We want everybody walking away from the court saying, ‘Well, thank God for the court. I may have lost, you know, I wish that had not happened, but I got a fair shake.’ That’s why it’s so important to work on these cases.”

A Chronicle review of dozens of court documents, observations of legal proceedings and an examination of statewide data found that:

  • Last year, 45 percent of lawsuits filed in the state’s civil courts were against Texans for debt, according to data supplied to the Chronicle by the Texas Office of the Court Administration, the state agency that collects the data and operates under the direction of the Supreme Court. In 2017, debt lawsuits represented 30 percent of all civil filings.
  • Harris County saw a similar trend. Last year, debt collectors filed nearly 68,000 lawsuits in the county, an increase of 111 percent from 2015.
  • Cases settled by default judgment have increased since 2012. That means more cases are decided with defendants not present to fight a claim, and the court cannot weigh both sides equally before making a judgment. The number of default judgments in the Houston region and other large Texas counties totaled nearly 74,000 cases in 2021, an increase of 86 percent from 2012.
  • No court in the state has seen a more dramatic increase in debt suits than justice of peace courts. JPs, as they are known, preside over weddings, misdemeanors and truancies. Many JPs are not lawyers. Of the hundreds of thousands of debt collection lawsuits filed in Texas in 2021, 80 percent were in JP courts.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. Hopefully, the new rules will help, but this seem like a much deeper issue than that. Obviously, a lot of this is societal – poverty, access to attorneys, the ability to take time off from work to attend court hearings, and so on – and there’s not much the courts can do about that. But they can do their part to make sure the playing field inside the courthouse is level, and they need to do that. And the Lege needs to revisit this as well.

May 2022 special election Day Four EV report: Checking in on the mail ballots

In my first look at early voting for the May special election, I noted the fairly large number of mail ballots that had been cast so far in Harris County and wondered if we would hear about mail ballot rejections as we had so much during the primaries. Maybe things are better, maybe they’re not. I did a little Google News searching yesterday to see if I could find any coverage of mail ballot rejections for this election. The first story I saw was from a month ago.

It’s been nearly one week since the Lubbock County Elections Office sent out mail-in ballots for the city and school board elections in May and some have already been rejected.

Some voters are forgetting to include their ID information underneath the flap of the mail-in ballot envelope, the same issue Lubbock County saw during the March primaries.

Changes to the Texas Election Code require voters to include ID information on their mail-in ballot envelope. It’s a change Lubbock County Elections Administrator Roxzine Stinson says voters aren’t quite used to. Lubbock County had an 11 percent rejection rate in the March primaries. For the election on May 7, voters are considering two constitutional amendments, city offices, and making decisions for the future of their schools. Stinson says this election’s rejection rate is higher so far, but she thinks that will change.

“This one right now, because we haven’t had a whole lot, it’s at about 18 percent. But as ballots come back and as we get those corrected, it won’t be that high. I know as we all get familiar with the processes, and especially the voters, the numbers will go down as far as rejection rate. And we’ve always had a fairly low one, so, it’ll get there. It’s just it’s something new and we’re all learning,” she said.

Stinson says you must remember to put either your driver’s license or last four digits of your social security number under the flap of your mail-in ballot envelope. She says to fill out the section, seal the envelope, sign it and then it’s ready to mail. If your ballot is rejected, the Elections Office will notify you to make changes.

“What happens at that point, we try to contact them. Our Signature Verification Committee will reach out by phone call, we may email. If we catch it in time before it goes to them, we will mail it back to you with a new envelope so you can correct that under the flap and just send it back,” Stinson said.

The city and school election envelopes are green on one side, so they can be distinguished from other election envelopes. If you still need to request a mail-in ballot, you have to include your ID information that matches what’s on your voter registration record. Stinson says to play it safe and write down both your driver’s license and social security info. If you need help, Stinson says to give the Elections Office a call at 806-775-1338.

After all the preparation that goes into holding an election, Stinson hates rejecting a ballot.

“That hurts, I’m going to be honest, that hurts. I’ve been here 18 years and we’ve worked so hard all that time, really trying to keep clean voter rolls and I think we have one of the cleanest in the state,” Stinson said.

I’m sure other election offices are going through similar things right now. The question, for which I still don’t have a good answer, is how or if things have changed since March. Certainly, there are people working on it, but change takes time.

After tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were rejected for the March 1 primary election, advocates are raising concerns while seeing what they can do to avoid a repeat of this under the state’s new election security law that increased limits on mail-in voting.

[…]

AARP Texas Director Tina Tran said she was worried this means the votes of Texans 65-years-old and older were disproportionately tossed, since this group is traditionally the biggest percentage of voters who vote by mail.

“We do know of eligible voters who are able to vote by mail, voters 65 and older make up a huge percentage of those eligible. Those are our members. That’s our demographic. That’s who we fight for,” Tran said. “To see nearly 25,000 mail-in ballots rejected, I can glean from that it is a significant number of folks who are 65 and older. That’s why AARP is concerned. Of course, we have an interest in making sure people who want to vote are able to vote.”

Critics that included elections workers had raised alarms this could happen in the months leading up to the March 1 primary election.

[…]

Looking ahead, all eyes will be on the rejection rates for the May runoff election and November general election.

Tran said it will be on advocates and groups, like AARP Texas, to inform voters of the new measures that have thus far tripped up thousands of voters.

“Clearly, we have to step up our game. We’re not reaching certain people. There might be other trip-ups. One of the things we really need to pay attention to right now is why these ballots are getting rejected,” Tran said. “The numbers are deeply troubling. If we don’t change our strategy, if we don’t change our tactics, we could see numbers higher. Leading up to the general, if we get 12 % of mail-in ballots rejected, that’s a really significant number.”

From my perspective, it’s very much on the Texas Democratic Party, every county Democratic Party, and all of their affiliated clubs and organizations and volunteers as well. Remember, there are a whole lot of people who haven’t experienced the new law yet, and won’t until November. We have just a few months to get this right.

Election administrators are doing what they can as well.

As early voting in the May 7 election gets underway, Bexar County elections officials are taking steps to ensure they don’t have a repeat of the March 1 Primary elections in which nearly 22% of mail ballots were ultimately rejected.

This time around, every mail ballot is sent out with an informational insert reminding the voter about a new, ID number requirement that tripped up many people in the primary. That election was the first to be conducted under the requirements of the controversial state voting law, Senate Bill 1.

SB 1 requires voters to write an ID number associated with their registration on the outside of their mail ballot’s carrier envelope in a spot covered by the flap. Many either missed that requirement entirely, or wrote down the wrong number – writing in their driver’s license number, for example, when their registration was under their Social Security Number.

“It was like a tsunami,” Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said of the rejected ballots.

[…]

The Bexar County Elections Department is now including an insert in every mail ballot it sends out, Callanen said, reminding voters to include the required ID numbers – preferably both of them.

“We’re asking for both numbers because then we stand a better chance, depending on which one we have on file,” Callanen said.

The elections department website also includes detailed information on the changes to the mail ballots at the top of its main page.

Callanen is aiming for a rejection rate under 5% for the May 7 elections and says, so far, things are looking better.

That’s encouraging. I have not seen any reporting from Harris County yet, but hopefully there will be something soon. The HarrisVotes webpage has this FAQ about voting by mail that talks about the new requirements, but doesn’t explicitly say to put in both numbers. That’s a gap that needs to be addressed.

Anyway. The Day Four EV report is here. I’m not going to do any other comparisons as there’s not really anything to compare it to, but we do have 36,354 total votes cast so far, 14,951 in person and 21,403 by mail. At some point, maybe we’ll know how many tried and failed to vote by mail.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

May 2022 special election Day One EV report: There were how many mail ballots?

Hey, it’s early voting time for the May 2022 special election. You know what that means, so here’s your Day One EV report for it. And here’s a comparison for Day One with the two most recent countywide elections:


Election  InPerson    Mail   Total    Sent
==========================================
Nov21        2,622  29,005  31,627  83,909
Mar22        9,815   4,053  13,868  39,366
Apr22        2,800  17,717  20,517  57,342

You can find the final EV reports for these here: November 2021 and March 2022. I’m calling this election “April 2022” above so it will be less confusing, since “Mar22 and “May22” are so similar.

I admit to being somewhat flabbergasted by the mail ballot numbers for this election. It’s a lower profile election than the one last November, but all things considered it’s off to a pretty good start. I’m keeping my eyes open for any stories about mail ballot issues, whether it’s the ballot applications, about which we had already heard plenty by this time in February, or the returned ballots. I am hopeful that at least the worst of the problems have been resolved – for sure, the county election offices should know what they’re doing, and the SOS should have its act together – but there will undoubtedly be people voting for the first time under the new law, so there will still be friction. If we’re lucky and we’ve learned from the experience, there will be less of it. That’s what I want, and that’s what the goal needs to be for November. This is the first test run, so we need to know how it goes.

On a side note, on the matter of endorsements, the following was in the Monday morning email newsletter from Progress Texas:

Vote YES on State Props 1 and 2. Prop 1 provides property tax relief to elderly homeowners and homeowners with disabilities, many of whom live on fixed incomes. Prop 2 would provide property tax relief to homeowners at a time when housing costs and property taxes have skyrocketed in our state.

Some people have asked me about the two propositions. I’d been planning to vote for Prop 2 and was ambivalent about Prop 1. I’m willing to follow this advice, but if you think otherwise please leave a comment.

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.

What is going on at CrimeStoppers?

Whatever it is, I’m not sure how to stop it.

“Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.” That message, along with the promise of a reward, has appeared for decades at the end of news reports about shootings, stabbings or criminal mayhem in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

But recently, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been blasting out a different, more political message: Activist judges are letting “dangerous criminals” out of jail to threaten the safety of law-abiding residents. On television, Twitter and videos, the traditionally nonpartisan nonprofit organization has been condemning more than a dozen elected judges — all Democrats, four of whom lost primaries last month — while praising the crime policies of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.

“What we’re seeing is an assault against the community” by the judges, Rania Mankarious, the organization’s chief executive, said this year on a national Fox News broadcast.

The group’s aggressive posture on the issue followed shifts in Houston’s approach to prosecuting low-level crimes and setting bail. The changes helped prompt a political backlash fed in part by the Crime Stoppers campaign and a rising murder rate.

But an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that the stance embraced by Crime Stoppers also intersects with the organization’s financial interests.

  • Financial documents and government records, along with dozens of interviews, show that the organization, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million, has in recent years become reliant on state grants backed by Mr. Abbott. Those grants included $4 million in 2017 that was never publicized by Mr. Abbott or Crime Stoppers, which had previously trumpeted smaller donations from other government entities. In the past five years, the Texas government under Mr. Abbott has given the group more than $6 million, state records show.

  • The organization received $500,000 last year from the local district attorney — money allocated from a pool of funds seized in asset forfeiture. The district attorney, a conservative Democrat, used to run Crime Stoppers, is generally in sync with the group on bail issues and has not been publicly criticized by it.

  • Many of the Democratic judges Crime Stoppers is slamming have cut into the organization’s revenue by curbing a common practice requiring many people sentenced to probation to pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit’s revenue from those fees has fallen by half since Democrats swept the county’s judicial races in 2018.

  • The drop in court revenue and the growing reliance on funding from elected officials came as Crime Stoppers went into debt and ran growing annual deficits.

The evolution of Crime Stoppers of Houston underscores the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when charities become dependent on financial support from politicians.

And it illustrates how nonprofit organizations technically barred from participating in political campaigns can nonetheless exert outsize influence, especially when they wade into a potent issue like violent crime.

And there’s this.

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

[…]

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

[Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur] Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school program pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

And this.

Under the leadership of Mankarious, the organization shifted even more aggressively toward crime prevention, rather than focusing exclusively on helping police solve crimes. While the organization says it has helped solve 35,767 cases since 1980, the organization’s annual reports show a sizeable drop in cases in recent years. In 2020 Crime Stoppers issued payments to 248 tipsters totaling $310,800. That same year, the organization paid Mankarious — who supervises just over a dozen employees — about $280,000.

That’s about $8,000 less than that of Houston Police Chief Troy Finner’s (who supervises more than 5,000 officers) salary.

That’s also a lot of cash not being spent on those rewards. There’s a lot more to all of these stories, so go read them in full. I don’t know who decided that this was the week to write about Crime Stoppers, but I approve. I also don’t know what can be done about this bloated and now-partisan organization, but showing it for what it is seems like a decent start. I’m open to suggestion beyond that.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.

New bail bond rules survive initial court challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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