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The guilty verdicts in the George Floyd murder trial

I didn’t comment on this yesterday because I didn’t have anything original to say. Today I want to echo what so many others are saying in the wake of the guilty verdicts for the police officer who murdered George Floyd. This was a first step, there’s much more to do.

Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and in Texas during the summer and prompted renewed calls for police reform. And Texas police departments garnered criticism for their use of force during those protests. Before this year’s legislative session began, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled the George Floyd Act that would ban chokeholds and limit police use of force in an effort to protect Texans from police brutality.

Members of the caucus celebrated Chauvin’s conviction by pumping their fists and hugging during a Facebook Live stream. Many state legislators, including multiple caucus members, responded to the verdict with public calls to pass the caucus’ police reform bill, or House Bill 88, which was left pending in committee in March following a debate over a provision that would remove police officers’ legal shield against civil lawsuits.

“A just verdict, but this is only one step, and it can never bring George Floyd back,” state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, wrote on Twitter. “Now we must pass the George Floyd Act and other reforms so that we never have to do this again.”

I do not expect HB88 to pass – it likely won’t get a committee vote, and if it does it probably never makes it on the calendar. Republicans generally don’t support the removal or reduction of qualified immunity for police. It’s the same in Congress with the national version of this legislation. That one at least passed the US House, and is among the other bills that are sidelined by the usual filibuster bullshit. Still, it has a chance, albeit a slim on at this time.

During a press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for reflection, and he said he and the Houston Police Department would be announcing police reforms next week. Turner said reform is a constant process that also includes investing in underserved communities, like the Third Ward, in a “real and tangible way.”

“Justice has been served,” Turner said. “The Floyd family has waited for almost a year for this verdict, but I will quickly say that they will experience the loss of their loved one, George, for the rest of their lives.”

We’ll see what’s in those long-awaited reforms. I don’t think people will be happy with a small-ball approach here. If we’re not going to take at least one big swing, I’m not sure what we’re doing.

How our water systems failed during the freeze

Good analysis of something that has received far less attention than the blackouts that resulted during the freeze. Which is interesting because the blackouts were the main cause of the water outages and resulting boil notices. And the fix here is relatively simple.

There generally are two sources of drinking water in Texas: underground wells and surface water, drawn from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Both require pumps to move the water to storage tanks, purification plants and out to customers. And pumps require power.

In Houston, most drinking water is pulled from lakes Houston, Conroe and Livingston. The city’s issues during the freeze began at the Northeast Water Purification Plant, one of its three primary treatment facilities, where some of its generators did not turn on as designed that Monday, Feb. 15, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Internal reports, emails and texts obtained through public information requests by the Chronicle illuminate the problems. The emergency generator failures reduced the plant to about 20 or 30 percent of its normal capacity, according to situational reports from the Office of Emergency Management. This started a drop in pressure that workers struggled to halt.

NRG, which operates the generators, was supposed to be able to start them remotely. The generators were providing power to the grid when it collapsed, which caused them to trip offline, the company said. NRG employees taught Public Works officials how to reset them by phone. The city also had left two breakers in the wrong position prior to the storm, complicating the efforts to switch to back-up power, according to Houston Public Works. The power was restored three hours after it went out.

“Nearly lost the water system,” [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock texted another city official later that afternoon, “but recovered it sort of.”

Meanwhile, eight of 40 city-operated generators failed at wells that pull water from underground. Though workers tested the generators monthly, checking their oil and fuel, Haddock told state lawmakers earlier this month the machines “were not prepared for starting in 12 degrees.”

One froze and was not functional again until temperatures rose. Another at the Katy Addicks well started initially before its supercharger failed. Others had mechanical issues related to the cold.

City staff chased outages with portable generators, recalled Phillip Goodwin, Houston Public Works’ regulatory compliance director. As power came on in one place, it would go out somewhere else in the system.

Water pressure in the city dropped, and by late Tuesday Houston officials saw a few readings below the state-mandated levels.

Haddock texted Turner at 8:13 p.m.: “I can tell you we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Some 13 hours later, Turner announced a boil water advisory was in effect, per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements when water pressure drops too low.

It would be four days before the water was declared safe to drink. Dallas never needed a boil notice; the advisories in San Antonio and Austin lasted longer than Houston’s.

Turner said the bottom line is that the generators did not work as intended. He has instructed his departments to review what went wrong and build more “resiliency and redundancy” into the system.

“When you have power outages of that magnitude, it’s going to impact your systems across the board,” Turner said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position to prevent it from reoccurring, or at least at that magnitude.”

[…]

At the peak Friday, more than 1,800 of some 7,000 public water systems were under boil water advisories. Hurricane Harvey, by comparison, prompted some 200 systems to issue boil advisories, said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. Houston was not one of them.

The TCEQ, which monitors boil notices and provides emergency assistance, plans to survey and hold roundtables with local providers to figure out what went wrong. They are forming a group to look at helping water systems get listed as critical infrastructure with electricity providers, among other issues.

Public Utility Commission rules say water facilities may be defined as “critical load” like hospitals, but the water utility must notify its electricity provider and be deemed eligible.

I certainly would have thought that water systems would be considered critical infrastructure. It would have saved a lot of trouble if the water treatment plants around the state had not lost power during the freeze. That might have caused more homes to lose power, perhaps, but if we’re forcing the power plants to weatherize then maybe that will be less of an issue. Requiring backup generators and a regular schedule for testing and maintaining them would also help. HB2275 would create a grant fund for infrastructure fixes – there may of course be some federal money coming as well, but we can’t count on that just yet – and I guess it’s up to the TCEQ to decide if water systems are “critical infrastructure” or not.

I mean, look, most of us were able to get by for a couple of days with the boil notices and maybe using melted snow as flush water. We won’t have the latter during a summer power-and-water outage, but never mind that for now. All I’m saying is that for a state that loves to brag about luring businesses here, this is some bad advertising for us. We have plenty of other challenges right now, many of them being perpetuated by the Lege. We should try not to add to them.

First Watson defense briefs filed

Just keeping an eye on developments.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legal team on Monday filed a general denial of the 22 allegations of sexual assault and harassment, including their own claims that some of the massage therapists asked the football player if they could give him additional sessions.

The denial comes days after Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin successfully pushed for the names of the women to become public, which he said would allow him to investigate and respond to the lawsuits. The Houston Chronicle does not typically identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

[…]

Hardin, in his response to the lawsuits, said that several of the women bragged about massaging Watson or praised him after their sessions. Others offered to work with him again, and one said she was attracted to Watson and wanted to go on dates with him, the attorney said.

Several of the women failed to disclose they had more sessions than what they said in their lawsuits, and some of them told others that they wanted to get money out of Watson, according to the filing.

Many of the women have also deleted or altered their social media accounts, where some evidence might have been found, Hardin said.

See here for the previous update. As was the case with the lawsuits themselves, do not rush to judgment about anything in the defense filings. More information will come out as the plaintiffs (and perhaps the prosecution) gets a chance to respond. Part of the job of the defense is to cast doubt on the accusers, and that is going to feel weird and perhaps aggressive. It’s not going to get any less uncomfortable from here. Sean Pendergast, who quotes from the defense brief and breaks down the different arguments being made, has more.

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

Watson cases consolidated

All in one court now, for your convenience.

All 22 sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been consolidated to one Harris County court.

Both legal parties agreed on Friday that State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier should handle the cases until the time of trial. Any trial would then be returned to the originally assigned courtroom.

Court documents show that the cases have been consolidated. Collier said Friday she expected a panel of judges to meet and officially OK the agreement at an unspecified date.

The decision is primarily a matter of convenience for the judges, Watson’s attorneys and the lawyers of the 22 women bringing litigation. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, and Tony Buzbee, representing the women, said that it would be easier to exchange evidence in one courtroom instead of several.

See here for the previous update. I don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this is a normal thing, consolidating lawsuits like this. As a blogger who follows various legal cases, I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to tell from a bland news story whether a particular court action has to do with this lawsuit or that one or the other one over there. I appreciate the simplification.

In semi-related Watson news, don’t do this.

Football writer Aaron Wilson is no longer with the Houston Chronicle after he went on a Boston sports radio show and compared the women suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, multiple sources told Defector on Friday.

The radio appearance was on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on March 19. During the appearance, Wilson called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing.” At one point during the conversation, when talking about the Watson case, he said, “In his case, you know, it’s kind of you don’t negotiate with terrorists. People are demanding money, they’re asking for money. It kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. You’re talking about more and more funds, I’m not going to say how much it got to, but my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”

Wilson has since issued an apology, but yeah. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, come back from that. We all have our thoughts and often conflicting feelings about the accusations against Deshaun Watson, but outside of the accusers and Watson themselves, no one knows anything. We should take the accusers seriously, and we should give Watson the chance to defend himself, and we should not jump to dumb and ill-informed conclusions.

UPDATE: The remaining cases against Watson have been refiled to include the plaintiffs’ names, minus one who chose to drop out.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

Watson seeks names of accusers

This was going to happen sooner or later.

Attorneys for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Thursday urged several state courts to require the disclosure of the names of the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment — a move one legal expert called an intimidation tactic.

In a new court filing, defense lawyer Rusty Hardin lambasted the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, for holding a “trial by press conference” and making it difficult for Watson to respond to the 22 separate accusations without knowing who filed suit. The anonymous women, most of whom are massage therapists, allege that Watson assaulted or harassed them during sessions in 2020 and 2021 in Texas, California, Georgia or Arizona.

Hardin filed multiple requests Thursday but said he intended to file them in all of the women’s cases.

“Through the spectacle of the last few weeks, Mr. Watson has been unable to responsibly defend himself in the face of overwhelming national media coverage,” Hardin said in the filing for a special exception to the original petition. “Mr. Watson’s counsel cannot in good conscience publicly respond to the specific allegations being made because any response would be based on dangerous speculation about the identity of the accusers.”

[…]

The women are all officially listed as “Jane Doe” in court documents. Two Texas Rules of Civil Procedure prevent plaintiffs from filing civil claims using pseudonyms, Hardin said. One rule requires plaintiffs to state their name if it is known, and the other requires giving the defense fair notice of the claims involved. An exception is made for minors in sex assault cases.

A judge could potentially permit the defense to learn the identities of the plaintiffs but order the names not be released publicly, University of Houston law professor Meredith Duncan said.

Tahira Khan Merritt, a Texas attorney who litigates civil sex assault cases in state and federal court, said judges have discretion as to whether they would allow the case to proceed under a pseudonym. Prohibiting a pseudonym would merely be an intimidation tactic so early in a case, she said.

“The use of pseudonyms is very common across the United States,” Merritt said. “The only reason they would push it is to shut the victim up and discourage others from coming forward.”

Buzbee previously told Hardin he could provide the names if they used a confidentiality order, Hardin said.

As we know, two accusers have come forward publicly, but the others have not. At the court hearings today, they got some of what they wanted.

Two Harris County judges ordered in separate hearings on Friday that Tony Buzbee refile sexual assault and harassment cases against quarterback Deshaun Watson with the names of the accusers made public.

State district Judge Dedra Davis granted defense attorney Rusty Hardin’s request and asked that Buzbee refile a case in her court and disclose one of the women’s names within two days. Buzbee had suggested a private disclosure to Hardin for the women, who were initially all listed as “Jane Doe.”

A second judge, Rabeea Sultan Collier, made the same determination in the cases of three other women late Friday morning. Ten other women agreed to allow Buzbee to release their identities, and the woman in Davis’ court was “emboldened” and told Buzbee not to fight the judge’s decision, he said.

[…]

Hardin told Collier that making names public, while a concern for women’s safety, is also necessary for the defense. Since Solis and one other woman identified themselves during a Tuesday news conference, his team has received information about them from outside parties, he said.

Davis agreed that both parties needed fair treatment and that the women needed to be protected. But she agreed with Hardin that his use of publicizing the case in the media hurt his arguments.

“Everything’s been thrown into the spotlight,” she said. “I understand that you said in private you will allow the accuser to be known but it’s been very public.”

Collier heard arguments about 12 cases, nine of which were moot since the women agreed to have their names released. Solis’ case, the first to be filed, landed in her court, which means it is customary that any consolidation of cases would also move to her courtroom.

Hardin and Buzbee also agreed on a consolidation agreement Friday. All 22 women’s cases will proceed in Collier’s court before trial, but would move back to their original courts for a trial.

OK then. There are still hearings to be had for the remaining women, so we’ll see how that goes. We also now have a preview of the defense.

Deshaun Watson’s attorneys on Friday issued their first extensive defense of the star quarterback, alleging that every sexual act he partook in was consensual.

Rusty Hardin and a team of four women spoke from the Hilton Americas hotel downtown, issuing statements of support to the media and apologizing for remaining quiet as Watson was hit with 22 separate lawsuits of sexual assault and harassment. But the veteran, high-profile defense attorney also prodded reporters to look more closely at the behavior of the women’s lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who he said withheld the names of the anonymous plaintiffs until it was vital that they be made public through an emergency hearing.

[…]

Watson has been receiving two to three massages a week for four years, totaling sometimes to 150 a year, Hardin said. Most of the allegations seem to stem from 2020 and 2021 because the massage industry has changed over the course of the pandemic with the closure of spas and tendency of massage therapists to turn to Instagram for marketing, he said.

Watson, 25, largely operates from Instagram, and he doesn’t have a large team of massage therapists at his disposal through the Texans as many would believe, his attorneys said.

The female attorneys at the press conference clarified that they were not the only people from Hardin’s office on the lawsuits and did not appear to speak for appearances. They were only there because they wholeheartedly believe Watson, they said.

Attorney Leticia Quinones, a sexual assault survivor herself, said that she and other women on the team personally met with Watson and were convinced of his innocence. She urged the public to look at Watson’s “credit history” of good deeds in the community and success in overcoming a rough childhood.

She said Watson has a target on his back after signing a $160 million contract. He’s separately trying to leave the Texans.

“This 25 year old man was thrown in the depths of something he wasn’t accustomed to – money fam and stardom,” Quinones said.

Quinones added however, “I don’t discount anything that a young woman believes happens to her,” and after taking questions, Hardin agreed that “good guys” are capable of doing bad things.

Hardin said he simply wants to move the needle back to the middle in terms of public discourse following weeks of attacks from Buzbee’s team.

I’ve tried not to jump to any conclusions as the plaintiffs have made their accusations, and I’m going to continue to try to stay neutral as the defense begins to speak. There is sure to be a lot more said on all of this. Sean Pendergast has more.

Where are we with Houston police reform?

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

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

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

While the East Coast struggles with a fourth wave of rising COVID-19 infections, Texas experts say the state is doing “reasonably well” as case rates stabilize across the state.

Case rates and hospitalizations have plateaued in the region in recent weeks, averaging roughly 3,500 new daily reported cases, the lowest it’s been since early-to-mid September. The decline in hospitalizations has been an even more welcome trend, with fewer than 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID, the lowest it’s been since June.

Medical experts such as Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, suspect the winter freeze, increasing vaccination rates and the prevalence of antibodies in Texas’ population have kept case rates low over the last month.

[…]

“Texas is doing better than most states, which are seeing a pretty sharp rise in the number of daily new cases,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.

The lower rate of infections doesn’t mean that Texans can let their guard down, though. Fewer than 37 percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just over 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“You have to plateau before you rise, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Neuman said.

The flat line of case rates starts with a sharp drop-off in testing. According to data from the Department of State Health Services, results from PCR testing dropped sharply during the winter freeze in February, and have not rebounded. As of April, Texas is testing at just half the rate it was before the state iced over.

While the number of daily tests has declined heavily, so too has the positive test rate. It’s now under 5 percent, and the second-lowest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Even with the reduced number of tests being conducted, fewer people are testing positive for COVID.

The low number of tests mean there could be a lag before a potential surge, Neuman said.

In Houston, medical experts are cautiously optimistic there won’t be a rise.

Usually, case rates spike first, followed by hospitalizations the week after and ventilator demand and deaths after that. So far, all three have stayed low in Houston, Vartian said.

The freeze was basically a one-week lockdown in the middle of February, and that no doubt helped keep infections down. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, but at least in my little part of the world people are still masking up, despite the Governor’s order. I won’t extrapolate from such a limited data point, but I feel hopeful that at least in the big cities people are still inclined to be cautious.

And I take heart at the progress in getting shots into arms. The Astros are getting their shots. The Rockets are getting their shots. Judge Hidalgo has gotten her first shot. People are celebrating the ways that their lives have been improved by getting vaccinated. (Can confirm, by the way.) I’m hopeful. We still have to be careful, but I can see the road ahead, and it’s going someplace good.

The infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.

[…]

That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

A Watson accuser has come forward

Listen to what she says.

The first of 22 women to file a sexual assault and harassment lawsuit against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson spoke out on Tuesday, coming forward publicly in response to the defense team’s questions over the accusers’ identities.

At a news conference in attorney Tony Buzbee’s downtown high rise office, licensed massage therapist Ashley Solis shared her experience as a woman who is now struggling in her profession in the aftermath of the alleged assault. Buzbee then distributed pages of documents showing messages that he claims Watson sent to some of his clients, and his associates named a second woman who filed one of the lawsuits.

Solis said she now has difficulty touching patients without shaking, and on several occasions she has had to end sessions early.

“We were all deceived into thinking that Deshaun Watson was a great guy,” Solis said. “Unfortunately we know that good guys can do terrible things.”

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, released a lengthy statement containing a series of email exchanges allegedly between Buzbee’s camp and a Watson representative, claiming Buzbee sought $100,000 to settle Solis’ allegations just one month before he filed her suit.

“Mr. Buzbee himself repeatedly claimed that the litigation he filed on behalf of other Jane Does ‘isn’t about money,’” Hardin said. “In fact, according to the documentation below, Mr. Buzbee sought $100,000 in hush money.”

Separately, he said Buzbee has not turned over any of the documents he shared with the media. Hardin has previously criticized Buzbee for failing to give him the names of his clients, which he says prevents him from investigating the claims.

See here for the previous update. I would much rather live in a world where no one ever had any reason to accuse Deshaun Watson – or anyone else, for that matter – of any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior. One is allowed to have complicated feelings about all of this. I’m still wrestling with a lot of contradictory emotions and reactions, and I’m a pretty lukewarm Texans fan. While Deshaun Watson and Rusty Hardin have the right to defend his actions and his reputation, Ashley Solis deserves to be treated with respect. She’s already being attacked by trolls, which is a great illustration of why very few women make this kind of accusation lightly, and why most of these plaintiffs have remained nameless so far. Watson and Hardin will get their chance to question her account and her veracity, and we will get to make up our own minds about it, hopefully once all the evidence is in. Let’s all please try not to be jackasses about this.

I mention Watson and Hardin defending Watson’s reputation because that is very much at issue here.

Nike has suspended its business relationship with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits that allege sexual assault and harassment.

“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson,” Nike said in a statement e-mailed to the Chronicle. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Beats by Dre also has terminated its relationship with Deshaun Watson, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. Watson had a business relationship with Beats by Dre since he was drafted in the first round in 2017 out of Clemson.

Also, Reliant Energy has dropped its relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador is over.

“Reliant is aware of pending civil lawsuits and a criminal investigation involving Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans quarterback,” Reliant said in an email. “Our relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador was scheduled to end this spring prior to these allegations, and there are no plans for future engagements or contracts with him. We take accusations of this nature very seriously. With respect to the legal process, we do not have any further comment on this matter.”

Not hard to understand why these companies took this action. The stakes overall are a lot higher than endorsement deals, but this is a significant development. Sean Pendergast has more.

Charter amendment petitions are in

I need a simpler name for this thing, so that Future Me will have an easier time searching for relevant posts.

Houston voters likely will get to decide in November whether City Council members should have the power to place items on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power currently reserved for the mayor.

A group called the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition on Monday delivered a measure with nearly 40,000 signatures to the city secretary, who now has 30 days to verify them. It takes 20,000 to get the issue onto the ballot.

If the city secretary approves the signatures, the issue likely would go to voters in November. It would allow any three of the City Council’s 16 members to join forces to place an item on the weekly agenda, when the council votes on actions. The mayor now has nearly full control of the schedule in Houston’s strong mayor form of government.

[…]

Two of the council’s 16 members, Amy Peck and Michael Kubosh, showed their support at the press conference Monday when the coalition delivered its signatures.

The coalition includes a broad group of political groups, including the Houston firefighters’ union, the Harris County Republican Party, and the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the opposition is similarly wide-ranging. In addition to Turner, a Democrat, conservative Councilmember Greg Travis also thinks it would be harmful. He would be open to other reforms, but three members is too low a bar, Travis said, and would result in “all kinds of irrational, wacky, inefficient” items reaching the council.

“You don’t sit there and open a Pandora’s box,” Travis said. “It’s not the correct solution to the problem.”

See here and here for the background. “Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition” it is, I guess, but that’s still pretty damn generic. I must admit, I’m a little surprised to see CM Travis speak against this, since I had him pegged as a chief contributor to the forthcoming irrational wackiness. Good to know that our local politics can still surprise me.

If nothing else, this will be an interesting test of the ability for a (potentially high-profile) charter referendum to generate turnout, since this is a non-Mayoral election year. Turnout in 2017, the previous (and only so far) non-city election year was 101K, with the various pension obligation bonds that were a (forced) part of the pension reform deal as the main driver of interest. By comparison, the 2007 and 2011 elections, with their sleepy Mayoral races, each had about 125K voters, and that’s at a time with fewer registered voters (about 920K in Harris County in 2011, and 1.052 million in 2017). I’m not going to make any wild-ass guesses about turnout now, when we have yet to see what either a pro- or con- campaign might look like, but for sure 100K is a dead minimum given the data we have. At a similar turnout level for 2007/2011, and accounting for the increase in RVs since then (probably about 1.1 million now; it was 1.085 million in 2019), we’re talking 140-150K. Those are your hardcore, there’s-an-election-so-I’m-voting voters. We’ll see if we can beat that.

Why lawsuits?

If you’ve wondered why the women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual harassment and assault have filed lawsuits against him instead of police reports, this Chron story offers some reasons.

The 22 women suing Deshaun Watson for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing them have been criticized for not first taking their allegations to police.

But experts say a civil suit is often a sexual assault victim’s best shot at justice.

“In a civil case, you can expect a broader range of accountability,” said Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “You might settle before trial and that might include a public acknowledgment and apology.”

[…]

But experts said there are myriad reasons why a victim would choose to file a case in civil court instead of a criminal complaint — including compensation to pay for any emotional and medical care needed after an assault.

“Victims of sexual assault had something stolen from them,” said Noblet Davidson, founder and clinical director of enCOURAGE Trauma Center in Houston. “They need to be compensated. If you get in a car accident, you get compensated.”

The fear of being outed, for example, can deter a victim from filing a police report, Boyce said — especially when the alleged perpetrator is famous.

“Confidentiality and privacy is always at the heart of these cases,” Boyce said. “Honestly, it’s a fear of any victim of sexual assault that this is going to result in some sort of public condemnation or harassment.”

The nation has seen it play out over and over again, Boyce said.

When California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress, alleging that now-Supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, she received death threats. She and her family had to move multiple times and had to pay for a private security detail.

[…]

For some victims, taking their assault to police can seem hopeless.

Not only are they retraumatized each time they have to describe their assault, Boyce said, but it can also seem as if they are not in control of the outcomes.

“In criminal cases, the state doesn’t represent the victims, they represent the state and they control every aspect of the case,” Boyce said. “And so often (the cases) are refused for prosecution for a variety of reasons — if they think they can’t win or they think there’s too much political pressure.”

The criminal investigation process also is intrusive and time-consuming, with court hearings, follow-ups with police and medical appointments, said Olivia Rivers, executive director of the Houston-area advocacy nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Officers may show up at the victim’s house or workplace. Family and friends — who the victim may not want to tell about the assault — may be interviewed to corroborate the report.

“A sexual assault exam can take hours,” she said. “How do you explain to your family why you were at a hospital for that long? Or how do you explain to your employer why you had to miss so much work for court?”

Additionally, the burden of proof also is lower in a civil court than in a criminal prosecution. Civilly, the victims only have to show a preponderance of evidence, but in criminal cases, authorities have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened.

Therefore, it can easier for victims to get some form of justice in a civil court, whether it be a public apology or a monetary award for pain and suffering — especially when there isn’t enough physical evidence to criminally convict a perpetrator.

“Sexual violence … isn’t taken seriously by society,” Rivers said. “This about having their voices heard.”

Sometimes, victims might seek both criminal prosecution and civil damages.

At least one alleged victim has done exactly that, and others may follow. In the meantime, lawsuit #22 is on the books. We won’t know how successful this approach is until we have some resolutions in these cases, but the reason why the lawsuits were filed should be clear.

Here come the petitions for the latest charter amendment effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HPD now investigating Deshaun Watson

Someone filed a report.

Already facing a rash of civil lawsuits, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson now has been named in a criminal complaint, according to the Houston Police Department.

HPD confirmed it “is now conducting an investigation and will not comment further during the investigative process.”

The probe comes as Texans quarterback faces 21 civil lawsuits from massage therapists or wellness professionals who allege he sexually assaulted or harassed them at various points during massage sessions in 2020 or 2021.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the claims

Hardin, who has publicly chastised Watson’s accusers for not disclosing their names in the litigation, said his team will cooperate with police.

“We welcome this long overdue development,” Hardin said of the investigation. “Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.”

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the alleged victims in the civil lawsuits, pushed back against the criticism of the alleged victims, saying they are courageous in coming forward.

“It takes great strength to do what these women are doing,” he said. “We are not only dealing with the future of a star quarterback, we are dealing with the physical health, mental health, safety, and well-being of courageous people who had the fortitude to step forward, although powerless, against the powerful.”

On Friday, Buzbee said that he was aware of the criminal complaint filed Friday morning.

“I will also confirm that other criminal complaints will follow, as previously indicated, in Houston and in other jurisdictions and with other agencies,” he said.

That’s more direct than Buzbee’s previous word salad on the topic. It seems likely we were always headed in this direction, but the story so far has proceeded in an unusual manner, so who really knows. Nothing to do but wait and see what if anything comes of this, and how many other reports get filed.

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

Will there be any criminal complaints filed against Deshaun Watson?

Maybe? It all depends on what Tony Buzbee means, and Lord only knows about that.

In his latest Instagram post about the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Tuesday that he plans to take evidence of the assaults to an investigating agency outside the Houston Police Department.

Buzbee has filed 19 lawsuits on behalf of women who said Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021.

In Buzbee’s post, published around 9 p.m., the attorney said he was initially reluctant to provide information about the alleged crimes, citing his 2019 mayoral bid in which he called for then-Police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation.

Acevedo recently took a job as police chief of the Miami Police Department. Buzbee, however, said he has since discovered that Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has a son “who is on of (sic) the exclusive Command Staff of HPD.”

“I am not saying in any way that Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Mr. Hardin, has a son who has a position that would compromise HPD and its investigation,” Buzbee wrote. “I support his service, along with all Houston police officers—I think the rank and file know that. But, I am saying that me and my clients will go elsewhere to provide our evidence to investigative authorities. Stand by.”

Buzbee said his legal team has been “roundly criticized” for not filing formal complaints with the Houston Police Department. He said the team has “provided info to other organizations” but did not elaborate in the post.

What “other organizations” might those be? Who knows. I’m not going to try to interpret the musings from Tony Buzbee’s galaxy brain. He’s got a strategy and he’s clearly got evidence to back him up – see Sean Pendergast’s analysis of the five most damaging allegations against Watson for an appraisal of that – and he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. At some point, we’ll see what the endgame that Buzbee has in mind is. In the meantime, the lawsuit count is up to 21. And as of Wednesday, we now have this.

In a concerted attempt to paint Watson in a more favorable light, Watson’s defense released statements Wednesday from 18 women who “are deeply troubled by the accusations” made against Watson and who believe the allegations are “wholly inconsistent with their experiences with him and who they believe him to be.” All 18 women who released statements Wednesday supporting Watson made their identities public.

Watson’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin said these women who have spoken out on Watson’s behalf have collectively worked with the Texans star “more than 130 times over the past five years.”

“These statements show the other side to this story that has been so lacking in the flurry of anonymous complaints filed by opposing counsel,” Hardin said. It’s the most vigorous attempt from Hardin yet to defend Watson, and comes after Hardin claimed last week that at least one of Watson’s accusers had privately attempted to blackmail the quarterback into paying her to keep quiet about what happened during their massage appointment.

Several therapists are quoted, and you can go read what they have to say if you wish. I get where this is coming from – whatever ultimately happens with the allegations and lawsuits, Watson’s reputation has taken a big hit, so some of this is an attempt to mitigate that damage – but the old-school “well, he never did anything untoward around me” defense is, at best, not on point. I would hope by now that we have internalized the idea that a person can behave differently in different contexts and around different people. It’s dangerously close to victim-blaming, and that’s a road we should want to avoid.

Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

AC repairman sues Hotze

Hell yeah.

An air conditioning repairman who was held at gunpoint last October as part of a right-wing group’s voter fraud investigation has sued the group and its CEO, Houston conservative activist Steven Hotze.

David Lopez, the repairman, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Hotze and his organization, Liberty Center for God and Country, for civil conspiracy, civil theft, and aiding and abetting Mark Aguirre, the former Houston police captain who faces a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from an Oct. 19 confrontation with Lopez.

Aguirre told police he was investigating a massive “ballot harvesting” operation on behalf of Hotze’s group. He previously alleged that Lopez had about 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots in his truck and had been “using Hispanic children to sign” the ballots because the youths’ fingerprints would not appear in databases. Lopez’s truck contained only air conditioning parts and tools, authorities said.

Hotze paid Aguirre $266,400 to investigate voter fraud allegations through his group, including more than $211,000 the day after the incident in which the former cop rammed Lopez’s truck and then held him at gunpoint until a Houston police officer happened by. In December, shortly after Aguirre was arrested, Hotze called the assault charge “bogus.”

At the time, Hotze said he would not condone Aguirre’s actions if they were proven true, but he was not worried about being legally implicated as the one funding Aguirre’s investigative work.

Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s attorney, said Tuesday that Hotze had not instructed Aguirre to take any of the actions mentioned in the lawsuit, and contended that Hotze could not be found culpable of any legal wrongdoing.

[…]

Lopez is seeking more than $1 million for “bodily injury, physical pain, past and future mental anguish, exemplary damages and attorney fees,” according to the suit.

Woodfill said Aguirre’s attorney has given a different version of events, alleging Lopez and Aguirre got into a “fender bender” and Lopez prompted the confrontation when he rushed at Aguirre. In any case, Woodfill said Hotze should not be held responsible for Aguirre’s actions.

“When an allegation of voter fraud would come in, he would turn it over to investigators and they would do their work in the way they thought best,” Woodfill said. “So, using the plaintiff’s logic, if one were to go out and hire a contractor to do whatever the project may be, and they did something that you didn’t agree with, then according to the plaintiff, you’re responsible for it. I don’t believe that’s consistent with the law.”

Woodfill also said he believes the lawsuit is “politically motivated,” pointing to Lopez’s decision to sue Hotze but not Aguirre, and to hire attorneys K. Scott Brazil and Dicky Grigg, both of whom have represented the Texas Democratic Party in voting lawsuits. Woodfill noted Lopez’s lawsuit references Hotze’s numerous legal challenges against Harris County’s efforts to expand voting during the 2020 election, which it is part of Hotze’s “long history of pursuing and alleging bizarre unfounded voter fraud allegations.”

Grigg said Lopez is not suing Aguirre because he already has been indicted in the separate criminal case, and because Hotze — not Aguirre — is the one funding the operation.

“He’s just a puppet, and instead of going against the puppet, we’re going against the puppetmaster, the one pulling the strings,” Grigg said.

He added that the lawsuit was not motivated by Hotze’s political claims or the legal actions he took against Democrats and voter expansion measures.

“This lawsuit is not about any of the claims that Dr. Hotze’s making, no matter how ridiculous or unfounded they are,” Grigg said. “This is against actions that people he paid $300,000 to, the actions that these people took. And the whole purpose of the lawsuit is, fine, you can say what you want, you can hold the opinions you want. But you’re responsible for your actions and your conduct.”

See here, here, and here for the background – that last link has a lot of information. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the Chron story. I have never wanted a lawsuit to succeed more than I want this one to succeed. No one deserves this more than Steven Hotze. Attorney Grigg has this exactly right. Let’s hope that a jury, and eventually the Supreme Court, see it that way.

Another Watson lawsuit update

The count is now nineteen.

Nineteen women have now accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault after three massage therapists filed separate lawsuits Sunday night.

The latest accusations involve women who said Watson assaulted and harassed them during massage sessions at various points in 2020. Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Well-known Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, a former mayoral candidate, is representing the women.

In the latest lawsuit, Buzbee claimed Watson is deleting Instagram messages and contacting some of the women in an attempt to settle. Hardin issued a statement Monday afternoon in response to the allegation.

“Like a lot of people, Deshaun regularly deletes past Instagram messages,” Hardin said. “That said, he has not deleted any messages since March 15th, the day before the first lawsuit was filed. We categorically deny that he has reached out directly to his accusers in an attempt to settle these cases.”

“Opposing counsel’s continued statements that these cases aren’t about money do not square with the facts in at least two of these cases. It is incredibly irresponsible to continue to make these types of false allegations in this avalanche of anonymous lawsuits, particularly while we are still trying to find out who the accusers are. We will address these issues, and others raised in these cases, in our formal response to the court in the coming weeks.”

[…]

“Plaintiffs have not brought these cases for money or attention; instead Plaintiffs seek a change in behavior with regard to Watson, and a change of culture in the NFL,” the 19th lawsuit reads.

See here and here for the previous updates, and click on the story link to see a copy of the latest lawsuit. Deleting material evidence (if indeed Watson has done so) could be a problem, which I presume is why Rusty Hardin is out there denying it. I will be very interested to see what their eventual formal response looks like. Sean Pendergast has more.

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

A new downtown park

Something to look forward to, when we’re all comfortable being in crowded spaces again, even outside crowded spaces.

Houston officials broke ground [earlier this month] on a new park in south downtown that by next year will provide the area with its first addition of major greenspace since Discovery Green opened more than a decade ago.

The park will take up most of the block surrounded by Bell, Fannin, Leeland and San Jacinto streets, replacing a Goodyear Auto Service Center. It will include a central lawn area, gardens on the north and south sides, dog runs for large and small breeds, water features and art installations, and a second location of Tout Suite, the East Downtown cafe. Construction is expected to wrap up next March.

Officials have dubbed the new area Trebly Park, a nod to the three street corners surrounding the park, and the implication that “there’ll be three times as much here for everybody who lives in the neighborhood and who visits,” said Bob Eury, president of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The project previously had gone by the name of Southern Downtown Park.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the project is part of city leaders’ ongoing efforts to bring more parks and greenspace to the downtown area, such as the renovation Jones Plaza farther north. Those types of investments will spur further growth downtown, Turner said, adding that when he was growing up in Houston decades ago, the central business district would become “dead” shortly after everyone left work for the day.

“When I grew up in this city, there were probably, other than the hotels, I don’t think there was anybody living downtown. And now we have about 10,000 people living downtown,” he said. “The developments have led to the design and construction of this park, and at the same time, the parks are leading to residential and other transit-oriented development downtown.”

Downtown has other issues right now, but I expect they will sort themselves out one way or another. In the meantime, more park space is welcome. If like me you were scratching your head at the explanation of the “Trebly Park” name, CultureMap is here to help:

“Trebly Park is located on Block 333 of Downtown Houston, on a site defined by three city block corners. Trebly, meaning ‘three times as much,’ is fresh in spirit, rolls off the tongue, and is not moored in convention. By its definition, Trebly Park implies that the park has much to offer those who visit it in terms of experience with ‘three times as much’ fun, play, interaction, relaxation and deliciousness.”

Good to know. I’ve got it on my places to visit next spring.

Get your shot at the airport

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Oaks Theater closes down

Officially gone.

The first film ever shown at the River Oaks Theatre was “Bachelor Mother” in 1939 starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven. The last film, it seems, will be the Oscar-nominated “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand. When credits rolled after the 7:30 p.m. showing on Thursday, the theater was expected to lower its curtain for good.

“It’s such a shame,” a bystander said as she and her dog passed under the theater’s iconic, black and white awning.

As Houston’s last remaining vintage movie theater, the River Oaks has held court on West Gray since 1939. After Landmark Theatres was founded in 1974, the River Oaks became one of its first acquisitions just two years later.

[…]

A spokesperson for Weingarten told the Chronicle they were “grateful for Landmark’s long tenure at River Oaks Shopping Center, and we appreciate the strong ties so many Houstonians have to the theater. Contrary to reports, there are no plans to redevelop the theater at this time. We look forward to finding the next great operator for the theater space.”

In February, Landmark Theatres’ president and chief operating officer, Paul Serwitz, confirmed the company had not paid rent since spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The River Oaks was closed just shy of six months, from March 16 through Sept. 9.

“With the closure, we had no business to operate. There was no other revenue stream,” Serwitz said. “Our whole company was shut down. We closed the corporate office, and everyone was furloughed. There was no capital to pay rent.”

Weingarten since proposed an “offer waiving much of the 12-month past due rent and providing a 24-month payment plan for the balance. We also proposed to allow Landmark to pay half rent for the next six months to get the theater through the worst of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Landmark was unable to see a path to profitability in order to renew the lease. Therefore, they have decided to close at the end of their lease term.”

See here for the background. It’s super sad, but given the past year and the toll it’s taken on the movie theater business, it’s hardly a surprise. Weingarten’s announcement that they have no plans to redevelop the theater (at this time, anyway) is interesting, because the last time the River Oaks Theater faced an existential crisis, that was the reason – Weingarten wanted to build something bigger on the property. It’s basically what happened on the other side of the street, where the old strip center was torn down and the Barnes and Nobles (among other things) was built in its place. If the classic theater facade is maintained, as has been the case with other former theaters around town, will people come to see that as some form of mitigation? You may not be able to find a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, but at least the neighborhood retains a bit of character. Check in again in a decade or so and we’ll see how everyone feels then.

Consent decree to fix sewers finalized

All done.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

Houston has scuttled scooter rentals along city sidewalks, and kicked riders of the two-wheel transports in busy areas into the street.

City Council on Wednesday approved changes to Houston’s codes outlawing any rental activity that impedes public sidewalks or blocks a city-controlled parking spot, a move aimed at eliminating businesses that use temporary trailers and the public walkway to offer rental scooters. The businesses have grown in popularity, but critics complain they block sidewalks and encourage novice riders to rocket along crowded sidewalks.

“They ride them recklessly, they don’t have helmets on,” District G Councilman Greg Travis said. “It is a disaster.”

In addition to banning scooter rental companies, the council revised existing rules to outlaw scooter use on sidewalks in a business district, effectively moving them off walkways in downtown, Uptown and the Texas Medical Center.

Scooter rental companies earlier this month complained they are being singled out for offering a popular activity where customers want them. Forcing them them onto private property, such as parking lots, or to permanent locations limits where people can find and use the rentals, the owners say.

[…]

Though they approved the measure, council members said shifting the scooters to the streets comes with its own challenges. Pedestrians will not have to share space with the motorized two-wheelers but scooter users now must contend with vehicle traffic.

The scooter rules are identical to those for bicycles, which also are banned from sidewalks in business districts.

Despite the need to ensure safety, some observers lamented the council’s actions limited mobility but did not improve the on-street conditions that make some of those interactions calamitous.

“A truly pro-business city might see this as not just an opportunity but a duty to build safe rights-of-way on our downtown streets so people can get around efficiently, and to create an environment that supports entrepreneurship,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said he will discuss additional safety needs in an upcoming Quality of Life Committee meeting, “so we can do what we can to keep (scooter users) safe, as well.”

Advocates said those discussions should include the addition of amenities, including dedicated bikes lanes similar to those along Lamar, Austin and Gray in downtown and Hardy and Elysian north of the central business district.

See here for the background. No question, these things do not belong on sidewalks, for the same reason that bicycles don’t – they’re a hazard for pedestrians. As noted before, the “leave your scooter on the sidewalk when you’re done with it” method for returning them is an extra hazard for people with disabilities. This was the right call.

I do think there should be a place for electric scooters in the overall transportation ecology in Houston. As with B-Cycle, the scooters can be an alternative to driving for people who need to take a short-but-not-short-enough-to-walk trip in the cited locations – downtown, Uptown, the Medical Center. It’s a question of doing it safely. I’ve ridden B-Cycle bikes downtown, and I generally felt fine riding in the right-hand lane on the one-way downtown streets. For the most part, the right lane is for buses and right turns only anyway, so you’re generally not being trailed by a car that’s dying to pass you. There are more bike lanes downtown now as well, and I too would like to see more of them. I think scooters and scooter riders will be fine doing this. Maybe it’s not as great an idea for entertainment purposes, but that’s the way it goes.

Astros aim for half-full

To start out with.

The Astros are expanding their previously planned attendance numbers at Minute Maid Park to start the regular season but will not exceed 50 percent capacity during April, senior vice president for communication and marketing Anita Sehgal said on Monday.

Single-game tickets are scheduled to go on sale Wednesday for 14 home games in April, including the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s and the return of former manager A.J. Hinch with the Detroit Tigers from April 12-14.

Season-ticket holders had until March 18 to choose one of four options the ballclub presented them earlier this month in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to reopen the state. On the day Abbott’s executive order took effect, the Texas Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open at 100 percent capacity for opening day on April 1.

Before Abbott allowed all businesses to perform at 100 percent capacity, the Astros were preparing to start the regular season at around 25 percent capacity — 10 to 12,000 people — at the 41,168-seat stadium. Earlier this month, Sehgal said the Astros “were not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park to 100 percent capacity in April.

On Monday, Sehgal said “generally, about half” of the season-ticket holders opted to remain in their seats, where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. For April games, season-ticket holders had the option of remaining in their seats, relocating to a socially-distanced section in the ballpark, pausing their accounts or donating their tickets to front-line workers.

“It didn’t have a significant impact, it just validated our plan,” Sehgal said of the season-ticket holder response. “Our plan has always been to ensure we were responsible and to ensure we had an enjoyable and safe experience. Their response sort of helped validate that we didn’t want to exceed 50 percent capacity (in April).”

[…]

Even if April weather is ideal enough for the Astros to open Minute Maid Park’s retractable roof, the team is comfortable closing it despite the ongoing pandemic. Outdoor air is pumped into the ballpark even when the roof is closed, allaying any concern about a large gathering in an indoor facility.

See here for the background. It doesn’t matter to me because I have no plans at this time to attend large gatherings, but I would have counseled the Astros to keep the roof open as much as possible if the weather permitted. Maybe that’s a false sense of security, since the real risk is in the concourses, especially during entry and exit, but I’d still want to minimize where I could. I’ll be waiting till most of the people in attendance will have been vaxxed. We’ll see if there are enough people to make this higher attendance limit a relevant concern.

The Buzbee blitz

It’s been working.

On a Tuesday night, Tony Buzbee announced on Instagram that his client was suing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

With a handful of social media posts, the crackerjack trial lawyer teased more sexual assault allegations to come. By the next Tuesday, 16 women had accused the Pro Bowl player of similar forms of misconduct in 16 separate lawsuits.

Known as a bulldog in the courtroom and a grandiose presence on the local news, the former mayoral candidate retained a firm grasp of the narrative. At first only speaking through social media, he dropped each lawsuit individually, and each accusation dominated the daily news crawl.

Buzbee is known as one of Houston’s most media-savvy attorneys, and the Watson case has been no exception. He has exploited news outlets’ desire for a buzz-inducing story in order to snowball his cases through the legal system, lawyers and analysts say, coinciding with a fragile Texans sports landscape that has kept Watson front-and-center during his unsuccessful attempts to leave the team.

The reality is that Buzbee has earned his reputation by creative and strong-arm tactics to pressure civil defendants into settling, said Sean Buckley, a Houston civil and criminal defense attorney. The Watson cases are prime examples of that, he added.

“The intense and ongoing publicity surrounding the Deshaun Watson allegations appears clearly calculated to pressure Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg into filing criminal charges against Watson,” Buckley said. “To that end, a formal investigation or prosecution of Deshaun Watson would impair Watson’s ability to defend against Buzbee’s civil lawsuits.”

I’m not going to make any jokes about Buzbee’s Mayoral campaign or his weird life choices because this is a serious topic and I don’t want to make light of the charges that have been levied against Deshaun Watson. There may be room for that when this is farther along, but not now. I’m also not going to comment any further on a story that is a mostly glowing profile of Tony Buzbee because there are no circumstances under which he needs or deserves that from me.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how Watson’s defense might take shape, here’s one item of interest.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was the subject of a $30,000 blackmail attempt from one of the 16 massage therapists alleging sexual assault and harassment in civil litigation, according to a sworn affidavit released by his Houston-based attorney, Rusty Hardin.

Bryan Burney, the marketing manager for Watson, submitted in the affidavit that “Jane Doe” believed to be the third plaintiff out of of 16 civil lawsuits filed by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, stated that she wanted $30,000 for her ‘indefinite silence’ regarding an alleged Dec. 28, 2020 encounter with Watson. The civil suit alleges that Watson “coerced and intimidated” her to perform oral sex on him at a Houston office building.

“I asked her what she would be silent about and whether anything had happened with Deshaun against her will,” Burney stated. “She confirmed that everything that occurred was consensual during her encounter with Deshaun. I asked Ms. Doe why Deshaun should pay for silence regarding something that was consensual — whatever it was. She said that it was a matter that both she and Deshaun would wish to keep secret and that she would need to be paid for her ‘silence.’”

Burney stated that after that conversation, he received a call from a man saying he was the alleged victim’s business manager, that the encounter would be “embarrassing” if Watson didn’t pay what was demanded.

“I told this individual that his demand to be paid for not revealing a consensual interaction between two adults was extortion,” Burney said. “He responded, “It’s not extortion, it’s blackmail. I informed this individual that Deshaun would not be paying the $30,000 requested.

You can read the rest, including the full sworn statement. The idea is that if one accusation is (arguably) false, then maybe the others are as well. We’re a long way away from the finish line in this story, so let’s just leave this here and see what else may develop. And yes, the accuser count is now up to sixteen.

“Normal” bus service is on the horizon

Isn’t it great to imagine the return of “normal”? It’s coming for Metro riders.

Having sharply reduced service and staffing during the pandemic, Metro officials now are readying for higher demand when school populations return to normal and downtown businesses call workers into the office.

“They are expecting a major return in August,” said Jim Archer, director of service planning and scheduling for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

That means Metro will spend the spring and early summer hiring bus operators and mechanics as it prepares to resume full service even as many realities of mass transit remain uncertain.

One looming concern is how to meet rising demand as daily trips increase from about 125,000, based on February numbers, to the 280,000 or more Metro carried prior to the COVID pandemic, while still providing for social distancing.

The issue is one of space on buses, if existing distancing requirements remain. Buses that could ferry 40 seated riders now have available space for 16.

As a result, meeting pre-pandemic demand under COVID conditions would be impossible with Metro’s fleet of approximately 700 40-foot buses and 90 60-foot articulated buses.

“There is a point at which we run out of buses and run out of operators,” Archer said.

Metro officials said it remains unknown how many drivers and mechanics the agency would have to hire and when they would be needed.

“Our operations team is still evaluating what ‘normal’ service will look like in August, given the many public health protocols that will, no doubt, still be in place,” Metro spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said.

August is targeted both as a reasonable point at which to expect a significant level of vaccinations, and thus maybe offices opening again, and also because it’s when school starts up. It’s hard to say exactly how much bus service will be needed – Metro has basically been running weekend schedules for the past year – but it’s safe to say that it will be more than what is needed now. No matter how you look at it, it sure is nice to think about.