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Houston City Council

A new proposal for adding sidewalks

I’d like to hear more about this.

Some homeowners and developers soon may be able to opt out of requirements to build sidewalks and instead pay a fee into a new fund the city would use to build sidewalks across Houston.

City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a proposal to create a “sidewalk-in-lieu fee” to give developers another way to comply with the sidewalk ordinance.

Under current regulations, property owners and developers are required to build a sidewalk in front of a property unless the project meets certain exemptions. This approach, however, has led to disconnected segments, known as “sidewalks to nowhere,” that do not contribute to a network needed by pedestrians, according to David Fields, chief transportation planner at the Houston Planning and Development Department.

With the new measure, applicants can choose to pay a fee of $12 per square foot if the required sidewalk construction is unsuitable or unfeasible. The fees would go into a new fund, which is expected to generate $1.7 million a year for the city to build sidewalks in a cohesive manner. That would be in addition to the existing sidewalk program’s $3.3 million annual budget.

The plan also would divide Houston into 17 service areas; 70 percent of the sidewalk fees collected in each area would be spent within its boundaries and 30 percent would be used citywide. The idea, Fields said, is to balance the need for sidewalk projects throughout Houston.

“The objective is a citywide pedestrian network to help the city grow sustainably and responsibly,” Fields said. “The in-lieu fee is one additional option for how we get there.”

The basic idea makes sense, and from reading the rest of the article it sounds like there’s a consensus for this. CM Robert Gallegos notes that it doesn’t address the need to fix existing sidewalks, though he still appears to favor the idea. Lack of sidewalks, and lack of good sidewalks, is a longstanding problem in this city, one that greatly limits non-car options for people, especially people with mobility challenges. Any tangible step we can take towards making that situation better is one I’d like to see happen.

January 2023 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

It’s late January, so you know what that means: It’s campaign finance report time again. The reports of the greatest interest will be for the city of Houston, but I’ll be checking in on HISD, HCC, and Harris County as well. The July 2022 reports are here, the January 2022 reports are here, and the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Hollins      547,027    469,141        0   1,062,754
Edwards      567,005    195,257        0   1,044,338
Whitmire   1,148,015    249,142        0  10,100,086
Kaplan       465,180    177,578  200,000   1,164,527

Peck          10,750     13,940        0      20,729
Jackson        2,500     14,965        0      14,971
Kamin         52,080     12,255        0     238,337
 Scarbrough        0          0        0      14,810   
E-Shabazz     
L Dixon            0        254      100         254
Thomas        43,996     11,310        0      89,042
Huffman        5,850      3,624        0      35,012
Castillo      37,448      1,037   10,000      41,935
G Lindner      4,503          0        0       4,503
Martinez      78,605      6,130        0      52,187
Pollard       17,350     15,412   40,000     718,379
 Sanchez      30,140      4,201   20,000      25,938
C-Tatum       14,250     13,687        0     155,691

Hellyar       65,854      6,772        0      44,710
Coryat         5,626      4,063        0       1,562
Bess               0          0        0           0
Carter        85,926      9,456    4,000      78,768
Cooper        23,977     17,631        0       9,189
Plummer        4,125     10,309        0      24,741
 Morales      12,900        417    5,534      18,016
Alcorn       155,301     28,187        0     306,273

Martin         8,250     12,493        0     161,851
Kubosh        22,900      3,612  196,000      54,289

Wolfthal      43,812     16,683        0      24,953
Flickinger         0      1,933   50,000           0

Turner       228,862    186,942        0     842,484

Cisneros         250      7,215        0      31,128
Gallegos      21,787     13,500        0     133,471

Knox          16,175     20,914        0      14,231
Robinson      44,894     27,296        0     271,624

Brown              0      5,404   75,000      29,316

Laster             0      3,254        0     147,138

I have collected all of the reports for the people listed above, and you can find them in this Google Drive folder. I decided not to link to all of them individually just because it was more work than I felt like doing. Omitting that means I don’t have a complete listing, with full names and the office they are seeking, of all the candidates. I’ll be sure to at least mention everyone of interest later in the post.

I’ve grouped everyone in the table above as follows: First are the Mayoral candidates, then the candidates for district Council offices, listed in alphabetical order by office – Amy Peck is District A, Tarsha Jackson is District B, and so on. The open offices are Districts E, H, and I. There are so far two challengers to incumbent Council members, and I have indented their names to indicate them – Daphne Scarbrough (yeah, the same person who was a leading opponent of light rail on Richmond Avenue, here to scourge us again) is running against CM Abbie Kamin in C, and Ivan Sanchez, who was a Democratic candidate for CD07 in 2018, is running against CM Ed Pollard in District J. Martina Lemond Dixon is running in E, Mario Castillo and Janette Garza Lindner (2021 candidate for HISD district I) are running in H (my district), and Joaquin Martinez is running in I. The one person that did not have a report filed as of Friday was District D incumbent Carolyn Evans-Shabazz.

The next group is for the At Large seats, of which #s 1, 2, and 3 are open. Nick Hellyar, who ran for At Large #4 in 2019, is running for #2, as are Marina Coryat and Danielle Bess (former candidate for HD147 in 2022), and Twila Carter and Dannell Cooper are running for #3. No one has yet filed a finance report saying they plan to run for At Large #1. You can be sure that will change, and that all of these fields will be much larger by the time the filing deadline rolls around. Indeed, they may already be larger, as there are two candidates who didn’t specify an office in their reports; I’ll get to them in a minute. As above, a candidate opposing an incumbent is indented. Yes, that’s our old buddy Roy Morales running against CM Letitia Plummer in At Large #4.

Next we have the two term-limited Council members who are now running for City Controller, and following them are two candidates who did not specify an office on their report, Leah Wolfthal and Fred Flickinger. I met Leah Wolfthal at the January CEC meeting for HCDP precinct chairs, and I thought she told me she is running in At Large #2. Her website just says “for At Large City Council”, so better not to make any assumptions. I’ve put her in this group for that reason.

Everyone after that is not running for anything, from Mayor Turner to the four CMs to Controller Chris Brown. Former CM Mike Laster, who termed out in 2019, still has a decent amount of cash on hand. I assume the four people in this grouping who remain with over $100K on hand have some plan, perhaps vague and unformed but still existent, to do something with it. What that may be is not known to me, and possibly to them, at this time.

The Chron picks a few highlights from the Mayoral portion of the reports. The one thing I will add to that is that I must have missed Lee Kaplan’s July 2022 report, because I was surprised by his cash on hand total. Kaplan raised about $850K in the last period, which combined with a small amount of spending gives him the cash on hand total he has now. I have included Kaplan’s July 2022 finance report in that Google Drive folder as well.

There are candidates now who have not yet filed a finance report, and there are people who will be candidates that have not yet formally announced their candidacies. The July finance reports will tell us a much more complete story, though even then there will be room for more, as the filing deadline is not until August. This is what we know now. If you have anything to add, by all means please do so.

No more library fines in Houston

Good news for some of you, I’m sure.

Houston Public Library patrons no longer will have to pay overdue fees and will have a month-long amnesty period to get past fines canceled.

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the library’s proposal to eliminate overdue fees — currently 20 cents per day for adult and young adult books and 10 cents per day for children’s materials — for all patrons at its more than 40 locations. The goal is to encourage more residents, especially younger and low-income Houstonians, to utilize the system, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

“A fine-free library system evens the playing field and incentivizes Houstonians to become lifelong users of our Houston Public Library,” Turner said in a statement. “When you analyze the numbers, you see that young people account for more than 27 percent of users with fines, preventing them from accessing free resources and tools for learning. Simply put, this is the right thing to do.”

The library has issued 1.4 million library cards to consumers, according to a 2020 library foundation report. The branches have 3.6 million materials, which includes laptop computers and tablets.

Research on public libraries consistently shows late fines do not make people return books on time and actually can deter those who owe fines from using the facility again, according to Houston Public Library spokesperson Julie Mintzer.

The change will cost the library system approximately $60,000 per year in revenue generated by late fines, Minztzer said. The library has a $44 million annual budget. Going forward, book borrowers still will be responsible for the cost of damaged or lost books.

At the request of CM Amy Peck, Council will get briefed on the effect of the change at the end of the year so they can consider revisions to the ordinance if needed. All this seems reasonable to me. Fines for overdue books topped out at $10, so their cost was unlikely to be a deterrent to anyone. Be all that as it may, I just wanted the excuse to embed one of my favorite Bloom County strips:

You’re welcome.

Katy ISD challenged over at large districts

This was from before Christmas but I didn’t have a chance to write about it until now.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter Tuesday to Katy ISD accusing the district of disenfranchising Black and Latino voters by adhering to an at-large voting system in violation of federal civil rights law.

The letter, addressed to Katy ISD board of trustees President Greg Schulte, says the at-large system — in which board members are elected to represent the entire district, by voters across the entire district — “dilutes the votes of Katy ISD’s voters of color and may violate the Voting Rights Act because it prevents Black and Latinx voters from electing their preferred candidates to the Board of Trustees and from participating in the electoral process on an equal footing.”

The Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF, filed the letter after being approached by a group of Katy ISD parents concerned with the lack of diversity on the district’s seven-member board. Currently, the letter says, all seven trustees “reside in a concentrated area of the district south of Interstate 10 and do not reflect the geographic or racial and ethnic diversity of the district,” where Black and Latino children make up nearly half of the student body, according to the Texas Tribune.

The letter was first reported by NBC News.

Cameron Campbell, a former Democratic candidate for state legislature and a Katy ISD parent, said debates over book bans and other “microagressions” and “dog whistles” led the parents group to think critically about the makeup of the school board and who it serves.

“We can all agree on keeping our kids safe, learning and prospering, but if there’s not equal representation, it is absolutely impossible for our school boards to serve our kids adequately,” Campbell said. “I’m a proud Katy ISD parent and the teachers do a fantastic job, but the school board is broken and it’s an embarrassment.”

You can see a copy of the letter and a proposed district map at that NBC News tweet. The district had no comment in the story and I didn’t see any followup news since this ran in the Chron, but there are some more details given by the Katy Times.

According to its website, Katy ISD has an enrollment of 92,914 students as of Dec. 26. Here is a breakdown of students by ethnicity:

Asian: 15,542, or 16.7%.
Black: 13,204, or 14.2%.
Hispanic, 33,766, or 36.3%.
Native American: 208, or 0.2%.
Pacific Islander: 108, or 0.1%.
Two or more races: 3,963, or 4.3%.
White: 26,123, or 28.1%.

Much of the growth is taking place in the north and northwest areas of the district. The district’s northernmost high school, Paetow, 23111 Stockdick School Road, opened in 2017. It has a student population breakdown that is 49% Hispanic, 23% Asian, 17% White, 6% Black, and 3% two or more races, according to the district.

[NAACP assistant counsel Antonio Ingram II] provided an example figure that illustrated how a single-district representation map might look. Under this plan, Ingram wrote that four of the districts would be majority-minority districts.

Ingram wrote that the example was one of several versions of a seven-single-member school board map that can be drawn with multiple majority-Black and Latinx districts in northern Katy.

While most school districts in Texas have at-large representation exclusively, not all of them do. Richardson ISD, near Dallas, recently adopted single-member districts. According to its website, five of the seven trustees on the Richardson ISD board are elected from single-member districts. The other two trustees are elected at-large.

The single-member district issue has been raised in at least one previous Katy ISD trustee campaign. Local attorney Scott Martin called for single-member districts in an unsuccessful 2018 trustee campaign.

Not immediately clear now is whether the NAACP is approaching only Katy ISD for such changes, or whether it is approaching other school districts in a similar fashion.

But other options are available to trustees, Ingram wrote. Among these are:

Cumulative voting in at-large elections.
Requirements for more diverse representation on the board, such as a requirement that all board members reside in different school attendance zones. According to the map Ingram provided, all seven trustees live south of Interstate 10.
Moving the election date to November, when other significant races are on the ballot, therefore increasing voter turnout.

“Whatever method or methods the Katy ISD Board of Trustees chooses to ensure a more fair and equitable electoral process for choosing its members, we urge the board to act with all deliberate speed, as failure to act could expose the Katy ISD to liability under the VRA (Voting Rights Act),” Ingram wrote.

This caught my eye for a number of reasons, including of course because of the LULAC lawsuit over Houston City Council at large districts. There’s no indication at this time that the NAACP LDF might file a lawsuit, but that is certainly a possible outcome if there’s no movement from Katy ISD. A similar lawsuit was filed against Spring Branch ISD in 2021. There hasn’t been much news about that since then – the law firm representing Spring Branch ISD withdrew from the case a few months after the suit was filed, and there’s a Fairly comprehensive update on the SBISD website, the short version of which is that there was not one but two changes in who the presiding judge was and as a result there hasn’t been a hearing yet – one for October was cancelled – and nothing has been set yet. Federal lawsuits move at their own pace, y’all.

Anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this. I don’t have a lot of optimism about any use of the Voting Rights Act these days, but you never know. Katy ISD will have its next election this May, and the filing deadline is January 18.

Mayor Turner’s final year

The big local political story, besides whatever violence the Legislature commits to Houston and/or Harris County, will be the 2023 Mayor’s race. The incumbent still has a full year to go, though, and he has his plans for what he wants to do with his remaining time in office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus his final year in office on moving existing projects across the finish line, with an emphasis on housing, crime, parks and community facilities.

Turner said he wants to accomplish his administration’s goal of helping to build 10,000 new housing units in his second term, while also continuing the city’s progress since 2012 in reducing homelessness. His “One Safe Houston” plan to address violent crime has several elements that are funded through the rest of his tenure, including expanded crisis response teams. And there are renovations underway in 22 community parks that he wants to see through before his term ends in January 2024.

“It’s about finishing up many of the priorities and projects that are currently on the books,” said Turner, who revealed recently that he worked this summer while battling a cancer diagnosis. He now is cancer-free.

Next year, though, could force confrontations with structural issues at City Hall that Turner is satisfied to leave to his successor, such as a potential adjustment to the city’s revenue cap, and the resolution of a yearslong contract stalemate with firefighters that has spanned nearly his full tenure, and which now rests with the Supreme Court.

[…]

Turner has said a garbage fee — Houston is the only city in Texas without one — is necessary to sustain Solid Waste operations, though he is not likely to take that on in his final year. He likewise has argued an adjustment to the revenue cap is necessary. The most recent discussion of the cap came in October, after it forced the city’s eighth rate cut in nine years. At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh wondered aloud how the city could afford its growing police and fire budgets with those restraints. Turner said he would present an adjustment to the cap if council desired it.

Turner said that adjustment proposal still is in the works but acknowledged he is not “100 percent on it.”

“Some of the these things need to be left for the next mayor,” he said, and the ruling in the firefighters dispute could affect his calculus, as well. “A modification of the revenue cap may not be adequate to address it. In that case, I won’t present it. I’ll leave it up to the next mayor to address how he or she, and the people in this city, should deal with it.”

Turner argues he has done his part tackling intractable problems facing the city. The 2017 pension reforms he ushered in have slashed the city’s daunting debt in that arena from a $8 billion liability to about $1.5 billion. The issue that once dominated city government and politics now is mostly an afterthought. The city’s liability for retirement benefits likewise was expected to grow to $9 billion over 30 years, but cuts Turner implemented are expected to reduce that at least in half.

“I can’t fix everything, but we’ve fixed a whole lot,” Turner said.

Turner and other elected leaders in the city long have said the cap strains the city’s finances and hinders its ability to provide adequate resources to residents. It has cost the city about $1.5 billion in revenue since it first hit the cap in 2015. In that time, it has saved the owner of the median Houston home about $946, or about $105 per year.

I’m not sure I have any hope left about raising the revenue cap. If there actually is some action on it, the most likely scenario is what we have done before, which is to carve out a limited exception for public safety spending. That’s more likely to pass a public vote, and less likely to get cracked down on by the Legislature. It’s at best a band-aid, if it even happens, but you know nothing significant will ever happen until we have a different state government, and we know that ain’t happening for at least another four years.

As for the firefighters, there are two issues that need to be resolved by the courts before anything gets left as a mess for the next Mayor, and those are the pay parity lawsuit and the HFD collective bargaining lawsuit, both of which just had hearings before SCOTx. I have no prediction for either – we may or may not get rulings on them before the November election, but if we do there will be a big new issue for the candidates to talk about. Modifying the revenue cap in some form would leave the next Mayor a bit of leeway in how they try to resolve whatever they need to resolve with these issues. I don’t need more reasons to support modifying the stupid revenue cap, but other people do, so there you have it.

As for the long-discussed trash fee, I support the idea as long as the funds are used to really improve solid waste collection in the city. There’s plenty of innovation out there, but just making sure everything gets picked up in a timely fashion, which is a labor and equipment issue at its core, is the first priority. I think this has a better chance of passing this year than in the future just because some number of people who won’t be facing re-election can vote for it, but we’ll see. Just have a productive last year in office, that’s all I ask.

City approves new regulations on outdoor music festivals

Hope they help.

Houston City Council on Monday approved stricter permitting requirements for outdoor music events on private property with more than 500 attendees.

There has been an increasing number of instances in which organizers only informed the city of their plans days before an event, sometimes leading to an additional cost of thousands of dollars for city staff and law enforcement to handle unexpected safety issues at the venue, according to city and law enforcement officials.

Under the new ordinance, organizers would have to turn in permit applications at least 60 days prior to the event and have a detailed safety plan in place. Failure to do so will result in a late fee and require the organizer to pay for any extra public expenses associated with the event.

The ordinance would bring the level of review for large music events on private property on par with those on public property.

“With social media and everything, all of a sudden you can get hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of people showing up,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “And then something happens, and then here we are on the news because people are saying to us ‘Did you all permit that, why didn’t you permit it, and why did you all allow this to happen?’ ”

[…]

Turner said the ordinance was tailored specifically to deal with music events because city staff and first responders have identified the most problems with those types of events.

“I asked them to carefully craft a very narrow ordinance since we’re dealing with people’s private property,” the mayor said. “When you cast that net and include everything, then you really are imposing the city’s will on private property owners across the board with little or no justification for it.”

See here for the background. I’m fine with this, but I will continue to wonder if there isn’t more that can and should be done. As with the AstroWorld task force recommendations, I’d really appreciate hearing a discussion with some experts about this.

LULAC files that lawsuit to end Houston City Council At Large districts

We’ve been waiting for this.

The League of United Latin American Citizens on Monday filed its long-anticipated lawsuit against the city of Houston, seeking to get rid of at-large City Council seats that it says leave Hispanic residents with insufficient representation at City Hall.

The group, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, first announced plans to take legal action against the city in January.

While 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Robert Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic person holding a seat on the 16-member body, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The federal lawsuit aims to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats dedicated to certain geographic areas. Houston’s current election system has created barriers to Hispanic representation and deprived hundreds of thousands of minority Houstonians of their voting rights guaranteed by law, the complaint says.

“The Latino voters of Houston have waited for fair redistricting plans. They have waited for years for the city of Houston to end its long relationship with ‘at-large’ districts that dilute the electoral strength of Hispanics,” the lawsuit says. “The time has come to replace this old election system that functions solely to dilute the power of Houston’s Latino voters.”

Houston City Council was comprised of all at-large positions until 1980, when it switched to a mix of district seats and five at-large seats. The change led to more diverse council bodies and better representation of minority voters, according to the complaint. Still, only four with Spanish surnames have been elected to one of the five at-large districts since then because Latino-preferred candidates rarely do well in citywide races, it says.

While many local Latino candidates also face other challenges, such as a lack of resources, the council structure remains a major hurdle for them, according to Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor in political science at University of Houston.

“When you look into political science literature, you’ll find that at-large seats tend to decrease the likelihood for minority candidates to win an election,” he said.

It is, however, not sufficient to simply look at the absence of Latino city council members, Cortina said. To substantiate LULAC’s claim that Houston is in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the organization would have to prove that Latino Houstonians have been acting as a cohesive voting bloc but unable to elect a candidate of their choice.

“It would take a lot of time and a lot of data,” Cortina said. “But the fact is that Latinos have been running and Latinos are not winning these elections.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. I’ve said all I have to say in that first link. Whatever happens with this lawsuit happens, and I’ll be fine with it. Courts have ordered cities like Pasadena and Farmers Branch to incorporate City Council districts in recent years, but those places began with all-At Large systems, and they were much more clearly discriminatory in my opinion. They were also decided in a time before SCOTUS went all in on destroying the Voting Rights Act. This could go either way, and I’ll be surprised if there is a temporary restraining order in place to block the use of the current Council map for the 2023 election. After that, we’ll see. The Trib has more.

Houston to spend more fixing water pipes

Seems like a good idea.

The city is poised to at least double its annual spending on water line repairs, citing two years of pipe breaks and leaks driven in part by ongoing drought conditions.

Houston lost nearly 20 billion gallons of water from January to August of this year, according to records obtained through a public information request. That represents about $75 million in potential revenue for the city’s water utility system.

City Council on Wednesday approved six emergency purchases related to water infrastructure maintenance totaling $21 million. In the previous five fiscal years, the city spent $9 to $10 million annually to repair broken water pipes, city records show.

Such emergency purchases are common during a drought, when extreme heat and dryness put pressure on the pipes around shrinking soils, Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones said.

In June, record temperatures and a significant drop in rainfall prompted the city to issue a drought advisory — which remains ongoing — asking residents to limit outdoor watering and routinely check for water leaks. The last time Houston issued such restrictions was during a more severe state-wide drought in 2011, Jones said.

“All those warmer months without rain in April and May, that’s causing like a domino effect of more heat and more breakage,” she said. “It’s not as bad as what it was in 2011, but it’s important to remember that we were and still are in a drought.”

Houston has an aging underground infrastructure, Mayor Sylvester Turner said during Wednesday’s council meeting. Combined with more extreme weather conditions brought by climate change, spending more money on contractors to fix the main lines is unavoidable, he said.

“We were being overwhelmed, and so we ended up bringing on more contractors to address the situation. That has helped, and it does come with an expense,” Turner said. “We have to recognize the changing conditions and the infrastructure that’s going to be required in order to mitigate more water main leaks.”

From January to May, the amount of water lost to leaks each month nearly doubled, from 1.8 billion gallons to 3.1 billion gallons, data show. The largest water losses occurred in March, April and May, when they accounted for more than 20 percent of the city’s total treated water, slightly less than the 25 percent at the height of the 2011 drought.

That’s a lot of water, and getting the pipes fixed is not just sensible environmentally it’s also a good idea financially. I think the city has been a bit lax on this historically because we’re in a pretty wet climate and generally haven’t had to worry about having enough water. It’s very clear now that that is not a safe assumption any more.

One more thing:

Councilmember Mike Kubosh said the city should ask the state for more support, noting Texas was to receive an estimated $35 billion over five years from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November 2021.

“Some of the cities have crumbling infrastructure, like ours,” Kubosh said. “Thirty billion dollars just sitting there…It’s the people’s money. It doesn’t make sense that they’re not using it.”

By all means, feel free to pick up the phone and call Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and tell them that. I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor.

A too-early look at who’s running for Houston city offices in 2023

Because it’s never not election season.

With the midterm elections behind us, city election season is now heating up. Next November, Houston will elect a new mayor, a new controller and 16 City Council members.

The campaigns actually got underway long before the midterm elections were over. State Sen. John Whitmire, the longest serving member of the Texas Senate, announced his plans to run for mayor way back in November 2021. Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk, announced in February, and former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards launched her campaign in March.

Those announcements, and the millions of dollars the mayoral candidates collectively have raised for their bids so far, have set Houston off on its earliest start to campaign season to date.

As the candidates start making more public appearances and vying for voters’ attention, here’s your early primer on city elections, and who is running so far:

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner is serving out his second and final term, which means Houston will elect a new mayor in 2023. Voters also will decide 16 spots on City Council — 11 members representing geographic districts, and five members elected citywide in at-large seats — to round out the City Hall horseshoe.

City Controller Chris Brown also is term-limited, meaning the city will have a new controller as well. The controller is the city’s independently elected financial watchdog.

Six council members face term limits, meaning their seats will be open. Ten council members are eligible for re-election and presumably running.

They have a list of the Council members who are not term-limited, as well as a list of people who claim they are running for something at this time. We’ll get some idea of who is serious and who is just a name when the January finance reports come out. From past experience, nothing is truly set in stone until the filing deadline, and we’re a long way away from that.

One more name that is out there as a potential Mayoral candidate is former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia. Don’t be surprised to hear of other names, though at this point it’s not very likely there will be any more high-profile names.

The incumbent Council members who are term limited include Dave Martin (District E), Karla Cisneros (H), Robert Gallegos (I), Mike Knox (At Large #1), David Robinson (AL #2), and Michael Kubosh (AL #3). I expect there to be a lot of At Large candidates, assuming At Large seats are still a thing next November.

There are also races for HISD and HCC boards of trustees. In HISD, Kathy Blueford-Daniels (District II), Dani Hernandez (III), Patricia Allen (IV), and Judith Cruz (VIII) are up for re-election. In HCC, the candidates whose terms are up are Reagan Flowers (Distrct 4), Robert Glaser (5), and Pretta VanDible Stallworth (9). Glaser is under accusation of sexual harassment, and as such I have to think there’s a decent chance he’ll choose not to run again. That is 100% fact-free speculation on my part, so take it for what it’s worth.

This is the situation as it stands now. As I said, we’ll know more when we see the January finance reports. If you know of someone not listed in the Chron story who’s running for something next year, please let us know in the comments.

Commissioner-elect Briones

Good story.

Lesley Briones

Yes, Lesley Briones secured a victory that handed Democrats a stall-proof majority on Harris County Commissioners Court.

And yes, she upset Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle in a precinct where he has won reelection every cycle since 2011, beating the incumbent by about 3 points when polling in the week before the election marked Cagle with a firm lead in the race.

It’s also true that Briones’ election to office marks the first instance in its 145-year history that two women have served on Harris County Commissioners Court at the same time. It should also be noted that her presence adds a third representative with Latin American heritage to the five-member body in a county where Latinos make up the largest racial demographic group and have been growing every year since 2010.

But Briones maintains that the circumstances and implications surrounding her victory will not color her decisions as she prepares to assume her role as Harris County’s newly elected Precinct 4 Commissioner. A former Harris County Civil Court Judge who graduated from Harvard and went to law school at Yale, told Chron that she plans to approach her role as commissioner “just the way I did in court.”

“In my court, I wear a black robe, not a blue robe, not a red robe or any other color. And I listen to both sides of a case, or all sides if there are multiple parties. And I listened to the evidence and made my rulings in the fairest way possible,” Briones said.

“I am a proud lifelong Democrat, but it’s beyond partisanship,” said Briones. “It’s about being Americans, being Houstonians, being Texans. It’s about fixing potholes, improving parks, maintaining ditches. It’s about making sure we have the number of law enforcement officers we have,” she added.

Looking back at her and Democratic Judge Lina Hidalgo’s re-election victories, Briones said that “when people box themselves into corners, if it’s hyperpartisanship or polarization or however you want to frame it, it wasn’t serving people, and things weren’t getting done.”

First, that was the same poll that had claimed Judge Hidalgo was losing in her race; it underestimated her support by six points. To be fair, that poll showed a lot of undecided voters and noted that they came primarily from demographics that would favor Democrats. I’m just noting this all for the record, so we can examine the polls of 2024 more carefully.

I like the subtlety with which Commissioner-elect Briones calls out her vanquished opponent for his quorum busting – there’s more later in the story – which she had taken the opportunity to attack as it was happening in the latter stages of the campaign. I have no idea if this had an effect on the outcome – we don’t have any data on that – but as the victor one gets to write the narrative. Seems like a pretty good way to start telling the story of her tenure.

Finally, given that we will be talking a lot about Latino representation on Houston City Council in the coming year, not to mention the promised lawsuit to get rid of the At Large Council seats, it’s worthwhile to compare Harris County to Houston and note the disparity in their governing bodies. I will note that County Commissioner races are a lot more expensive than At Large City Council races, and that Briones won in a district that was not specifically drawn to elect a Latino. She had to defeat a diverse slate of opponents in her primary to get onto the November ballot. To be sure, she’s running in a partisan race, which can be (but isn’t necessarily) a boost to one’s fundraising prospects. She’s also running in an even-numbered year, which as we’ve discussed before in the City Council context means much higher turnout and thus a more diverse electorate than our odd-year municipal elections. If we had city elections in even-numbered years, we would almost certainly have a different-looking City Council. There are good reasons to not want to have those elections in even years, I’m just saying it’s another option, and something to keep in mind as we have this longer conversation in 2023. Campos has more.

Mayor Turner’s cancer treatment

I’m very glad to hear he’s doing well.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed Wednesday that he was diagnosed with cancer this summer, for which he had surgery and received six weeks of radiation treatment.

Turner said he went to the dentist for a root canal, and doctors ultimately found osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his jaw. He had surgery for nine hours on July 30, the mayor said, followed by an eight-day hospital stay and weeks of radiation in August and September.

Turner discussed the illness publicly for the first time in a question-and-answer discussion with former ABC-13 anchor Tom Koch after his seventh annual “State of the City” address.

“I’ve also had my own personal medical situation. For all of my life, I’ve been the healthiest ever,” Turner said. “I go to the dentist to get a root canal, on my way to France with the trade mission. Doctors come and say, ‘Well, it’s a little bit more than a root canal.'”

The mayor said he got a biopsy, and just before departing for France doctors told him he would not be able to make the trip. During the operation, Turner said surgeons took part of his leg bone to restructure his jaw. He had radiation every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. from Aug. 1 to Sept. 12.

“Back at City Council that day, I continued to do what I needed to do in the city of Houston. Let me tell you, I have been blessed,” Turner said to applause. “As I look at the seven federally declared disasters, and then I look at what I’ve had to endure myself, and then you bounce back. What I would say to you is this is an incredible, incredible city.”

[…]

Turner’s office did not elaborate on the mayor’s prognosis after the event.

“That’s the extent of what he plans to share at this time,” said Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director.

There’s a larger conversation we could have about how much our political leaders need to tell us about their health, but I’ll save that for another time. In retrospect, given that there was no noticeable change in how the city was operating, it’s hard for me to say that we needed to know this information any sooner than now. Reasonable people may see it differently. As I said, I’m very glad that Mayor Turner is doing well, and I wish him all the best.

New regulations for outdoor music events proposed

Good idea, but it feels to me like there ought to be more.

Houston is considering tightening up permitting requirements for some large outdoor music events to avoid wasting city resources accommodating last-minute notices.

On Thursday, officials from the Houston police and fire departments went before City Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to discuss proposed revisions to how the city regulates special events. The suggested changes would apply only to outdoor music events with more than 500 attendees that take place on private property.

Meanwhile, regulations concerning events on public property, which have garnered considerable attention following the Astroworld tragedy last year, have not undergone significant changes, according to city officials.

Outdoor music events on private property currently are not subject to the same level of review and monitoring as those on public land, according to Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The latest proposal is aimed at closing that gap, she said.

Under the proposal, organizers would have to outline a detailed safety plan and submit permit applications at least 60 days prior to the event or pay a late fee. Organizers who violate any requirements could be on the hook for extra public expenses incurred by the city in connection with the event.

The proposal was prompted by a rising number of incidents in recent years in which organizers did not inform the city of their plans in a timely manner — often not until days before the events took place — sometimes resulting in thousands of dollars in additional costs for city staff and first responders, Christian said.

“A lot have happened since COVID, and we’ve seen on several occasions where this particular issue arises that has cost us a lot of money and pulled resources away,” Christian said. “We just need some help so that we’re not having to stop everything we do with some of these bad players.”

Seems reasonable. I’m a little puzzled by the statements about events on public property not getting any significant changes, but maybe there’s a semantics issue in there. There is a city-county task force reviewing “procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events”, which may still have something to say. There was also a state task force that issued some recommendations about permitting, which may or may not have any effect. I don’t know if any of this is enough, but I do want to know that everything is being reviewed and nothing is off the table.

Houston City Council approves its new map

Now we wait for the lawsuit(s).

City Council on Wednesday approved new boundaries for the city’s 11 districts for the 2023 elections, featuring modest adjustments affecting parts of downtown, Braeburn, Greater Inwood and a few areas in southeast Houston.

The new boundaries aim to balance district populations based on the latest census data.

By law, the most populous district should not have more than 10 percent more residents than the smallest district. Based on the 2020 census, Districts C and G need to give up some neighborhoods. Districts H, I and J, on the other hand, have lost too many constituents and need to expand. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts.

The redistricting plan had gone through several iterations based on months of internal discussions and public feedback. On Wednesday, four council members also offered amendments to the proposal, three of which were successful.

Despite the majority support for the new maps, council had to vote twice to approve them after it was revealed late Wednesday that the city secretary called out the wrong agenda item before the council voted during the morning session.

The council reconvened at 6 p.m. for a public hearing on a proposed bond election. Following the hearing, which drew no speakers, the council confirmed the new maps by a 14-2 vote, with District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos and District E Councilmember Dave Martin dissenting.

[…]

City Demographer Jerry Wood said throughout the design process he had to juggle competing interests from council members and the public and was unable to accommodate some requests.

“If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make everybody happy, you’re going to be sorry for thinking that,” Wood said. “If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make as few people unhappy as possible, then you might have some success.”

See here for some background. The map I’ve embedded is from the early part of the process and doesn’t include any of the changes made at that Council meeting, so go here for the latest details. CM Gallegos has some issues with the process and with an amendment that affected District I; the story did not say why CM Martin voted no. Overall, this was pretty painless, certainly easier than it was in 2011 when we had to add two new districts. That doesn’t mean there won’t be legal issues:

Much of the discussion around redistricting has centered on the lack of Hispanic representation at City Hall.

While about 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic council member out of the 16, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the council.

The goal of the lawsuit is to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area, to improve minority representation.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of the legal challenge.

“We are asking for equity and fairness, and we just don’t have that with the current districts,” said Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with the organization. “That’s why we are filing the lawsuit to push for changes.”

Some are worried that Kamin’s amendment could have an adverse effect on Hispanic votes.

The areas set to move to District H instead of Freedmen’s Town, have high percentages of Hispanic constituents, but are experiencing gentrification and are expected to see a decline in Hispanic populations in the following years, according to Wood.

Gallegos said that he did not originally agree with LULAC’s demand to abolish Houston’s at-large seats, but in light of these new developments, he plans to work closely with the organization to advance its cause.

“After what happened this morning, I agree that we need all single-member districts to make sure that we have the representation we need,” he said.

See here for some background. I don’t have anything to add to what I wrote then. I think the plaintiffs would have a decent chance of prevailing if they file, but it’s not a slam dunk. An alternate possible outcome would be to agree to move City Council elections to even-numbered years, as the natural boost in turnout would create a more diverse electorate and thus could raise the chances of Latino candidates in citywide races. That was one of the things that happened in Austin, in addition to the switch to districts from At Large; their elections had been in May of odd years, for maximal non-turnout. Greg Wythe wrote on this topic some years ago at his sadly defunct blog, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There are good reasons to keep city elections in the odd years – Lord knows, we have enough to vote on in the even years, and putting them in the even years would very likely make them more overtly partisan – I’m just saying it’s a possible option. We’ll see what happens.

We could maybe vote on a piece of the stupid revenue cap next year

Yippie.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he will ask voters in 2023 to amend the city’s cap on property tax revenue to allow for more public safety spending, as the council cut the city’s tax rate for the eighth time in nine years to get under that limit.

Turner said he would bring language to City Council shortly to put the measure on the November 2023 ballot, after At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh expressed concern about how the city will be able to afford the increasing police and fire budgets with strained resources.

“If there is strong sentiment on this council to at least allow the voters to decide, well, let’s put it this way: I’m willing to put it before you and then allow the voters to make that decision,” Turner said. “I will put it before you to be placed on the November ballot of next year.”

City Council voted unanimously to cut its property tax rate by about 3 percent, moving from 55.08 cents to 53.36 cents per $100 in valuation. The city accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of a standard Houston property tax bill, with about half going to the local school district.

The city’s cap on property taxes limits the growth in revenue to a formula that combines inflation and population increases, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. The city hit the former mark this year, as is standard.

Houston first hit the cap in the 2015 fiscal year, and its tax rate since has fallen about 16 percent, down from 63.88 cents per $100. The city has missed out on about $1.5 billion in revenue as a result of those cuts, according to Turner’s administration. The owner of the median Houston home in that time has saved about $946, or about $105 per year.

[…]

Voters tweaked the cap in 2006 to allow the city to raise an additional $90 million in revenue for public safety spending. It was not immediately clear whether the ballot language Turner is proposing would increase that number or seek to carve out public safety spending entirely. The police and fire departments account for $1.5 billion in spending in the city’s current budget.

You know how I feel about revenue caps. At least this will give all those who rail against “defunding the police” the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. I expect there will be at least one lawsuit filed over this regardless, and given what we’ve seen with other litigation it will still be ongoing in 2033.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Houston will have a bond on the ballot

First I’d heard of this, but it should be pretty routine.

Houston will ask voters in November to approve a $478 million bond program to buy fire and police vehicles, renovate or replace city facilities and give the city’s animal shelter a new home.

City Council voted 16-1 Wednesday to approve an election for Nov. 8, Houston’s first bond referendum since 2017. District G Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman was the lone no vote.

If approved by voters, the city would sell the bonds to investors and use the proceeds on infrastructure. It would pay back the money, plus interest, with debt service over a longer term. The proposed debt package does not include an increase in property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the strategy in formulating the plan was to be “very pragmatic” and avoid creating a “wish list” of spending items. A massive increase in debt service would put a drag on the city’s operating budget, he said. Houston has paid an average of $340 million over the last four years to pay down past public improvement bonds.

To that end, the package primarily would be used to fund $194 million in already-planned projects in the city’s capital budget that have no current funding source. They are listed in the plan as being paid for by a “future bond election.”

The proposal also would hold $156 million to address the city’s backlog of deferred maintenance and $60 million to help cover higher inflation costs. Also included are $45 million for a new animal care building, $13 million for new parks facilities, and a $10 million earmark for improvements to Agnes Moffitt Park in Timber Oaks. District A Councilmember Amy Peck won council approval on an amendment to tack that project onto the proposal during the vote Wednesday.

[…]

In the broader bond package, more than half — $277 million — would go to public safety, $50 million to parks, $47 million to BARC, $29 million in general government improvements, $26 million for libraries and $6 million for Solid Waste Management.

Among the projects already in the works: $87.5 million for police and fire vehicles and equipment, the $13.7 million replacement of Fire Station 40 on Old Spanish Trail, $9.2 million in other fire station renovations, $8.8 million for the renovation of five health and multi-service centers, and $2.8 million in upgrades to City Hall.

All of that spending will be dependent on voters’ approval in November.

There will also be a Harris County bond referendum on the ballot as well. If past form holds, both will be split into multiple items, each one specific to a purpose. In 2017, two years after the last Harris County bond referendum, all five Houston items passed with 72 to 77 percent of the vote. I will be surprised if there’s any serious opposition to this.

On resign to run

The TL;dr version of this is “No one ever said the Elections Code was fair”.

John Whitmire’s plans have been clear since November: He is running for re-election to the state Senate, and he also is running for mayor.

If all goes according to his plan, Whitmire will serve out his final legislative session in the Senate in 2023, turn his attention to campaigning for City Hall in the summer and win a new job in November or December.

City officials in Houston, though, do not have the same luxury, and it is creating political hurdles this year for ambitious council members looking for new jobs — especially those that may want to take City Hall’s top office.

Texas has a resign-to-run law meant to discourage officials from holding one office while running for another. The law dates back to a 1958 constitutional amendment, purportedly aimed at ensuring elected officials concentrate their attention on the job they already have and do not run campaigns while on the taxpayers’ dime.

The state applies the rule only to certain county and city officials, though, and not to those who serve in Austin. That is why Whitmire can, essentially, run for two jobs at the same time. Legislators have run for just about every job in the state while keeping their posts.

Lawmakers have amended the constitutional provision underlying the rule several times over the last couple decades. None of those changes added state officials to the mix.

“They never applied the logic to themselves,” said Nancy Sims, a longtime political consultant who now teaches at the University of Houston.

The story notes that this has only been an issue for Houston City Council members since 2016, following the referendum that altered the term limits ordinance and changing Council terms from two years to four. It also notices the outlier fundraising of CM Ed Pollard, who if he is a Mayoral candidate would have to step down. I confess, I had forgotten about the new application of resign-to-run in discussing Pollard’s potential plans; it is certainly more complicated for him now. Maybe he’ll keep piling up the cash and then challenge whoever gets elected next year in 2027, when he’d only be giving up the last year or so of his second term. I’m just speculating wildly here. Anyway, the state constitution specifies who has to resign to run for something else and who doesn’t, it’s highly unlikely that will ever change to apply to legislators, and that’s just the way it is.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re still more than a year out from the 2023 election, but we are now up to three serious conteners for Mayor, plus two others in the wild, so the finance reports are beginning to generate some real interest. The January 2022 reports are here, the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       209,950    129,870        0     802,194

Peck          19,100     19,457    5,000      24,057
Jackson       17,400     11,330        0      33,436
Kamin         86,461     14,691        0     193,807
E-Shabazz      8,000      5,591        0      17,691
Martin         2,500     18,138        0     151,767
Thomas         5,750      2,887        0      51,761
Huffman       45,350     45,284        0      30,697
Cisneros      13,500      1,164        0      38,094
Gallegos      27,050     14,126        0     127,933
Pollard      286,341     11,800   40,000     716,441
C-Tatum       51,950     16,089        0     154,697

Knox          18,425     10,266        0      37,185
Robinson      67,675     17,595        0     247,700
Kubosh        14,000     31,141  196,000      59,273
Plummer                   6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn        38,305     17,321        0     178,429

Brown            500      4,849   75,000      34,861

Hollins    1,123,316    138,079        0     941,155
Edwards      789,227     96,378        0     712,066

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

All of the current officeholders submitted reports in a timely fashion this period. The only oddity was with the report for CM Letitia Plummer, which did not list an amount raised on either the summary or section totals pages. She clearly did raise some money, as a perusal of the rest of the report shows, but didn’t include a total for it anywhere. I didn’t feel like tallying it up myself, so I left the mystery in place. The only non-officeholders of interest to file reports are the two 2023 Mayoral candidates listed at the bottom, who made a decent splash with their unprecedented totals for this point in the cycle. While he did not file a city of Houston report yet, and while there is some uncertainty about how much he can move from his state account, Sen. John Whitmire had $9.7 million on hand as of July 15. Even if he can only transfer, say, 25% of that, it’s a lot of cash to start out with.

We must once again talk about the finance report for Ed Pollard, who I will say again must be planning something for his future because there is absolutely no need for this level of fundraising for his re-election campaign in District J. I had speculated that maybe he was aiming for a Mayoral campaign, but at this point that seems less likely – I can’t rule it out, but there’s already a big field of well-financed players, and Pollard would be the least known and tied for least-funded among them. Maybe next time, or maybe something in 2024? Or maybe he just really likes fundraising? Who knows.

Other than that, honestly kind of a boring set of reports. Things should start to get more interesting with the January 2023 reports – if nothing else, I’d expect to see a few new names. I’ll skip the HISD and HCC reports this cycle so look for those next January as well. I’ll round up a few state reports of interest for next time. Let me know what you think.

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

City Council redistricting on the agenda

Get ready for some public hearings.

The City Council of the City of Houston, Texas, will hold the following public hearings in the City Council Chamber, City Hall, 2nd Floor, 901 Bagby, Houston, Texas 77002. The purpose of the hearings is to receive comments, suggestions, and alternate plans from the public regarding the Proposed City Council Redistricting Plan, in accordance with the City Charter, Article V, Sec. 3:

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022 at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at 9:00 a.m.

All persons desiring to be heard at any of the public hearings must reserve a specific amount of time (up to 3 minutes) by contacting the City Secretary’s Office at 832-393-1100. Details for signing up to speak in-person or virtually are posted at https://www.houstontx.gov/council/meetingsinfo.html(External link). Reservations for each hearing will be received up to 3:00 p.m. the day before each hearing is scheduled to begin.

See here, here, and here for some background. The current map is here and the proposed new map is here. As expected, the changes are fairly minor, to correct population imbalances. The Let’s Talk Houston redistricting page has more details, both overall and for each district. I don’t think this is going to be particularly eventful, but it’s redistricting so there’s always the potential. The question of whether we should get rid of At Large seats will need to be a separate discussion; it may come up here, but it’s not in the scope. Look for a lawsuit down the line. What do you think of the new map?

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston updates its noise ordinance

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

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

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

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

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Attend one and be In The Know.

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

[…]

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

The meetings are set for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Council approves paid parental leave for city employees

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

City Council to return to in-person meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paid parental leave for city employees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chron story on City Council redistricting

Lots more info now.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council adopts vape extension to smoking ban

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

City Council to consider adding vapes to smoking ordinance

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Council redistricting is on the dock

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

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

January 2022 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

January finance reports are always worth a look, if only as a ritual to start the new year. We’re a year out from election season truly beginning for Houston, but as we now have two brand name contenders for Mayor already, we should check in and see how our current electeds are doing in the fundraising department. I last looked at these reports in July of 2021. Let’s see what folks have been up to since then.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       311,976    156,329        0     723,455

Peck          25,620     13,989    5,000      27,442
Jackson        2,775      8,725        0      27,367
Kamin         14,620      7,824        0     124,434
E-Shabazz      8,440     13,625        0      15,282
Martin        56,350     32,011        0     162,311
Thomas        
Huffman       21,550     24,921        0      27,040
Cisneros       9,495      2,033        0      25,758
Gallegos      50,355     16,218        0     114,905
Pollard      151,275     12,946   40,000     441,900
C-Tatum       10,000      8,576        0     118,827

Knox          13,385      5,227        0      17,884
Robinson      50,595     11,758        0     189,134
Kubosh        33,200     31,914  196,000      73,174
Plummer       14,191     22,440        0      25,473
Alcorn       153,700     26,652        0     158,067

Brown          3,000      6,067   75,000      38,887

As a reminder, no links to individual reports here because the city’s system generates PDF downloads, and I don’t have the time to rename and upload and share them. Next year, when there are candidates, I’ll do that. Not this time.

Mayor Turner is the biggest recipient of campaign cash, which is usually how it is. He won’t be on the 2023 ballot, but we will have at least two charter referenda in our future, and I’m sure he’ll want to be able to have some influence over them. As was the case with Mayor Parker and term limits in 2015, he might want to add one or two more to that list, on policy matters that have been discussed but not yet addressed. I’m thinking of the stupid revenue cap, and a second try at an equal rights ordinance, this time for the charter. I have no special insight on these matters, just a long memory and a searchable archive, both of which I endeavor to use for good and not evil.

The fact that we have two high-profile Mayoral candidates in place (well, as much as one can be at this early hour) doesn’t mean that there aren’t other potential Mayorals out there. Last time I noted CM Ed Pollard’s prodigious fundraising, in which he amassed an amount that far outstripped his possible need for re-election in his district, and noted that he has been on some people’s lips as a possible candidate for Mayor. His January finance report does nothing to turn that speculation down, though also as noted before he may have his eye on some other prizes as well.

On the other end of that spectrum is the one person I had felt most confident about as a 2023 Mayoral candidate, and that’s City Controller Chris Brown, who seemed a natural fit for the Mayoral candidate role and who has demonstrated fundraising prowess in the past. Not these past six months, though, and his cash on hand total is looking awfully paltry. Does that mean anything? It’s too early to say. But now that John Whitmire and Chris Hollins are out there doing Mayoral candidate things, the time to decide whether or not one wants to join them in that is not far off. Michael Kubosh, who is currently doing Michael Kubosh things, falls in between the two of them in fundraising action. He’ll be facing the same decision as well.

A person who turned it up several notches after a sedate second half of 2021 is CM Sallie Alcorn, who was a top fundraiser for her initial election and now seems to be preparing for her second race. Note that in recent years, the old “blackout” period for fundraising was eliminated, so incumbents can get a head start on building up their treasuries. Fewer of them have need to do that now, as about half of them are term-limited. Some of those term-limited folks will be leaving with a decent amount of cash in their kitties – I’m thinking Dave Martin, Robert Gallegos, and David Robinson. It’s not clear to me what if any office they might use those funds for in the future – maybe one of them has an eye on Controller – but they have them if they want them.

Not much else of note. Greg Travis is now filing state reports, so he’s been swapped out for Mary Nan Huffman, who still has a few bucks in her account. I did not find a report for Tiffany Thomas. I’ll do HISD and HCC next to finish this off. Let me know what you think.