Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston City Council

Where are we with Houston police reform?

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

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

Charter amendment petitions are in

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here come the petitions for the latest charter amendment effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your shot at the airport

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consent decree to fix sewers finalized

All done.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Turner selects the new HPD Chief

Congratulations, Chief Finner.

Houston’s next police chief will be Troy Finner, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday afternoon.

Finner is one of outgoing Chief Art Acevedo’s two top assistant chiefs.

Turner’s decision comes just days after Acevedo abruptly announced that he was resigning to lead the Miami Police Department.

[…]

Finner’s career took him on patrol assignments in Southwest Patrol and South Gessner; he also handled assignments in Communication Services, Internal Investigations, Criminal Investigations and Public Affairs. Finner spent 12 years working as a patrol officer before being promoted to sergeant in 2002. He spent five years in that role before becoming a lieutenant, and then was promoted directly to assistant chief in 2014.

After Acevedo arrived, he tapped Finner to be one of his two top subordinates. Finner now oversees the department’s Field & Support Operations, which includes all of the department’s patrol commands, as well as the property room, fleet maintenance, the joint processing center and the traffic enforcement division.

[…]

The day Turner was set to make his pick, criminal justice reformers sent him a letter asking him to conduct a “transparent” hiring process of the next chief, and make changes to the mission for the role.

Noting that criminal justice reform and police-community relations are at a “critical moment,” members of the Right2Justice coalition called on Turner to conduct a national search for a new chief.

“This past summer demonstrated that the people in Houston want you and the city council to lead,” the letter’s authors wrote. “Sixty-thousand Houstonians decried brutal and racist policing practices, including those in Houston.”

In the letter, the coalition members urged Turner to focus on reducing disproportionate arrests of Black Houstonians within a year; implement changes recommended by the mayor’s previous task forces on criminal justice reform; to reduce unnecessary police interactions on low-level offenses and mental health calls, and host community meetings to gather input from residents about qualities needed in HPD’s next chief.

See here and here for the background. The Right2Justice webpage is here but I couldn’t find the letter quoted in the story; their Facebook page hasn’t been updated in months and I didn’t find a Twitter page for them. I agree broadly with their goals, and I hope Chief Finner will take steps to achieve them, beginning with those task force recommendations that we’re all still waiting on. The Houston Press reports that he is committed to doing that, which is encouraging. I wish him well in the new job, and I look forward to him getting started on that project.

Who might succeed Acevedo?

Names are floating about.

With Police Chief Art Acevedo announcing his departure from Houston, law enforcement insiders say they believe Mayor Sylvester Turner is likely to select one of Acevedo’s two top assistants — Executive Assistant Chiefs Troy Finner and Matt Slinkard — as the next chief.

Acevedo named both in his farewell letter, saying the two chiefs are “ready and highly capable” of moving the department forward. Houston Police Officer’s Union President Doug Griffith said the union supported both men.

“From a union standpoint, I think anyone inhouse could do the job and be very effective,” Griffith said. “I think our two executive assistant chiefs would be a benefit to the department and do phenomenal job. They possess the skills to lead our organization.”

Law enforcement veterans say one factor they believe may prompt Turner to choose one of the two is that if he picked someone else within HPD, it would amount to an obvious vote of no-confidence in the two men, with whom he has worked for the last five years.

At the same time, Turner’s remaining time in office — his second term ends in January 2024 — is another consideration. Given the custom of new mayors choosing their own leadership when they take office, outside candidates are presumably less interested in a job that they know has an obvious expiration date of just a few years from now.

See here for the background. What the story says makes sense, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I want to know who is going to prioritize the reforms we’ve been talking about, or at least who isn’t going to stand in their way. I don’t know what criteria Mayor Turner will use in picking a new Chief, but I sure hope he’s got that on his mind, because this is a golden opportunity for that.

HPD Chief Art Acevedo leaving

Headed to Miami.

Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving Houston to take over the Miami Police Department, the chief told his officers in an email obtained by the Chronicle.

Acevedo informed HPD troops in an email dated Monday, March 15, that some officers working Sunday night received early. The Miami Police Department is expected to announce the news at a 9 a.m. Monday press conference.

“This is like getting the Tom Brady or the Michael Jordan of police chiefs,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald Sunday.

In the email, Acevedo thanked officers and called his departure “truly bittersweet.”

“We have been through so much as an extended family,” he wrote. “Hurricane Harvey, two World Series, a Super Bowl, (Imelda), the summer of protest, and most recently, an ice storm of epic proportion. On top of all this, we have sadly buried six of our fallen heroes.”

Acevedo said he hadn’t been looking to move, “but with the end of Mayor Turner’s final term in office fast approaching and my strong desire to continue serving as a police officer, we decided that the timing for this move was good. Good because you will continue to serve with the strong support of Mayor (Sylvester) Turner and his council colleagues and good because Executive Assistant Chiefs (Matt) Slinkard and (Troy) Finner are ready and highly capable of continuing to move our department forward.”

The story goes into Chief Acevedo’s career and the main things that happened on his watch, so read the rest to review the history. It’s safe to say there’s a range of opinion out there about Chief Acevedo. He definitely had his good qualities, while also being a fairly straightforward law-and-order guy. He was more talk than action on police reform items, which is a big reason why some folks were not impressed by him. Of course, the impetus and agenda for reform come from the Mayor, and that will be top of mind for many people as we consider who will succeed Acevedo.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner confirmed Monday that Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving for Miami, Fla., a decision the mayor said caught him by surprise.

“I hate to see him leave the city of Houston,” Turner said. “But I also realize this is an excellent, extraordinary opportunity for him at a time when he is one of the nation’s leading voices in law enforcement.”

Acevedo informed Turner of his decision Sunday at around 5 p.m., Turner said, acknowledging he had received no prior hint about his police chief’s departure. Acevedo never formally applied to be Miami’s top cop and was not on anyone’s radar there “other than just a few people at City Hall,” the Miami Herald reported Monday.

Turner said Acevedo will stay in Houston for a few more weeks. He said he would announce a new chief by the end of the week, though it was not clear if that appointment would be an interim or permanent replacement.

The mayor declined to say whether he would look to hire Acevedo’s successor from within the department or elsewhere. He downplayed the significance of the chief’s departure, while praising his tenure in Houston.

“No one person is indispensable,” Turner said. “It is about the organization and the institution that you put together. …I would like to believe that we are building a city that even if one person leaves, or two or three, this institution, this cruise ship, will continue to move forward.”

Acevedo’s replacement will inherit a department of more than 5,000 officers, which Turner has pledged to grow even amid calls from activists to divert funding to other city departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota last year. The mayor has said he plans to funds six police cadet classes next fiscal year, instead of the usual five, which he said he necessary to fight an ongoing crime wave in Houston.

Last year, Turner convened a task force to recommend reforms to the police department and said he supported “almost all” of the recommendations laid out by the group in October. He defended the slow progress of implementing the reforms, such as bolstering the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board and tightening disciplinary rules for officers, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent winter storm.

“Many of those things are being implemented as we speak,” Turner said. “My timetable doesn’t mean you don’t have winter storms. …Nature has its own timetables.”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, who pushed most aggressively for police reform during last year’s budget debate, said reform should be top of mind in selecting a new chief. She said it needs to be someone who is open minded and will help implement the recommendations from a task force Turner appointed last year.

“Whoever that person is, as soon as I hear the name, I’m making a phone call,” Plummer said. “That task force worked hard on getting that done, and they delivered an impeccable document. I don’t believe that document needs to sit on the shelf.”

The councilmember said she did not have anyone in mind that fits the bill.

“Every time someone exits, in my opinion, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make a really great choice,” Plummer said. “It’s a choice now. We have clean slate. So let’s choose someone that understands the systemic issues that we’re dealing with when it comes to policing. Let’s find a chief that can be a partner in making (reform) happen.”

I’m with CM Plummer on this one. This is indeed an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it. I wish Chief Acevedo well in his next phase. I wish his successor even better in the next phase of HPD. The Trib and Stace have more.

LGBT certification for Houston city contractors

From last week.

Houston on Thursday became the first city in Texas to add a certification for LGBT-owned businesses in city contracting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order adding the certification during an event with the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce and its Houston affiliate. The Chamber will manage the certification process.

The move ultimately could help the city direct more contracts to LGBT-owned businesses, which make up a small portion of the region’s 130,000 companies.

Some 173 businesses belong to the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and 70 businesses in Texas — including 38 in Houston — have been certified by the national chamber as LGBT-owned, though the organization said that number often grows after governments recognize them. The number in California tripled in one year after it added the certification.

Houston already has certifications for small businesses and businesses owned by minorities and women, as part of a remedial program intended to boost their participation in city contracting. It places goals for how much of certain contracts are directed toward those entities.

The new LGBT-owned business certification will not be included in those goals, but the executive order says the city will monitor their participation in contracts and produce an annual report about its findings.

It is possible goals could be added in the future. Marsha Murray, the director of the city’s Office of Business Opportunity, said government programs based on sex, like those based on race or national origin, are subject to strict constitutional scrutiny, which means the city has to demonstrate that remedial action is necessary before it can enact goals.

“The city’s new initiative is the beginning step to identify and monitor the level of participation by LGBT business enterprises in city contracting,” she said.

The order also adds the businesses to the city’s firm directory, which means prime contractors will be able to seek out LGBT subcontractors. The city also is launching an outreach campaign to educate LGBT business owners about resources from the Office of Business Opportunity, such as development counseling, legal assistance, and networking events.

This is ultimately about having a representative government. A government that represents the people has to reflect the people, not just in who gets to hold power but also in who gets to participate in the business of government. The only way to know if it’s doing that is to measure it, and this is the first step towards that.

Big Tex Storage

I’m strangely almost nostalgic for a controversy like this.

A group of Heights residents are lobbying legislators to protest the development of a storage facility at the site of the former Stude Theater, which was demolished after the property was purchased late last year.

The residents held a protest on Feb. 6 at the former theater.

The protest comes after a petition was formed by a community group called Stop BigTexStorage that, as of Feb. 6, is almost at its 5,000 signature goal. The petition calls for the Houston City Council to stop the permitting for Big Tex Storage Heights at 730 East 11th Street because they believe the project is poorly suited for its location and will have a negative impact on the community.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also attended the protest. Lee suggested the city look into a compatibility ordinance and for the developers to meet with the community to try and find a common ground.

“I know these homeowners are angry about the fact that they have something being constructed where they didn’t have any input, any acknowledgment that this is a community, a community of families,” said Lee.

[…]

“We don’t know of any historically appropriate seven-story storage facilities,” SBTS said in a statement. “Our concern is with the size and function of the structure. It will be large and not contribute in a meaningful way to the neighborhood streetscape, and in any form, will detract greatly from the charm of the neighborhood that so many moved here for… We want them to realize the depth of anger about this project and the breadth of support for opposing it,” said SBTS in the statement. “We elected them to represent all our interests, not a select group of developers.”

This location is about a half a mile from my house, on a surprisingly small property. I had a hard time picturing where this place was supposed to be when I first heard about it because it just didn’t seem like a storage facility, which I imagined would be a full city block in size, could fit into this space. Clearly, that’s one reason why they’re building vertically. It still seems weird and out of place, but as The Leader News notes, that’s life in Houston for you.

Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros also has expressed disappointment over a project she called “so out of character” for the community, even though the proposed storage facility would be outside of her district. The council member who serves the area, Abbie Kamin, did not criticize the project directly but pointed out Houston’s lack of zoning laws and encouraged residents to push for more neighborhood protections.

Unfortunately for the thousands of petitioners who oppose Big Tex Storage, there is little they can do to prevent the business from setting up shop in the neighborhood. The property is located just outside one of the seven historic districts in the Greater Heights, meaning developments there are not required to adhere to the design standards of a historic district.

Margaret Wallace Brown, the director of the city’s Planning & Development Department, said the property owner and developer, Bobby Grover of Grover Ventures, has followed all the city’s laws and protocols and has nearly completed the permitting process, with only the fire marshal left to sign off on it. Wallace Brown said the property was platted as an unrestricted reserve in December, with no variance request and no notification to nearby residents required.

Grover said in December, when an 81-year-old theater-turned-church was demolished at the site, that construction for Big Tex Storage was scheduled to begin in March and be complete by January 2022.

“There is nothing that will stop him unless he decides not to do this,” Wallace Brown said. “He is following all of the City of Houston rules.”

Grover, in a statement, indicated he could be willing to address the concerns of the neighborhood, saying, “We look forward to working with Heights residents and organizations on this project.” He said the storage facility is being designed to complement the architectural character of the Heights, with “honed brick, la Habra stucco and architectural metal panels,” but did not respond to a question about whether he would be willing to reduce the planned height of the structure.

Big Tex Storage has existing locations in Montrose, River Oaks and Garden Oaks, with the latter self-storage facility located at 3480 Ella Blvd.

[…]

Even if Heights community members cannot convince Grover to reduce the scale of the Big Tex Storage development, residents have means of preventing similar projects in the future. Kamin said she plans to partner with the HHA on a presentation for residents next week that will outline the city’s planning and permitting processes as well as the tools homeowners have for protecting the character of their neighborhoods.

One of those tools is seeking a historic district designation from the city, which requires the support of at least 67 percent of property owners in a proposed district. According to Roman McAllen, the city’s historic preservation officer, such a designation likely would have prevented the demolition of the old building on 730 E. 11th St. and would have required the upcoming development to conform with the scale of surrounding structures.

“However, there isn’t a (historic) district there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the theater was not landmarked.”

I like the idea of historic designations where appropriate, but there was nothing special about the old theater, which was later a church, at least from the outside. It was a nondescript box that had nothing going on. Maybe it was different on the inside, or maybe there was something special about it and I’m too much of a troglodyte to have noticed it. Be that as it may, I’d rather see it be replaced by something that adds to the neighborhood – housing, retail, dining, that sort of thing – but that’s the way it goes in the parts of town where anything is more or less allowed to go. Honestly, I’m puzzled how a storage facility can be economically sensible in a high-property-value area like that, but what do I know.

If you are the petition-signing type, there is a petition for this. I expect construction to start on schedule, barring weather delays, and I expect to be fully annoyed by the construction activity blocking the sidewalk and likely a lane of traffic on West 11th, but it is what it is.

Finally, I can’t let this go by without noting the similarity of the Big Tex Storage monster to the iconic Ashby Highrise, which remains the gold standard for scary cartoon buildings. And thinking about the Ashby Highrise led me to remember the greatest parody of such a movement I’ve ever seen and its accompanying iconography, the classic Get Ashby High sign. I saw that nailed to a telephone pole on Shepherd near Bissonnet however many years ago, and I knew I needed to take a picture of it. I pulled onto a side street, parked and ran over to snap that shot. Good thing I did, because it was gone a couple of days later, and I never saw another such sign again. Always take that picture, kids, that’s the moral of the story.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

CM Jackson’s residency questioned

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Tarsha Jackson

The election in Houston city council’s District B was put on hold for a year as courts addressed whether one of the two finalists for the seat, Cynthia Bailey, was eligible to run for office.

Now, the winner of last month’s runoff, Tarsha Jackson, is drawing scrutiny of her own, just weeks after she prevailed against Bailey and took office at City Hall as District B’s city council member.

Some civic leaders in District B are asking the city attorney’s office to review Jackson’s eligibility because she lives in a portion of Harris County that Houston annexed for limited purposes. Residents in those areas can vote in city elections — Jackson’s voter registration shows she lives in District B — but state law appears to bar them from running for office. The Texas Local Government Code says residents in those areas are “not eligible to be a candidate for or to be elected to a municipal office.”

A city map of Houston annexations shows the north Houston address where Jackson lives was annexed by the city in 2002. The city planning department said it was a limited purpose annexation, in which the city does not collect property taxes but can levy a sales tax. Jackson does not pay city property taxes on her home, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.

That could make Jackson ineligible, although the city has not taken a stand on the issue. City Attorney Arturo Michel declined an interview request.

[…]

The city does not vet candidates’ addresses in determining eligibility. Instead, city attorneys confirm the address listed is in the district they hope to represent. The mayor’s office said in 2019 it declared eight candidates ineligible after those checks and others to ensure candidates have marked a box swearing they have not been convicted of a felony. More than 100 people ran for city council in 2019.

Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, said she did not know about the phrasing in the Local Governmental Code or her neighborhood’s annexation history. She votes in District B elections and said she did not have any concern about eligibility. Jackson said she disclosed her address on her ballot application and the city allowed her to run. She said her mind is on getting to work for District B residents.

“I’ve been forthright on everything when I applied to run to represent the residents of District B. My address is on all the documentation,” Jackson said. “I looked at the criteria we needed to run, and as far as I’m concerned, I met that criteria.”

She was sworn in by Mayor Sylvester Turner on Dec. 21.

Doug Ray, an Austin-based attorney with Ray & Wood who specializes in election law, said it is possible someone could pursue what is called a quo warranto lawsuit, a special type of filing designed to challenge officeholders. The county or district attorney would have to bring the suit themselves, or on behalf of another individual if they approve the claim.

“It’s within their discretion, and if they don’t sign on, it would be subject to dismissal,” Ray said, referring to the county and district attorneys.

He said the annexation question gets complicated based on the different types. The planning department said Jackson’s neighborhood is part of a limited purpose annexation through a strategic partnership with a municipal utility district.

“Assuming all those things are true … that limitation would apply,” Ray said of the barrier on running for office.

Man, I don’t know what to say. As the story notes, the city generally doesn’t enforce this unless there’s a complaint or it’s otherwise brought to their attention, as was the case with Michelle Bonton in 2019. On the one hand, the uneven nature of the enforcement is frustrating, and we always seem to hear about these things at a time when it’s too late to do anything about them. I generally have no patience for non-city of Houston people who try to run for city of Houston offices. (Plenty of them find various ways to bend the rules to make themselves appear eligible – I can think of at least one other serving right now.) This case feels more like a technicality, but one should probably be aware if one is paying city of Houston property taxes or not, especially if one is planning to file for a city office. Against all that, there was a ton of time for this information to come out, and the people of District B waited a long time for this election. What are we supposed to do with this information now? I guess we’ll see if someone pursues this. I don’t know what else to say.

Still waiting on that sewer consent decree

Should be ready soon, once the federal court signs off on it.

Help finally could be on the way in the form of an agreement between the city of Houston and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at upgrading the city’s embattled sewer system.

The proposal would cost an estimated $2 billion over 15 years and could increase water rates as soon as next spring.

Houston’s hundreds of sewage overflows each year, often caused by broken or clogged pipes, contaminate streams in violation of the Clean Water Act, and drew the EPA’s attention a decade ago.

Rather than fight the violations in court, the city and EPA negotiated a “consent decree” mandating actions Houston must take to reduce spills across its more than 6,200 miles of sewers, 384 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

City Council approved the agreement last year. Federal officials spent months responding to comments on the proposal, and then, in August, asked a federal judge to approve the document and put it into effect. No ruling has been issued.

“After its review of the motion to enter, we expect that the court will approve entry of the consent decree,” said Houston Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones.

The nonprofit Bayou City Waterkeeper has asked the court to withhold its approval until the agreement is improved, arguing that, among other deficiencies, it does not sufficiently address historical inequities.

A Houston Chronicle analysis four years ago found that a disproportionate share of the city’s sewer spills occur in low-income communities of color. And an analysis of Houston 311 service requests from the last two years shows historically Black southside neighborhoods such as South Park, South Acres and Sunnyside are among the most likely to report sewer problems even though high-income neighborhoods, in general, are more likely to call 311.

Kristen Schlemmer, Waterkeeper’s legal director, said her group feels the decree is needed but that it must deliberately prioritize repairs in historically neglected communities and require more transparency about the spills that occur there.

“What we would have liked to see the city do is to start with the impact on low-income communities and communities of color and craft its consent decree around that,” she said. “Instead they came up with their whole plan and when we raised the issue of environmental injustices, they’re like, ‘Well, completely incidentally, we’re addressing some of those issues.’”

EPA officials declined comment, citing the pending court action. In court filings, attorneys for Houston and state and federal regulators have said the decree is citywide and will not overlook any area. They also have noted that it requires the city to publish annual reports on the decree’s implementation and monthly reports tallying the location of each spill.

“Low-income communities are not being neglected,” one August filing stated. “Rather, low-income communities, especially those communities with higher numbers of (spills) and aging infrastructure, are being addressed with the ‘worst first’ prioritization.”

The decree would force Houston to clean its 5,500 miles of gravity-driven sewer pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to invite blockages by pouring grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

The agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing, cleaning and repairing the city’s sewer system, and prioritizes fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms, including the area around Mama Seafood.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. This will likely cause your water bill to go up, though we don’t know yet by how much. That wouldn’t be necessary now if we had been doing this all along, but here we are. If you don’t like it, go build yourself a time machine and travel back to, I don’t know, 1985 or so and yell at Kathy Whitmire about it. Otherwise, just know that there will be fewer sewer overflows in the future. That’s worth a few extra bucks a month on your water bill.

Please shut up, CM Travis

And delete your Facebook account while you’re at it.

CM Greg Travis

The mayor, city activists and some of District G Councilmember Greg Travis’ colleagues are denouncing offensive comments he made online about former first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

On Facebook, Travis posted a meme that shows a photo of Obama, speaking demonstratively while sitting down, next to a photo of current First Lady Melania Trump, who has her legs crossed. Travis wrote, “Yep. Just saying,” on the post. In comments, he said affirmative action, the program that gives minorities preference in university admissions, was the reason Obama was admitted to Harvard Law School.

“It’s called Affirmative Action. Doesn’t take much—she was born with her qualification,” Travis wrote. “She isn’t the brightest bulb in the lot.”

Travis also wrote that Harris’ career was owed to a former romantic partner. Without him, Travis said, “she’d be working in an office cubicle.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “would be nothing without Bill,” he wrote.

Ashton Woods, a founder and leader of Houston’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, said on Twitter the comments are evidence Travis “hates black women” and wrote: “DEMAND HIS RESIGNATION,” with a call for people to sign up to speak at the next city council meeting on Jan. 5.

“It’s enough. We don’t need to talk representation at city council, because if he says things like this what other ideologies is he taking with him to work… with the most women ever elected to Houston city council,” Woods said. “It says to me that he has a problem with well-educated Black women.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said he asked Travis to take down the post and comments, which it described as “offensive.”

“The mayor is disappointed by the post and has no other comment at this time,” Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director, said.

Travis is unapologetic. He said the post was a meme that has circulated for years, and the comments represented his opinion. He only deleted them because the mayor asked him to do so “as a friend.”

The Press has screenshots, if you missed seeing the posts in question. No question that CM Travis is an idiot and a waste of space on Council, but there’s literally nothing anyone can say or do that will get him to resign, and he’s in his second term so he won’t face the voters again. CM Tiffany Thomas called for Travis to be censured, citing the precedent of then-CM Jim Westmoreland, who was censured in 1989 for his egregiously racist statements about the late Congressman Mickey Leland. I’m fine with that, but we should recognize that things like censure only work on people who are capable of feeling shame and remorse. Maybe the Council members who are justifiably angry about this can find a way to shun CM Travis until he expresses some regret for his actions. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but it’s a thought.

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

Let’s please find more opportunities to avoid using unpaid prison labor

More like this, in other words.

CM Abbie Kamin

As Houston officials hashed out the budget last spring, City Council members Abbie Kamin and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz quietly asked to send a routine contract back to the Turner administration.

The $4.2 million deal was needed to replace tire treading on the city’s commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. The city was about to award the contract on May 12 to the lowest bidder, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which offered to complete the work for some $750,000 less than the only private bidder, Southern Tire Mart.

The state agency was able to offer a lower price in part because it does not pay its workers. The agency relies on the labor of prisoners, who do not earn wages when they work in Texas, one of a few states that do not pay workers in correctional facilities.

At the council members’ request, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration put out a new request for bids, this time including language that required compensation for workers. Three private vendors applied — TDCJ did not — and on Oct. 27 the city selected Southern Tire Mart for the $4.6 million contract.

CM Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said the change was necessary to ensure the city does not funnel money into what they described as an amoral and unjust system. They hope the city will continue to bypass the state agency in future contracts while they lobby state legislators to address the pay issue.

“Our hope is that we can have a citywide policy,” said Kamin, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “The important thing out of this example is that sometimes it’s the little things that may not be really exciting, but that can have a profound change on the systemic and lingering effects of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

Evans-Shabazz, like other critics of the state’s no-pay practice, likened such prison labor to slavery. If they earned wages, the workers could use that money for phone calls or commissary items, she said.

TDCJ “told me they use the money for their employees. Well, that just doesn’t sit well with me and it seems more like ‘slave labor,’” Evans-Shabazz said. “Being an African American, that certainly doesn’t sit well with me. … I just think that’s dehumanizing.”

[…]

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institute, said work is relatively fundamental in prisons across the country. The group estimates half of all prisoners have a job of some kind. Much of that work involves prison operations, from janitorial duties to laundry.

It’s also common for prisoners to do work for state agencies, but Texas is among several states that do not pay prisoners for such work, Bertram said. Prisoners in the El Paso County Jail were recently enlisted to transport the bodies of people killed by COVID-19. They refused to work for free and are being paid $2 an hour, according to the Texas Tribune.

Even in states that do pay, Bertram said, the wages often are not enough to cover phone calls, commissary items and costly payments for health care. Job-training benefits often are also lacking, she said.

“When you look at the jobs people are getting offered and you think, ‘Does any job like that exist on the outside?’ you start to think this training might not amount to anything,” Bertram said. “It’s never been a better time to realize that people who are incarcerated are very much part of the economy and deserve to be supported.”

There’s a lot of history and other backstory to this that I skipped over in the article, so go read the whole thing. Suffice it to say that people – all people, prisoners included – should be paid a fair wage for their labor. If you must, consider that a firm like Southern Tire Mart was unable to compete with the sub-minimum wages that the TDCJ was able to get by with, until CMs Kamin and Evans-Shabazz stepped in and altered the calculus. They’re now seeking to get a bill passed in the Lege that would mandate pay standards for prisoners, which Reps. Ron Reynolds and Alma Allen will carry and which I fully support. Sorry, but there’s no moral argument for taking advantage of the artificially cheap labor of an involuntary workforce. I’m happy for the city of Houston to show some leadership on this, and I hope other cities and counties will take notice.

The next elections

Just a reminder, there are two elections on the calendar for December:

See here for the background. The first link in that tweet goes to this County Clerk press release, which came out right after the election was officially set by the court. Doesn’t look like early voting information is available at harrisvotes.com yet, but I expect it will be soon. Oh, and if somehow you or someone you know who lives in the district is not registered to vote, the deadline to do so and vote in this election is tomorrow.

Meanwhile, up north:

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Saturday that Dec. 19 will be the date for the special election runoff to succeed state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper.

The runoff in Fallon’s solidly red district pits state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was jailed earlier this year over her refusal to close her business due to coronavirus restrictions.

Early voting for the runoff will start Dec. 9, Abbott said.

Luther and Springer finished close together in the Sept. 29 special election, which included three other Republicans and a Democrat. Luther edged out Springer, 32.17% to 31.93%, ahead by 164 votes out of 68,807 total.

That story is from October – there were just too many other things happening around then to blog about a two-months-out special State Senate election, but now is a better time for that. If Rep. Springer wins, then there will be another special election to fill his seat. Some years we get a fair bit of shuffling after the November election. In 2019, we had a special election to fill SD06 after now-US Rep. Sylvia Garcia was elected in CD29, then another special election to fill HD145 after now-Sen. Carol Alvarado won that race. Specials were also needed in HDs 79 (Joe Pickett resigned due to health issues) and 125 (Justin Rodriguez was appointed to Bexar County Commissioners Court). You never know what may happen this year. One way or another, it’s always election season somewhere.

Here comes a charter amendment effort

I’m neutral about this, at least for now.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association and a coalition of other groups are launching a referendum campaign to give city council more power at City Hall.

The fire union and other groups announced the effort Monday outside the union’s headquarters. The petition, if it garners enough signatures, would ask voters to give city council members the ability to place items on the council’s agenda if they get two of their colleagues to join the request.

The mayor currently has near-total control of what appears on the council’s weekly agenda, a feature that historically has led to consternation for members and advocates on all sides of the political spectrum.

“It’s a small ask, but it will give citizens a big voice at City Hall. We’re a city of more than 2 million (people), and if you’re a citizen out there with an issue that you care about for your neighborhood or your community, and you don’t have connections at City Hall or the backing of some large group, it’s very hard for you to get your voice heard,” said Charles Blain of Urban Reform, a right-leaning advocacy group. “And that’s unfair. But that’s not the problem of any one elected official, that’s the system of government that we have in the city of Houston.”

The coalition needs to gather 20,000 signatures within 180 days to get the item on the ballot. The organizers did not identify a specific election date they are eyeing for the referendum.

Blain stressed the politically diverse coalition behind the effort, which includes the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-leaning Indivisible Houston, Houston Young Republicans and the Houston Justice Coalition. City Councilmember Amy Peck, a conservative, also attended the news conference and said she supports the campaign.

Blain said the effort was not meant to further one cause or group. Instead, he said, it seeks to give residents a more accessible track to voice their concerns and get them addressed.

The immediate effect of such a change would be to eliminate, or at least weaken, any mayor’s ability to stifle council consideration of an issue or measure he or she does not support.

[…]

Turner said he respects the group’s ability to petition, but he thinks the current system is just fine.

“I think what is being proposed would create chaos and confusion,” Turner said, arguing it would lead to more combative and contentious politics akin to the federal government. “What it ends up doing is, it takes you away from the critical things that are important to the people in the city of Houston. There are a total of 17 of us on city council, and if, for example, only three can continuously bring up additional things, then you’ll be spending all of your time dealing with those items, and it takes away from everything else.”

The referendum organizers said council members still would need to win a majority of their colleagues to pass the measures, a political reality they said would discourage frivolous or unrealistic agenda items.

The story quotes HPFFA President Marty Lancton saying this isn’t about the firefighters’ differences with Mayor Turner. Imagine me raising my eyebrows here.

As the story notes, this idea has come up before, but has not gotten anywhere. In theory, I don’t have a problem with the idea. It’s still going to take a majority to get something passed, and I have no doubt that every Mayor has has refused to put things that likely would have gotten a majority vote from Council on the agenda. Any Mayor worthy of the office will have various ways to at least discourage things they don’t like from getting passed. Maybe this will make more people pay attention to Council races, especially At Large Council races. (Yeah, I know, probably not.)

It’s an interesting question to ponder what might be different in Houston now if we’d had this provision all along, or at least for the past 20 or 30 years. I can’t think of any specific ordinance that might have been passed – Mayors, like other politicians, generally prefer to do things that are broadly popular, or failing that things that will be more likely to get them re-elected than less likely. If you can think of something that would be law today were it not for one or more Mayors brazenly suppressing the will of the public, please specify in the comments.

I will say, a change like this is going to have the effect of making City Council more like Congress or the Lege. Plenty of legislators make their bones not on passing bills but on stirring up trouble, after all. If this were in place today, I feel confident that the threesome of Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, and Greg Travis would feel free to bring forth many items for Council’s consideration. If all that did was waste time and annoy the Mayor, I’m pretty sure they’d consider that worth the effort. I’m picking on those three, but you could look at any time in the city’s recent political history and find a trio of troublemakers; almost every Council member has at least one issue they care a lot about that they could get two others to support, whether it goes beyond that or not. The average Council meeting will get longer with this on the books, is what I’m saying. Raising the threshold to bring forth an agenda item to, say, six or eight, would cut down on this, and ensure that most of the things that do get introduced this way are good candidates to be adopted, and not just used to score a point.

I would also expect this to encourage various special interests to ramp up their contributions to Council members (and candidates) with an eye to them sponsoring ordinances these interests favor. That’s got to be more efficient than going all in on a Mayoral candidate. I mean, this happens now, but it’s more complicated.

This may sound like I’m negative on the idea. I’m not, but I’m not sold on it either. I really would like some examples of things that would be in place in Houston now if Council members had this power. I’d also love to hear what former Mayors think of this, now that they no longer have to deal with it. What do you think?

Don’t park in a bike lane

It’s illegal now, and you will get a citation.

Houston city council on Wednesday made it illegal to park in or otherwise block the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, a long-sought change by cyclists fed up with dodging cars and other obstacles in their designated paths.

Council voted 15-2 to pass an ordinance to forbid people from blocking the dedicated lanes that are physically separated from roadways. The prohibition applies to 120 miles of bike lanes, and violations will be punishable by a $100 fine.

Councilmembers Mike Knox and Edward Pollard voted against the measure, but did not explain why. Council did not discuss the ordinance.

Previously, there was nothing in the city’s code that prohibited blocking the lanes. The city had to post “no parking” signs along the lanes in a sometimes futile effort to keep them clear.

Nick Hellyar, a board member for the nonprofit Bike Houston, hailed the ordinance as a pragmatic step toward safety.

“Bike Houston has been fighting for this for forever,” said Hellyar. “It’s just some of that common-sense government that sometimes we need to push a little harder for as advocacy groups.”

Warnings will be given for the first 90 days, and an amendment proposed by three Council members to offer a free bike class in lieu of the fine – sort of like defensive driving class for illegal parkers – was adopted. Motor vehicles of any kind are not allowed on the off-road bike trails, so in a sense all this does is standardize the bike trails around the city. I approve.

District B runoff officially scheduled

Hooray!

Cynthia Bailey

At long last, voters in the north Houston neighborhoods that make up City Council’s District B will get to select a new representative in December.

Visiting state District Judge Grant Dorfman on Monday ordered the long-delayed runoff to be held Saturday, Dec. 12, almost exactly a year after the election was originally scheduled last year. Tarsha Jackson, a criminal justice organizer, and Cynthia Bailey, a neighborhood advocate, will face off in the election.

That is the same date for any runoffs necessitated by the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

Tarsha Jackson

Council member Jerry Davis, the incumbent set to leave office last January, has remained in the seat to ensure the district had representation during the legal fight. Davis narrowly was defeated in his July runoff against state Rep. Harold Dutton for the District 142 seat Dutton has held since 1985.

District B includes nearly 200,000 people from many historic north Houston neighborhoods, such as Acres Homes, Kashmere Gardens and Settegast. The district stretches up to include Greenspoint and Bush International Airport. It has the second-highest concentration of Black residents, 47 percent, in the city.

See here for the background. Not much else to say here, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for this. It’s time to finally get a new Council member in District B.

We are finally about to get that District B runoff scheduled

About damn time.

Cynthia Bailey

A court hearing set for Oct. 19 finally could end the election dispute that has delayed a runoff in Houston city council’s District B for nearly a year.

A state district judge is scheduled to hear an unopposed motion to set the election for Saturday, Dec. 12, which would be almost exactly a year after the initial runoff on Dec. 14, 2019.

Houston, Harris County and the three candidates involved in the dispute support that election date, according to legal filings.

Tarsha Jackson

That would mean voters in District B, which is concentrated in north Houston and stretches up to Bush International Airport, could elect a new representative in December.

Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey were the top two finishers in the general election last November and now would proceed to the runoff.

[…]

The runoff could not be held on Nov. 3 because state law mandates it be held on the same date as the original election, which was a Saturday.

The date of the court hearing was delayed because state law prescribes a maximum amount of time between the court order and the runoff. Oct. 19 was the earliest date possible for a court order to get on the Dec. 12 ballot, according to legal filings.

See here for the previous update. December 12 is the date that a city runoff election would have been held this year, if there had been any city elections on the November ballot. It’s always the second Saturday in December. It sounds like this court hearing is pro forma, so once it’s over we should have an official, scheduled runoff election date. All I san say is “Hallelujah”.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.

Appeals court upholds District B ruling

We will finally get a runoff election in District B.

Cynthia Bailey

An appeals court ruled early Tuesday that Houston did not err when it declined to disqualify a District B city council candidate who had a felony conviction, clearing the way for a long-delayed runoff in the district.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, the third-place candidate in the race who filed the lawsuit, said she does not plan to appeal the ruling, which would effectively end the nine-month dispute.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision and I pray that Cynthia Bailey and Tarsha Jackson remain safe as they continue on with their campaigns to become the next City Council Woman for District B,” Jefferson-Smith said in a statement.

Tarsha Jackson

“It’s been long enough and the District deserves to know who will represent them. My family and I are truly excited about the opportunity to move forward and focus on what’s ahead in our lives.”

It is not yet clear when an election can be held. Attorneys involved in the case said they believe it will return now to the lower court, where visiting judge Grant Dorfman can order a new election date. In February, he ordered a May 2 election, which was derailed amid appeals.

One wrinkle is that the Texas Election Code mandates the runoff be held on the same day of the week as the original election, which was a Saturday, according to Assistant Harris County Attorney Doug Ray. That would mean the District B race cannot go on the Nov. 3 ballot, he said.

See here for my previous update. The law in question is quiet clear, mandating that a runoff election that was delayed by an election contest must be held on the same day of the week as the originally scheduled runoff. I hate the idea that this election can’t be held on the same day in November that everyone will be voting anyway, but I don’t know what can be done about it, other than Judge Dorfman saying “screw it” and daring someone to challenge him.

The central question of the case is whether Bailey, who finished second and qualified for the runoff with Jackson, is eligible for office despite her felony conviction.

Jefferson-Smith, who finished third and missed the runoff, had argued she is not. Jefferson-Smith filed two lawsuits seeking to have Bailey removed from the runoff ballot.

The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, like others that have handled the case, did not address directly the question of Bailey’s eligibility. A state statute says candidates cannot have felony convictions from which they have not “been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” but it does not define that phrase, which has led to varying interpretations and enforcement.

Instead, the court addressed Jefferson-Smith’s claim that the City of Houston erred in administering the election by failing to declare Bailey ineligible. Her team had sent the city a packet of documents, after the election but before the vote was certified, proving Bailey was convicted.

A trial court judge said the packet did not conclusively prove Bailey was ineligible because it did not say whether she had been pardoned or otherwise released. (Bailey has argued she is released because she completed her sentence.)

In a decision posted after midnight, the three-justice panel of the First Court of Appeals agreed.

“Because the documents that Jefferson-Smith presented to the Mayor’s Office in connection with her Demand for Administrative Declaration of Ineligibility present a fact question—whether Bailey has been pardoned or otherwise relieved of her disabilities—that the Mayor had no authority to resolve, the Mayor had no ‘duty imposed by law’ to declare Bailey ineligible and made no ‘mistake’ in declining to do so,” Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote.

Candidates who run for office in Houston check a box on their application form swearing they have not been finally convicted of a felony. The city verifies they have checked the box but does not vet their accuracy.

I’ve read the decision, and while it’s pretty dry and technical, it’s easy enough to understand. The takeaway I got from it is that Jefferson Smith might have prevailed had she taken somewhat different actions, but given what she did do, it wasn’t enough to meet the requirements of the law. I suppose it’s possible the Supreme Court could have seen it differently – for what it’s worth, the panel that ruled on the case was two Republicans and one Democrat – but Jefferson Smith ultimately chose to end her pursuit, and for that I thank her. Now let’s get this election scheduled. Houston Public Media has more.

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

Rental assistance

We’re going to need a lot more like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston on Wednesday added another $20 million to its rent relief program, aimed at helping thousands of tenants catch up on late rent payments.

City council voted unanimously to add the money Wednesday, more than doubling the initial program the city launched in May. Private donors, including Texans owner Janice McNair, gave $5 million toward the effort, and the city devoted another $15 million from the federal money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The program requires concessions from landlords for them to receive the funds. They must forego eviction proceedings through September for all of their residents, even if only one of them is set to receive assistance. They also must waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to a payment plan for residents that are behind.

“The concern was, you took the money, and then a month later, you’re still trying to get them out,” said District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The application window will open first for landlords, and then their tenants will be able to apply. Thomas said that will open some time in the next two weeks.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls for a grace period ordinance that would give residents more time to catch up before getting evicted, said the assistance and resulting concessions provide for a more fruitful approach. He said a grace period worsens the financial liability those tenants will have to cover later down the road.

“When their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated,” Turner said of cities that have implemented similar policies. “What will happen is that at the end, the hole is so much bigger.”

Advocates have said a grace period would provide blanket coverage to residents who will not get access to the city’s relief funds, which Turner and others have acknowledged cannot meet the overwhelming demand.

See here for the city’s press release. I’m not sure why the city preferred this approach, but I do know that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep people in their apartments if at all possible. Losing their homes, especially at a time like this, will have devastating and long-term consequences, and not just for the newly homeless people – there will be more strain on the city’s social services, and it’s not like there will be a long line of other folks waiting to take the now-vacant apartment. We really need the Senate to act on the bill that the House passed months ago, because there are millions of lives at stake. If nothing else, surely we can all agree that putting a bunch of people out on the street is not going to help the economy. Keeping folks in their homes is the right answer no matter how you ask the question. All levels of government need to do their part.

Restaurants may get to use parking lot space for dining

I like this idea.

Restaurants in Houston, currently limited by 50% indoor capacity limits, may soon be able to serve diners in parking lots to accommodate more guests.

Pending a vote by the Houston City Council, a “More Spaces” plan developed by Houston’s Chief Transportation Officer David Fields would allow restaurants to convert 50% of off-street parking spots to dining spaces.

The ability to make such conversions would allow restaurants to serve more guests in an open-air environment that limits the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than dining indoors, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. The efforts mirror that of other cities, such as Austin and Atlanta.

Restaurant owners would not need to apply for the authority to do so; instead, they would file a notification with the city so that the planning department can track restaurants’ compliance with the new protocols. The proposal prohibits music in the adapted outdoor dining areas and limits closing hours to no later than midnight. Participating restaurants must also ensure that ADA-accessible parking spaces remain available.

If enacted, the policy will only remain in place under coronavirus emergency orders, but it could serve as a test period for future efforts.

“I think we could learn a lot from this pilot in the immediate term and go back out to the industry and the community and show what we have learned,” Fields said.

I know, eating outdoors on a concrete or asphalt surface in July and August may not sound appealing, but fall is coming, plenty of dining hours are as or after the sun goes down, and I’m sure the restaurants themselves can figure out what will work for them. The point here is that outdoor is safer than indoor, and this will add capacity to restaurants that are currently limited to fifty percent of their indoor capacity. Their parking lots are already underutilized, so why not give them some options? It can’t hurt to try.

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

Chas Moore watched in shock one night in 2017 as Austin City Council voted on the city’s proposed police contract.

He and other criminal justice reformers had spent months observing contract negotiations and lobbying council members to reject a deal they said was too expensive and lacked crucial accountability measures.

The city’s 10 council members and mayor raised their hands to vote the deal down.

“I don’t think anyone thought that would happen,” said Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition. “Historically people fight police unions — and they do not win.”

The vote sent police back to the negotiating table, and the resulting contract included a slew of reforms — at half the cost of the previous version.

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

Activists here want to change that as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract this year. They are again seeking the right to observe deliberations and to try to change provisions they say protect officers accused of wrongdoing. But while other cities with similar bargaining rules allow residents to observe negotiations, Houston does not, aided by what critics say are gaps in the state’s government code that do not clearly require union contract negotiations to be open to the public.

Houston’s police budget in 2020 tallied about $911 million — by far the largest allocation in the city budget’s general fund. While other cities across the U.S. slashed police budgets, Houston’s City Council unanimously in June passed a budget with a $20 million increase for the police department.

The pressure for reform rose around the country in the wake of the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd in police custody, and organizers say it’s overdue here.

Not long after that Austin contract rejection, community organizers in Houston sought to observe police contract deliberations here.

Local criminal justice advocate Tarsha Jackson said she approached City Hall in 2018 to try to share community concerns — but the criminal justice reformer with the Texas Organizing Project said she found an opaque process.

“It was not public. It was like a guessing game,” Jackson said.

The contract was settled behind closed doors without them getting a chance to see it or offer their input.

“As we’re having these conversations around police accountability and reform, how can we have these conversations without the community?” Moore asked regarding the efforts around the country to get a seat at the table during contract negotiations.

We all recognize that a big piece of police reform must be done via the collective bargaining process. Given that, and given the action items that the reformers are seeking, they need a seat at the table or those items will not be addressed. The Lege can and should address some items as well, but they already have a lot on their plate, and it’s never a good idea to depend on a particular bill making it through the Lege, because so many things can happen to knock it off course. This is something we can do now, because the new CBA is coming up soon.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.